As much as the Internet provides a place to connect, it's also a haven for trolls, bullies, cyberthieves and wackos. Recent incidents targeting women, including GamerGate and the iCloud nude photo leak, have brought some of the issues to the fore.
Now the Pew Research center has quantified some of what's happening. Nearly three-quarters of Internet users have seen some form of harassment play out online -- anything from name-calling to sexual harassment -- with 40 percent of users experiencing it personally, according to new survey findings due to be posted here on Wednesday.
The group's study, their first to tackle online harassment, sought to give a clearer picture of how widespread such harassment is, how it plays out, and how people respond to it. What they found is that some of the most severe forms of abuse, like sexual harassment and stalking, do indeed target women at much higher rates than men.
"Men were more likely overall to experience online harassment, but younger women faced more severe forms of harassment at a rate disproportionate to their peers," said Maeve Duggan, lead author of the report, in an interview.
Of those asked, a full quarter of women age 18-24 reported having been sexually harassed online, according to Pew, compared to 13 percent of men. And just over a quarter of women in that age group reported having been stalked online, compared to 7 percent of men.
Physical threats were directed at men and women in that age group at roughly the same rate.
The rate of stalking and sexual harassment directed at both men and women gradually drops off as people become older, Pew found.
Social media was the most common vehicle for harassment including name-calling and embarrassment and more severe forms like sexual harassment and stalking, Pew said. Some respondents voluntarily identified sites like Facebook, YouTube and Craigslist as where the harassment plays out, but the comments sections of websites and discussion sites like Reddit were also responsible, Pew said.
The nonprofit group's findings came from an online and mail survey of more than 3,000 respondents.
Pew decided to take a look at the issues after recent events including GamerGate, in which threats have been directed at female critics of the video game industry. Another incident followed the death of Robin Williams, when his daughter Zelda was aggressively bullied on Twitter. The social media site later said it would amend its policies to better identify abuse.
The best course of action to address harassment is not always clear. One problem is that there's no legal precedent for what exactly constitutes online harassment, Pew says. And, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 does not hold website admins liable for content posted by users, the group says.
Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, says Internet companies must be more transparent and provide users with information about the number of harassment reports they receive. "Sunshine is a very good disinfectant," she said.
But Pew also found that when people responded to harassers online, or reported incidents to the company involved or law enforcement, results were positive. Three-quarters of people who responded in some way said their decision to do so had been effective at making the situation better, Pew found.
Still, "this is an area that's evolving," said Pew's Duggan.