Trolls Exploit Weaknesses of Social Media Platforms to Spread Online Hate, New ADL Report Finds

Attackers take advantage of the fact that platforms are not equipped to quickly remove content; New “Backspace Hate” campaign will advocate for legislation to prevent online harassment

New York, October 17, 2019 … Social media platform design enables online harassment, as trolls often carry out coordinated attacks on a target by leveraging key platform features, according to a new report released today by ADL (the Anti-Defamation League). Such features include the ability to be anonymous online, to create multiple accounts by one person, the fact that there is no limit to the number of messages one user can send to another, and the use of personal networks as weaponized audiences. 

Trolls do not, however, exclusively exploit the design of platforms to cause harm, the report found. Once an attack is in progress, harassers also took advantage of platforms’ slow reporting and removal process. 

For this report, “The Trolls Are Organized and Everyone’s a Target” ADL conducted in-depth interviews with 15 individuals about their experiences with online hate and harassment. The interview subjects represent a range of diverse backgrounds, identity characteristics and professions, and who have a collection of experiences that have been described as distressing. For the safety of the interviewees, the report does not publish their names or any personally identifiable details. The report was made possible through the generous support of Bumble.

“This report shows that online hate is often facilitated by the social platforms themselves,” said ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt. “We know that online harassment and hate occurs both on and offline, and deeply affects an individual’s entire personal and professional life. Without concrete legislative action, this issue will only continue to escalate, which is why the ADL is committed to advocating for improved state and federal laws.”

This analysis comes on the heels of a previous report released by ADL that found that 37 percent of Americans experienced severe online hate and harassment in 2018, including sexual harassment, stalking, physical threats, or sustained harassment.

The new ADL report found that the processes and functions of the hate-reporting systems on major social media platforms are inadequate, as victims often must wait weeks for the content moderation teams to respond to complaints, and targets of hate can only report one piece of content at a time, leading to a bottleneck in content flagging.

The report found social media users who were the targets of intense harassment campaigns experienced significant emotional and economic burdens due to being targets of online hate, which in turn caused them to limit their online presence. Victims also noted that members of their communities (family, friends) were also swept up in online hate attacks. 

"When we launched Bumble we did it with a clear and focused mission to help end misogyny and abuse in the digital world, especially as it pertained to women. The overwhelming lack of accountability and protections for people online is a global epidemic and that’s why partnering with an organization like the ADL to identify and solve these challenges through awareness and legislation is critical as more and more of our time and our children’s time is spend on digital platforms," said Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble.

The ADL report includes detailed recommendations that online platforms and companies can take to enable their users to feel safe and empowered to take action against possible forms of online hate. For instance, platforms should allow users to block attackers at their IP-level rather than blocking a single account. This will enable targets of online harassment to feel like they have control over their profiles, pages, or accounts. 

Second, companies need to redesign their reporting features so that users can thoroughly explain their abuse to the moderation team. And third, safety, anti-bias, and anti-hate principles should be built into the design, operation, and management of social media platforms.

This report sheds even more light on an escalating issue, which is why ADL today launched a new campaign intended to advocate for new state and federal laws that would more effectively combat digital hate by holding perpetrators more accountable for their actions online. 

The campaign, known as Backspace Hate, will also educate the public about online hate in a variety of creative ways, including an interactive platform where people can share experiences, reach out to representatives, sign a petition, and learn more about the state of cyberhate and what targets go through when attacked online. 

Backspace Hate is driven by a comprehensive analysis of state and federal legal gaps related to cybercrimes and other harmful conduct that should be subject to criminal sanctions. Based on this analysis, ADL will be proposing new legislation and improvements focusing on cyber harassment, cyber stalking, non-consensual distribution of intimate imagery, swatting and doxing, to better protect targets and hold perpetrators meaningfully accountable. 

Building on ADL’s century of experience working toward a world without hate, the Center for Technology and Society (CTS) serves as a resource to tech platforms and develops proactive solutions to fight hate both online and offline. CTS works at the intersection of technology and civil rights through education, research and advocacy.

ADL is the world’s leading anti-hate organization. Founded in 1913 in response to an escalating climate of anti-Semitism and bigotry, its timeless mission is to protect the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all. Today, ADL continues to fight all forms of hate with the same vigor and passion. A global leader in exposing extremism, delivering anti-bias education, and fighting hate online, ADL is the first call when acts of anti-Semitism occur. ADL’s ultimate goal is a world in which no group or individual suffers from bias, discrimination or hate.