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White House rolls out task force to curb online abuse

Group will create recommendations for governments, companies and schools to address the link between online harassment and violence in the wake of mass shootings

Vice President Harris is scheduled to announce a task force that will study online harassment. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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The White House on Thursday launched a task force focused on the prevention of online abuse, marking one of the most significant steps the Biden administration has taken to examine the connection between digital vitriol and violence.

The launch fulfills a pledge Biden made on the campaign trail to convene experts to study online sexual harassment, stalking and nonconsensual pornography, as well as the connection between such abuse and mass shootings and violence against women. The long-awaited initiative comes on the heels of massacres in Uvalde, Tex., and Buffalo, which involved attackers with histories of online threats and radicalization.

“We continue to see how some acts of mass violence, the most recent included, have followed expressions of online hate and abuse,” said Kamala D. Harris at a White House event Thursday launching the task force. Harris cited previous Washington Post reporting that one girl who observed the Uvalde gunman being threatening on social media said that was just “how online is.”

“Think about that,” she said. “Hate has become so common on the internet that, as a society, it’s kind of becoming normalized, and for users, some might say, unavoidable.”

Before massacre, Uvalde gunman frequently threatened teen girls online

The White House event convened top administration officials, as well as survivors of online harassment and civil society experts. The task force will have 180 days to create a set of policy recommendations for government, as well as recommendations for tech companies, schools and other entities. It will also make recommendations for additional research and increasing support for victims.

The group will examine whether existing federal laws are adequate to address the ways technology facilitates gender-based violence and provide recommendations for strengthening these safeguards, according to a White House fact sheet.

“For far too many people, the internet is a place of fear,” said Harris.

Recommendations from the group will be due near the end of the year, after the midterm elections. Many Democrats have expressed concern that the party may lose their narrow control of Congress during the midterms, complicating any efforts in Congress to implement the panel’s findings by overhauling laws governing the tech industry.

Harris’s efforts to curb online abuse also have a controversial history. She was a co-sponsor of FOSTA-SESTA, a law that opened up tech companies to lawsuits if they knowingly hosted sex trafficking on their websites. The law gained broad bipartisan support, clearing the Senate in a 97-2 vote, but opponents said that the measure had a chilling effect on online speech and harmed sex workers’ ability to communicate safely.

Harris’s involvement follows her work as California attorney general, when she prosecuted a case against the operator of a cyber exploitation website, and efforts as a senator to make the nonconsensual sharing of illicit images illegal. Yet there is still no federal law prohibiting such activity. The task force is co-chaired by the White House’s Gender Policy Council and the National Security Council, and it includes the attorney general, the secretary of health and human services and other heads of federal agencies and policy councils.

The Biden administration came into office with high expectations to develop protocols to deal with hate and violence that spread online, most notably after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. But despite public criticism of social media companies, the White House thus far has taken little action in the area.

The administration’s most high-profile social media initiative to date — the Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board — was disbanded after a barrage of attacks. The board’s stated purpose was to “coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security,” but it became a lightning rod after conservatives raised concerns about online censorship they said might arise from the initiative.

How the Biden administration let right-wing attacks derail its disinformation efforts

In a briefing to reporters, a senior White House official said the online abuse task force would be focused on “illegal conduct,” including cyberstalking, online abuse linked to child sex abuse material and trafficking.

“We are very mindful of the First Amendment issues,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the White House’s plans. “But banning threatening speech is not protected by the First Amendment. So while we are going to carefully navigate those issues, we are also going to remain laser-focused on the non-speech aspects.”

Online harassment is widespread and disproportionately affects young women and lesbian, gay or bisexual adults. Thirty-three percent of women younger than 35 say they have been sexually harassed online, compared to 11 percent of men, according to the Pew Research Center. About 7 in 10 lesbian, gay or bisexual adults have faced online harassment, according to the same data.

The White House official said the task force was not focused on any specific social media platform and that it will “be looking for opportunities to engage with industry experts and leaders” on improving the safety and design of their products. Expert panelists at the task force’s first meeting Thursday will include Sloane Stephens, a U.S. tennis champion who has advocated on mental health issues, and Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a nonprofit focused on fighting online discrimination.

Stephens opened Thursday’s event by sharing her personal experience, saying that she faces online attacks whether she wins or loses a match. She says people online have found out where she lives, and she has had to escalate credible threats to authorities and seek therapy in the wake of abuse. Sometimes when she’s leaving a game, she’s not even thinking about tennis.

“I’m just worried to see what will be on the other end of my phone because I know what will be waiting for me when I unlock it,” she said.

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