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This Question Helps Reveal How Slippery Online Harassment Is to Define

January 5, 2018

A new Pew Research Center study hints at why social networks rarely seem to get harassment issues right.

A sample question: Alice has a disagreement with Bob. Alice forwards it to Clare, who posts it online. Bob gets unkind and vulgar messages, and is later doxxed and threatened. Was Bob harassed?

The results: According to Pew's survery, 89 percent of people say yes. But there was little consensus in repsonses about when in the course of events the harassment actually occurred, or when may have been a suitable time to take action. When race and gender issues were included in the questions, reponses became even more varied.

Why it matters: If we're ever going to stamp out online harassment, we first need to agree on what it is, when it happens, and what to do about it. These results suggest that for the moment, that's a fairly distant hope.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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