The Trolls are Organized and Everyone’s a Target

The recent white paper, “The Trolls are Organized and Everyone’s a Target: The Effects of Online Hate and Harassment,” was conducted as a collaboration between Implosion Labs (me and fellow anthropologist Jordan Kramer) and the Anti-Defamation League.

You can read the full report here.

Executive Summary Excerpt

Online hate and harassment1 have increasingly become a common part of the online experience. Public attention has usually focused on harassment of celebrities and public figures. However, our recent work has shown that a substantial swath of the American public has experienced online harassment, with 37 percent of adults having experienced severe online harassment2, defined by the Pew Research Center as including physical threats, sexual harassment, stalking and sustained harassment3. For this study, we wanted to examine the effects of online hate and harassment on private individuals—the type of people whose experiences represent the bulk of that statistic. We engaged in an extensive literature review and also conducted 15 in-depth qualitative interviews to better understand and chronicle the full experience of being a target of online harassment. We explore the personal stories of targets of online hate in an attempt to paint a more complete picture of the ways in which harassment can envelop multiple facets of a person’s life. We hope this report sheds light on the statistics.

Five findings stand out from the literature review and interviews:

Online hate incidents are frequently connected to the target’s identity
Whether it was simply being a Jewish business owner or authoring a blog post on feminism, the online hate incidents experienced by our interviewees were frequently centered around issues of identity.

Harassers use platform design to their advantage
Coordinated attacks often caused harm to a target by leveraging key features of social media platforms. This included the ability to be anonymous online, to create multiple accounts by one person, the fact that there is no limit to the number of messages one user can send to another, and the use of personal networks as weaponized audiences.

Online hate can cause significant emotional and economic damage
Targets of harassment reported deep and prolonged emotional difficulties. Additionally, harassers often targeted individuals’ economic wellbeing by trying to tarnish their reputation or by contacting their employers.

Harassers attack and impact others in the target’s community
Interviewees revealed experiences of harassment where perpetrators would also attack their relatives, friends and employers. Targets were highly disturbed by the spillover of hate into their offline lives and felt that the increase in radius of attack was meant to cause further harm to them.

Social media platforms are not adequately designed to remove or efficiently review hateful content 
Respondents were universally unhappy with the processes and functions of the reporting systems on major social media platforms. Interviewees expressed frustration in having to wait weeks for the content moderation teams to respond to their reports of harassment. They also felt that the ability to only report one piece of content at a time created a bottleneck in content flagging. The lack of options when reporting harassment and an attitude described by targets as a general disinterest towards their plight caused further unease for interviewees.

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