The Rise of Online Harassment: An interview with Allyson Kapin

The rise of online harassment

In May 2014, Rad Campaign, Lincoln Park Strategies, and Craig Newmark conducted a poll to understand experiences of online harassment. NTEN staff interviewed Rad Campaign’s Allyson Kapin to discuss the poll’s findings.

NTEN: Why did Rad Campaign, Lincoln Park Strategies, and Craig Newmark decide to conduct the study in the first place?

Allyson: We were concerned about the rise of online harassment, particularly on social media networks. When we researched what data already existed, we realized that very little had been produced, so we conducted the poll to get a baseline of the prevalence and impact of online harassment. We also hoped that the poll would shed light on this serious issue and increase awareness about the need for solutions.

Why did you choose to only survey people over 18?

The main reason we chose to focus on people over 18 was because there was not much data about online harassment pertaining to adults. We did find a lot of data about online bullying that applied to people under 18.

What are three things you learned from the report?

  • Women report being personally harassed more frequently than men – the gender gap’s 57% women to 43% men across all age groups.
  • Sexual harassment is the most common form of harassment – 44% of all incidences. It’s followed by: slurs on a person’s professional ability (28%), Racial (23%), Religious (18%), and Political (16%) insults.
  • Surprisingly, the level of sexual harassment is virtually identical between men (44%) and women (43%). 62% of respondents who said they’d been harassed online said it happened on Facebook. Twitter came in second at 24%.

Why is online harassment even a big deal? Why can’t we just ask people to “get over it?” It’s just words, right?

Some people may think the Internet is a place where they can threaten people without consequences, but online harassment has horrifying real-life effects. About 30% of people who are harassed online say that they fear for their lives, and 20% are afraid to leave their house. You can’t just ask people to get over that. Threats are very damaging—especially because they may turn into actions. People whose lives have been threatened online can face depression, be fired from their jobs if the harassment becomes very public, and some end up leaving their home permanently because they don’t feel safe.

“More than two-thirds (67%) of those harassed online said they knew their harasser in real life.” Do you have any thoughts on the comparison between legal ramifications of online harassment v. offline harassment?

It’s not legal to threaten someone in person, and it is not legal to threaten someone online. However, some say that conversations that happen online are not as real as conversations that happen in person, or harassers will say that they were joking around. Some people feel that online conversations should be treated differently. The US Supreme Court is hearing its first case (Elonis v. United States) about online harassment after years of ambiguity and confusion in the lower courts. Their decision will have major implications online.

Why do you think people don’t report online harassment to social media services?  

Only 25% of those who were harassed reported it to the social network where it occurred. I think a lot of people don’t report online harassment because they feel powerless and don’t think that the social networks will do much to help them. And sadly, for about 40% of people who reported online harassment to the social network, the social network did nothing to address it.

It’s very challenging for large social networks to tackle this problem, when your mission is to “let the information flow,” and you never thought about the implications of people using your platform to harass and threaten others. Now, the social networks are scrambling to address online harassment because they are inundated with reports, and there are not enough human resources in place to assess the harassment and help. The results are band-aid policies and procedures, which is equivalent to playing a game of whac-a-mole. This is not an effective way to deal with online harassment.

What is the relationship between moderation and censorship?

I will go to great lengths to protect our freedom of speech. However, some people think that freedom of speech means you have the right to threaten people’s lives on the Internet. That is illegal and not protected by free speech.

Are there any templates for codes of conduct or community guidelines that you suggest to organizations?

If an organization is going to have a Blog, a Facebook Page, a Facebook Group, etc., comments should be encouraged. It’s a great way to foster community and to build relationships with your supporters. It’s important for every organization to post community guidelines. The Humane Society of the United States does a great job with their guidelines. They are open to dissenting opinions, but they will not tolerate harassment or abusive behavior. 

How much staff capacity might a nonprofit be expected to devote to moderation? Under what circumstances should nonprofits have a community manager?

It depends on the organization, the issues you work on, and how active your community is. For organizations that work on hot-button issues, they tend to have a very vocal community, so those organizations definitely need a community manager to manage the blog and foster a good discussion. And by good, I don’t mean everyone agreeing. Dissent is healthy and can lead to fantastic discussions that help organizations learn about the pain points some of their advocates or donors may be feeling.

What are some tools that could help overcome harassment in a nonprofit’s online community?

Nonprofits need to develop a policy guide for staff outlining what staff should do in the event they are harassed online as part of their job. The guide should contain who to report the harassment to, how to document it, etc. There is also a new organization called Crash Override Network that is helping victims of online harassment, founded by Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz. They also post great resources about password management and preventing doxing, which is a tactic used by anonymous online mobs to intimidate you and start digging up information on your life.

What other resources or studies would you suggest for organizations trying to understand online harassment, or trying to overcome online harassment in their communities?

PEW has a good study about online harassment that’s packed with useful data. 

Is there such a thing as a “safe space” online?

No. Anything you say online, whether in an email, a Facebook group, on Snapchat, etc. can be screenshot and shared publicly. If you don’t want something being shared publicly, don’t share it online.

Allyson Kapin
Rad Campaign
Allyson has been named one of "Top Tech Titans" by the Washingtonian, one of the Most Influential Women In Tech by Fast Company and one of the top 30 women entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter by Forbes for her leadership role in technology and social media. As Founding Partner of Rad Campaign she leads the firm’s client and online strategic services. For over a decade Allyson has helped non-profit organizations and political campaigns create dynamic and award-winning websites and online marketing and recruitment campaigns. She works side-by-side with her clients to meet their web needs and maximize their online effectiveness to create real world impact. As part of the first generation of online advocacy experts, Allyson has a thorough understanding of the rapidly changing world of online activism. She is an expert in the latest trends in social networking, blogging, online video, and other online tools and strategies and advises her clients on how to cost effectively incorporate them into their Internet plans and online campaigns. Her campaigns have been recognized with several prestigious web awards and featured on several top media networks ranging from CNN to NPR and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Allyson has spearheaded campaigns for organizations ranging from American Rights at Work to National Breast Cancer Coalition and Save Darfur Coalition. She has also been a featured speaker on web design, Internet marketing and social media at national conferences. In 2007 Allyson founded Women Who Tech: A Telesummit for Women in Technology working in the non-profit and political campaign world featuring Arianna Huffington of and Joan Blades of As the founder of Women Who Tech she champions women who are inspiring change and transforming technology. She also serves as an expert for news reporters who are writing about women in technology. Allyson sits on several Advisory Boards including the New Organizing Institute, the Green It Consortium and the Planning Committee for NTEN's NTC conference as well as O'Reilly's Gov 2.0 Expo. Allyson started the Radical Tech blog for Fast Company focusing on trends in technology and Web 2.0 and serves as the Blogger-In-Chief for one of the top-ranked nonprofit communications blog Care2's Frogloop.