Much of how we spend our days and how we socialize takes place online. But online spaces can be breeding grounds for dangerous harassment.
According to a Pew Research Survey published in 2021, about 41% of Americans experienced some form of online harassment. That's a similar share compared to a previous survey in 2017, but the types of harassment have changed:
Physical threats, stalking, and sexual harassment have gone up.
State and federal law have struggled to keep up with threats on the internet, from nonconsensual deepfakes to calling for real-life threats.
"I think the laws are traditionally always a little bit behind technology, and that's probably a good thing. We don't want people, and we don't want Congress and the government passing laws as a knee-jerk reaction to things," said Security Awareness Advocate at KnowBe4 Erich Kron. "But I think in many ways, because technology advances so very quickly, it's difficult to get the things in place quickly or quick enough without causing more problems as a result of it."
For example, there are currently no federal laws against "doxing", the practice of posting personal information with the intent to incite real-life harassment.
There has been some momentum for legislation on a state level. A dozen states have passed laws against it or strengthened cybersecurity laws to include it. A few states are currently considering it as well.
Another common form of harassment is the use of deepfake images, most often used for nonconsensual porn.
There are currently no federal laws against using deepfake images of another person.
A House billbanning nonconsenual deepfake porn was introduced earlier this year but has not been voted on. Only a handful of states ban the practice.
Another increasingly common form of harassment is known as "swatting", when coordinated groups online plan fake calls to law enforcement.
The intent is to send SWAT teams to private residences for often violent and traumatizing confrontations.
"Swatting is often done not just as a prank but with the intent to hurt somebody, with the intent to send a swat team to a place and hoping that something bad happens. Two people have been killed through swatting calls, and the risk is very great to the public," said Matt Martin from the Arlington County Police Department.
But states are only recently starting to introduce legislation increasing penalties for the practice.
In June, the FBI announced it would establish the first national database for swatting incidents, hoping to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to communicate and prevent false alarms.
There are also practical problems for law enforcement when dealing with online threats from a group – such as who can actually be held accountable.
“So, if somebody purposely puts that information out there to people that they know are going to act on it, well, then you may be able to play the conspiracy side and be able to bring charges with that,” said Kron. “And that's going to be a hard one to prove in court whether they expected the information to be acted on.”
Advocates and lawmakers alike are mixed on how much accountability social media platforms should have for dangerous content that can insight violence.
This has led to debate over the controversial "Section 230" of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which generally protects online sites from being held liable for content posted.
"Any way you look at it, I think this has enormous ramifications for the landscape of social media in our country, which has gone very heavily debated but relatively unregulated for decades," said Stephen Wermiel, Professor at the American University School of Law.
In June, the Supreme Court avoided a ruling in two major cases concerning internet liability, effectively sending the issue of Section 230 back to Congress.
"It's very important that we start addressing it now. Before. We're trying to make up for this after something horrible happens, which seems to be the trend; unfortunately, you know, we don't tackle swatting until some people have lost their lives due to swatting. And it's because this moves very quickly," said Kron.
If you or someone you know is the victim of online harassment, the free speech and human rights organization PEN America has a free, online manual for how to manage abuse, next steps you can take, and ways to prevent attacks in the future.
While lawmakers will continue to debate how to prevent abuse and protect Americans, online harassment is set to be a pressing issue for internet users of all ages across the nation.
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