Online hate and harassment report: The American experience 2020

Since its inception, social media has played a key role in shaping social, cultural and political developments. This year in particular has seen a tectonic shift in the way communities across the world integrate digital and social networks into their daily lives. The novel coronavirus (and the disease it causes, COVID-19) has spread aggressively, claiming thousands of lives in the United States, devastating marginalized populations in major cities, crippling employment and economic opportunities for millions, and forcing a large portion of the global population to work from home in a digital environment. And as our world continues to be redefined through digital services and online discourse, the American public has become increasingly aware of and exposed to online hate and harassment. The Asian, Jewish, Muslim, and immigrant communities in particular are experiencing an onslaught of targeted hate, fueled by antisemitic conspiracy theories, anti-Asian bigotry, and Islamophobia surrounding the novel coronavirus. 

The survey underpinning this report predates the digital reality shaped by the coronavirus pandemic. And while ADL has tracked a surge in hateful conspiracy theory content related to the virus across social media platforms, the online hate ecosystem was thriving well before it. ADL’s first survey report on the scope of online hate published in 2019 revealed that exposure to toxic content had reached unprecedented levels. Yet, the increasing reliance on digital engagement in all spheres of life brought about by the virus will undoubtedly create new opportunities for exploitation by those seeking to harm others using digital services and tools. And the shift to work-from-home models for technology companies has disrupted the content moderation and safety operations of major social media platforms in significant ways as companies have moved towards a greater reliance on Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems to combat online hate and harassment. The findings of this report have historic significance - they reflect a flashpoint in the online landscape at the cusp of a global pandemic. Subsequent ADL surveys on this topic will be compared to these findings as a reference point for estimating the impact that greater reliance on AI has had on moderating speech on the internet. 

Key Findings 
This report is based on a nationally representative survey of Americans conducted from January 17, 2020 to January 30, 2020, with 1,974 respondents, and sheds light on the trends in the online hate and harassment ecosystems. The report is an annual follow-up to our first report on this topic, titled “Online Hate and Harassment: The American Experience,” and provides us with the opportunity to compare the average online experience of Americans across years. 

This nationally representative survey finds that harassment is a common aspect of many Americans’ lives, and appears to be changing dramatically as minority groups perceived higher levels of targeting as a result of their protected characteristics. This year, 44% of Americans who responded to our survey said that they experienced online harassment. This statistic is lower than the 53% reported in last year’s Online Hate and Harassment report. Notably, however, the incidence of perceived identity-based harassment has increased, and increased significantly in some cases. So, while it may be “safer” to live online in general this year as compared to last, ultimately, it is harder and less safe to be online as a member of a marginalized group. On the whole, online harassment related to a target’s identity-based characteristics increased from 32% to 35%. Specifically, LGBTQ+ individuals, Muslims, Hispanics or Latinos, and African-Americans faced especially high rates of identity-based discrimination. And respondents reported a doubling of religion-based harassment, from 11% to 22%, and race-based harassment increased from 15% to 25%. 

Equally worrying is that 28% of respondents experienced severe online harassment, which includes sexual harassment, stalking, physical threats, swatting, doxing and sustained harassment. This is down from the 37% reported in last year’s survey. 

Online harassment impacts the target in a variety of ways. The most common response is to stop, reduce or change online behavior, which 36% of those who have been harassed have done. This can include steps like posting less often, avoiding certain sites, changing privacy settings, deleting apps, or increasing filtering of content or users. Many go further, with 18% of harassment targets contacting the technology platform to ask for help or report harassing content. In some cases, these behaviors were coupled with other impacts including thoughts of depression and suicide, anxiety, and economic impact. 

Americans overwhelmingly want to see concrete steps taken to address online hate and harassment. The survey shows that across political ideologies, the vast majority of Americans believe that private technology companies and the government need to take action against online hate and harassment. 

In fact, 87.5% of Americans somewhat or strongly agree that the government should strengthen laws and improve training and resources for police on online hate and harassment. 

Americans also want platforms to take more action to counter or mitigate the problem. Seventy-seven percent of Americans want companies to make it easier to report hateful content and behavior. In addition, an overwhelming percentage of survey respondents (80%) want companies to label comments and posts that appear to come from automated “bots” rather than people. 

Source: ADL