(Brian J. Matis/Flickr)
Liz Pullen is a sociologist and former Twitter trend analyst for What the Trend. She studies advocacy groups on social media.

Cyberbullying and online harassment, problems that once seemed relegated to adolescents, have become a possibility for anyone who ventures onto the Internet. Victims are found not only in high school classrooms, but also in Hollywoodmajor newsrooms, and even in Buckingham Palace. A new Pew Research study found that 40 percent of all Internet users have experienced some harassment online, and 73 percent have witnessed others being harassed. But even though online harassment has become a ubiquitous experience, the way it is experienced differs radically between men and women. The Pew study determined that women are more likely to be victims of its more severe forms, including stalking and sexual harassment, while men are more likely to experience less severe forms, such as name-calling.

Too often, women are expected to simply ignore these cyberthreats. Social media sites that play host to the harassment have been slow to identify and penalize perpetrators, and fellow users downplay the problem, blaming victims for feeding trolls simply for speaking up about the harassment. This reality has come into stark relief in the contentious Gamergate controversy, a war that has unfolded largely on Twitter with vicious barbs thrown between hardcore gamers and their critics. There have been bad actors on both sides of the dispute, which has become increasingly savage since it began in August. Critics of the predominately male gamer culture have likened its defenders to ISIS, the Ku Klux Klan, terrorists and misogynists. In response, those critics – predominately women – have received vicious rape and death threats. While both are objectionable, these two types of harassment aren’t equally severe and don’t deserve equal censure.

The Pew study divided harassment into two categories: a less severe form that involved name-calling and public embarrassment, and a more severe form that included physical threats, sustained harassment over a period of time, sexual harassment and stalking. About 55 percent of Internet users who have been harassed online said they’ve only been victims of the less severe forms. These types of harassment are more frequently experienced by men and have a lower emotional impact than other forms of harassment, the survey found. The more severe forms of harassment – experienced by 45 percent of harassed Internet users — were disproportionately targeted to women, especially those between ages 18 and 24. Among young women online, 25 percent have been sexually harassed online and 26 percent have experienced stalking, according to the study.

The gender disparity is heightened when Pew examined what platform the harassment occurred on. While social media was the most frequent site of harassment for all victims, men were more likely to experience name-calling and embarrassment in online gaming and the comments sections of Web sitesEven more telling, while survey respondents deemed social media and other environments equally welcoming to both genders, online gaming showed a clear gender bias. About 44 percent of the survey respondents said online gaming was more welcoming to men than to women, while only 3 percent said it was more welcoming to women.

Not only are men and women facing different types of harassment online, they also are responding differently. When men are faced with name-calling and embarrassment, they typically ignore the taunts or confront the perpetrator, according to the survey. Such behavior can be seen as endemic to the gaming environment, and taunts can safely be ignored because users are often anonymous. Women, facing more threatening forms of harassment, are typically forced to take more drastic action: closing their accounts, changing their usernames, deleting their profiles and even contacting law enforcement.  More severe forms of harassment can involve “doxxing” or revealing personal information about the person such as street address, place of employment and real name, and persistent harassers have been seen to follow up cyber-harassing with offline threats.

Both sides of the Gamergate dispute claim they are being mischaracterized, harassed and bullied, and both are correct. But we cannot equate calling a user “a terrorist” with sending a graphic rape threat and publishing the victim’s address. It’s clear that women in the Gamergate controversy – and across the Internet — are being victimized in a way that tries not only to silence them, but also jeopardizes their physical safety. Pew’s study shows that the name-calling many men face in the anonymous world of online gaming is not the same kind or level of harassment faced by women when they venture online.

Neither women nor men can safely dismiss threats to their physical well-being, their families or threats that endanger their employment. While Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act holds that social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, are not legally responsible for user-generated content that is posted to their site, these companies are slowly realizing that simply advising users to block harassers so that they don’t see their toxic messages is not enough. While it is highly unlikely that companies will accept responsibility for threats posted on or through their sites, they can act more quickly to valid complaints that are filed about harassing behavior.

As for individual behavior, it would help if those involved in debating Gamergate acknowledged that the harassment faced by many women on social media is real, it is not manufactured or exaggerated, and it should not be minimized or dismissed. Rather than expect victims to just ignore and get over it, maybe a solution resides in those who witness harassment online. While 92 percent of Pew’s respondents viewed online culture as fostering a more critical environment, 68 percent also replied that they saw the Internet as a place where they could find support. A better online world could be achieved if rather than ignoring it, those witnessing harassment provided support by reporting serious harassers and offering encouragement to those who are bullied, as long as they themselves did not become harassers, too.

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