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Survey finds users frequently bullied online

A Pew Research Center study found that a number of web users have experienced harassment. And poll responders say they have seen someone else get harassed online.

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    A man works on his computer during a portrait session in Charlotte, N.C. on December 1, 2011. A Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of web users have experienced harassment.
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Trolls and bullies are the ire of every online user. Harmful messages or threatening posts have become commonplace on social media sites. And though there are some safeguards, online trolling continues. 

A Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of online users have experienced some form of online harassment. And 73 percent of online users have seen someone else get harassed online. The survey, which interviewed 2,849 web users, provides insight into the web at a time when online harassment is attracting a lot of attention. In recent months, #GamerGate has drawn attention for harassment of female video game developers and critics.

The Pew study takes a holistic look at online harassment in all forms, "from garden-variety name calling to more threatening behavior." Of the 40 percent of people who have experienced harassment, 18 percent have experienced more severe forms, which includes being the target of physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, stalking, and sexual harassment. And interestingly, men were more likely to experience online harassment than women. 

Recommended: Why so few women in tech? Seven challenges and potential solutions.

Most of the harassment took place on social media sites. Of those who said they experienced harassment online, 66 percent said the most recent incident occurred on a social network. 

"It was striking to see how different varieties of harassment impacted different groups on different platforms, and the range of reactions online harassment elicited," said Maeve Duggan, main author of the Pew report, in a statement.

At the heart of the issue is the an online environment that allows for anonymity. Of all those surveyed, 92 percent said the Internet's environment let them be more critical of others. And that critical environment lends itself to anonymous threats. The study found that 38 percent of harassment victims said a stranger was behind the threats, and 26 percent said they didn't know who was behind the harassment. 

Though online harassment is so common, it is hard for police to patrol online bullies because "our legal system hasn't quite caught up with technology," Elizabeth Dowdell, a nursing professor at Villanova University who studies online aggression, told the Associated Press. 

"People look for outlets for aggression and the Internet is a wonderful place because it's anonymous and you don't have to be truthful," Ms. Dowdell said. "You can have many different (personas) online. So you might think 'I'm going to block Scaryfriend123' and Scaryfriend says 'Fine, I'm going to use my other name Superniceguy' and you just don't know."

After her father's death, Zelda Williams, daughter of famed comedian Robin Williams, left social media because of harassment. “Deleting this (Twitter application) from my devices for a good long time, maybe forever," she wrote on Twitter. Ms. Williams' harassment was so bad Del Harvey, Twitter's vice president of trust and safety, came out against the harassers.

"We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter," he said in a statement. "We have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one."

Because of online harassment, many websites are finding ways to protect users. Facebook began strictly enforcing a policy that users must use their real names in order to protect users, but the policy came under fire because members of the LGBT community, who sometimes use fake profile names to protect themselves, were being kicked off the site. Ello, a trendy new social media site, created tools to allow users to block anyone who is threatening them. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Ello's founder Paul Budntiz said Ello has already removed hundreds of users who harassed other users.

The Pew survey found that 22 percent of people last saw saw someone being harassed in the comment section of a website. News organizations, like The Christian Science Monitor, sometimes choose not to allow commenting, or they only allow users to comment if their account is connected to a Facebook account. 

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