But 2014 has felt like a watershed moment in how we treat online harassment. Starting with Amanda Hess’s widely cited piece in The Pacific Standard, there’s been a steady drumbeat of stories about not just the nature of online harassment, but how it drives many users away from participating in online life. The bundle of nightmares that is the GamerGate movement, an amorphous collection of gamers largely focused on harassing feminist game developers and critics, managed to make the front page of The New York Times. And the growing focus on the issue is part of what prompted Pew to conduct its survey on online harassment. “We watched over the past year or so at the rising of attention being paid to the issue,” said Lee Rainie, Pew’s director of Internet, science, and technology research.
The response to online harassment is often a combination of apathy and “Well, that’s Internet for you.” Victims are sometimes told they are making things up, that their harassment is an isolated incident, or that they are actively seeking the attention of online harassers.
Like banner ads and spam bots, online harassment is still routinely treated as part of the landscape of being online. Of course, many of the great annoyances of online life have slowly been fixed in the past 20 years. The torrents of spam filling your 1998-era email inbox have been largely eliminated, thanks to advances like Bayesian spam-filtering algorithms. The clutter of Google search results from the mid-’00s were wiped out after Google released a series of updates to its search engine. But ending online harassment isn’t an easy tech fix. Tweaking human behavior, especially behavior masked by anonymity, is much, much tougher than adjusting an algorithm.