Online Harassment Survey: Key Findings
In fall 2017, over 230 writers and journalists participated in a PEN America survey that was distributed with the help of several partner organizations, including the Author’s Guild, the Asian American Journalists Association, Lambda Literary, Kundiman, Canto Mundo, the Writers Guild East, the Dramatists Guild of America, the National Association of Black Journalists, and the News Guild of New York. This survey was designed as a research-gathering tool to inform a digital Online Harassment Field Manual PEN America launched on April 20, 2018 to help writers and journalists respond to episodes of online harassment. The survey specifically targeted writers and journalists who had experienced harassment, and though the survey respondents skewed older and whiter than we expected (a result that does not reflect the general reality of how online harassment breaks down demographically), the results are nonetheless alarming from a free expression perspective, and we feel a responsibility to report them at a time when there’s still too little research examining the relationship between online harassment, writers, and free expression.
For more information about PEN America’s commitment to writers and journalists facing online harassment, check out this essay by PEN America Journalism and Press Freedom Project Manager, Laura Macomber.
Methodology of Survey Analysis:
The survey was crafted to assess exclusively the experiences of journalists and writers who have been targeted by online harassment. Responses by 19 individuals were omitted from analysis because they reported having never experienced online harassment. Gender was voluntarily reported by 196 (83 percent) of the included participants. Of these 196, 68 percent (n=136) identified as female, 52 (27 percent) identified as male, and 8 (4 percent) were nonconforming. Race/ethnicity was reported by 173 participants. Defined as Black, Hispanic or mixed race, 20 individuals reported being a person of color (POC) compared with 162 White participants. Exact age was reported by 167 participants, and the most common age group was 45-59 years (36 percent). Writers between 18 and 29 years old comprised 5 percent of the sample population. Sexual orientation was reported by 144 respondents, of which 37 (26 percent) identified as LGBTQ+, while 107 (74 percent) identified as heterosexual.
For the purposes of this survey, “online harassment” was defined by the following behaviors, carried out in an online setting: the repetitive posting of inflammatory comments or hate speech (often called “trolling”); cyberstalking; physical threats; the publishing of sexually explicit images without consent (“revenge porn”); and the public posting of private information (“doxing”).
Impact of online harassment on writers:
- 67 percent of survey respondents reported having a severe reaction to their online harassment, including: fearing for their safety or the safety of their loved ones; refraining from publishing their work; and/or permanently deleting their social media accounts.
- 64.3 percent of survey respondents reported taking a break from social media due to online harassment
- 48.8 percent of survey respondents reported changing their social media settings due to online harassment
- 37.2 percent of survey respondents reported avoiding certain topics in their writing due to online harassment
- 36.7 percent of survey respondents felt that online harassment had damaged their reputation
- 36.2 percent of survey respondents reported fearing for their safety due to online harassment
- 16.4 percent of survey respondents permanently deleted social media accounts due to online harassment
- 24.2 percent of survey respondents reported feeling isolated from family and friends due to online harassment
- 14.5 percent of survey respondents stopped publishing their writing due to online harassment
- 31 percent of survey respondents reported online harassment crossing into their offline lives
- 62.3 percent of survey respondents reported online harassment having an impact on their personal life and/or physical, psychological or emotional health
- 34.8 percent of survey respondents reported online harassment having an impact on their professional lives
What writers were harassed for:
- 53.5 percent of survey respondents reported being targeted for their political views
- 53.5 percent of survey respondents reported being targeted for expressing their personal opinion
- 38.9 percent of survey respondents reported being targeted for their sex or gender identity
- 31 percent of survey respondents reported being targeted for their physical appearance
- Survey respondents who reported writing about politics, feminism, social justice, LGBTQ+ issues and race/ethnicity were more likely to experience online harassment than writers who reported writing about sports, technology, the law, national security, or the environment.
Gender and identity information:
- Survey respondents who identified as LGBTQ+ were statistically more likely to have experienced multiple instances of online hate speech or harassment (89 percent) compared with heterosexual participants (69 percent)
- 46 percent of female survey respondents reported being attacked for their sex or gender identity, compared with 12 percent of male survey respondents
- 45 percent of survey respondents identified as people of color reported being attacked for their race or ethnic origin, compared to 22 percent of white respondents
- 70 percent of LGBTQ+ survey respondents reported being attacked on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation, compared with 8 percent of survey respondents who identified as straight
Online platform information:
- 53.1 percent of survey respondents reported alerting social media platforms to their harassment; of this group, 70.8 percent said that the platform wasn’t helpful
- 67.1 percent of survey respondents reported wishing that social media was more responsive and helpful to victims of online harassment
This survey was made possible thanks to the support of the New York Community Trust. The following data is being reported to reflect the experiences of New York-based survey respondents targeted by online harassment.
NYC-based writers and journalists
Thirteen percent of survey respondents reside in New York City. The following results apply only to that group.
- 61 percent of New York City-based survey respondents reported being targeted online by hateful remarks in comments sections or discussion boards, 58.1 percent reported being targeted by hateful comments on Facebook, 51.6 percent reported experiencing harassment via direct email, and 45.2 percent reported being targeted by hateful comments on Twitter.
- 61 percent reported being targeted for their political views
- 63 percent reported taking severe action in response to online harassment, including fearing for their safety or the safety of their loved ones, refraining from publishing work, or permanently deleting social media accounts
- 55.2 percent reported taking a break from social media after experiencing online harassment; 37.9 percent reported changing their contact information after experiencing online harassment; 31 percent reported that online harassment had damaged their reputation; and 27.6 percent reported feeling isolated from family and friends after online harassment.
- 32.3 percent reported that online harassment had impacted their professional lives
- 58.1 percent reported that online harassment had impacted their personal lives and/or their emotional or psychological health
- 53.3 percent reported finding it helpful to engage with their trolls after experiencing online harassment, compared with 6.7 percent who did not find it helpful, and 6.7 percent who reported that confronting their trolls only made things worse for them.
Research for PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual conducted by Giulia Hjort, Stephan Kozub, and Mais Hriesh.