As social media becomes the norm, the trend of online harassment continues to rise.
A new study released by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of Americans have personally experienced some form of online harassment. Even more, 66 percent, have witnessed these attacks being directed toward others.
Ryanne Wise isn’t surprised. As a victim of online harassment herself, Wise said it’s just too easy to become prey.
“I feel like most of it is usually strangers, people who get caught up in the moment and don’t really think about the repercussions of being angry,” Wise said.
The Johnson County native recounted her own experience and said she was verbally attacked by a mutual acquaintance on Facebook when a political debate turned ugly. He didn’t like what she had to say, and proceeded to publicly harass her.
“The insults were just directed at me and what kind of person I must be – demeaning me for being a female specifically,” Wise said. “Saying things like, I’m a b—- , I’m a w— (and saying) I couldn’t know anything because I’m a woman.”
After continuously spamming her online, the attacker eventually gave up. The result left Wise feeling deflated.
“It just gets under your skin to have people talk to you like that. It definitely puts you in a state of questioning why it’s happening, or what truth is there,” she said. “You have to do a lot of self-reflection to get around words like that.”
Individuals who experience online harassment directly can be seriously impacted from their encounters, Pew observed, suffering from mental and emotional stress, damage to reputation and even fear.
But while men are slightly more likely to experience harassment online, the study found males care less about it than women do.
Sixty-four percent of men said they think offensive content online is “taken too seriously,” compared to 50 percent of women that said too often its excused as “not a big deal.”
“Statistically men will see it, take the threat, see the embarrassment and then blow it off and move on,” said Richard Barajas, chief executive of NOVA – the National Organization for Victim Assistance.
The study also found that one-in-five Americans have been subjected to particularly severe harassment online, including physical threats, sexual harassment and long-term stalking.
The study’s results confirmed what Barajas has been trying to determine for years. NOVA advocates for thousands of victims each year, but Barajas didn’t realize how critical the issue of online harassment had become until now.
“I’m shocked. This research put actual numeric faces to the work we do on a daily basis,” he said. “Never did I imagine that it would be that be ratio. It tells you there is just a whole lot of it out there – you can imagine what’s not being reported.”
The difference between how men handle harassment compared to women is perplexing, Barajas said. Women tend to be significantly more afraid after being harassed online, including fearing what might happen if they fight back.
“They are afraid that someone who is harassing them will take the initiative to spread false rumors about them, something they can’t control,” he said. “If they in any way respond to the harassment, their fear is that the harassment will escalate into something much more sexually embarrassing – whether it’s true or not.”
But online harassment isn’t unique to anyone, Barajas added. Men call him for help as often as women do.
“Our experience has been by the time they call us, it’s escalated to ‘I’ll tell somebody that you raped someone’ – some sort of a criminal activity,” Barajas said.
Wise agreed, and noted that women can be just as guilty as men when it comes to attacking from behind a screen.
“It’s not just dudes,” she said. “I think there’s definitely just an ability to be mostly anonymous on social media, and makes it fair game for anyone to do the harassing with very little repercussions.”
As a former prosecutor, Barajas said that repercussions for online bullies are limited. But he still encourages victims to seek help.
“What they can do first is they should report it, because it is a crime,” Barajas said. “It’s worthy of investigation and prosecution.”
Victims of online harassment should contact their county prosecutors office to see if victim advocate services are offered, he added.
“I have always said that the severity of the victimization lies in the eyes of the victim,” Barajas said.