Skip to content

Image by iStock

U.S. Launches Task Force to Address Online Harassment

Recent mass shootings in the United States have had significant online elements—including a racist screed allegedly posted by the perpetrator of the Buffalo, New York, grocery store shooting and the signs of online radicalization from other active assailants. In response to this and other threats, the White House is launching a new task force to study online harassment and abuse and make recommendations on how to address it.

According to a memorandum about the establishment of the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse, “Technology platforms and social media can be vital tools for expression, civic participation, and building a sense of community.  But the scale, reach, and amplification effects of technology platforms have also exacerbated gender-based violence, particularly through online harassment and abuse.  Online harassment and abuse include a broad array of harmful and sometimes illegal behaviors that are perpetrated through the use of technology.  Women, adolescent girls, and LGBTQI+ individuals, who may be additionally targeted because of their race, ethnicity, religion, and other factors, can experience more severe harms from online harassment and abuse.”

In the United States, one in three women under the age of 35 reports having been sexually harassed online, the memorandum said, and more than half of LGBTQ individuals say they have been the target of severe online abuse, including sustained harassment, physical threats, and stalking. Globally, half of girls say they are more likely to be harassed on social media than on the street.

“Online harassment and abuse can result in a range of dire consequences for victims, from psychological distress and self-censorship to economic losses, disruptions to education, increased self-harm, suicide, homicide, and other forms of physical and sexual violence,” the memorandum added.

Online harassment is a global issue—not a strictly American one. One in 10 women in the European Union reported experiencing cyber harassment at least once since the age of 15, according to the United Nations. And because the COVID-19 pandemic forced more and more social activity online (internet usage increased up to 70 percent during the pandemic), rates of cyber harassment and digital violence skyrocketed.

Research from UN Women found that “The increasing reach of the Internet, the rapid spread of mobile information, and the widespread use of social media, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 [pandemic], and coupled with existing prevalence of violence against women and girls, have most likely further impacted the prevalence rates” of violence facilitated by information and communications technology.

The task force, led by Vice President Kamala Harris and co-chaired by the White House Gender Policy Council and the National Security Council, will develop recommendations for state governments, online platforms, schools, and public and private entities within six months. The results are likely to include recommendations on boosting interagency cooperation on prevention efforts; data collection and research—especially around social media and its effects on adolescents; access to support for victims; and training for federal, state, and local officials, NBC News reported.

A senior official who spoke with journalists about the task force noted that the administration will be studying the “nexus between online misogyny and radicalization to violence” as part of the task force.

“Growing evidence also demonstrates that online radicalization can be linked to gender-based violence, which, along with other forms of abuse and harassment, spans the digital and physical realms,” according to the White House memorandum.

In early 2022, the Anti-Defamation League released a report showing that violence triggered by conspiracy theories, misogyny, and anti-vaccine sentiments killed 26 people in 2021.

In March, the U.S. Secret Service released a behavioral case study and report about violent misogynist risks, noting that the assailant in a shooting at a hot yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida, had posted multiple misogynistic, homophobic, and racist videos online. He also made concerning and threatening communications.

According to a fact sheet on the initiative, “The tragic events in Buffalo and Uvalde have underscored a fact known all too well by many Americans: the internet can fuel hate, misogyny, and abuse with spillover effects that threaten our communities and safety online.”