Should Twitter and Facebook stop online harassment? Americans say yes.

A new survey finds that as many as 47 percent of adults under age 35 have experienced online harassment or know someone who's been harassed.

Americans report a growing threat from online harassment. Image credit: iStockphoto by Getty

The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case this fall to decide if threatening Facebook posts are protected “free speech” under the First Amendment. The case involves a Pennsylvania man who was sentenced to four years in prison for death threats that he posted on his Facebook page against his wife.

Regardless of what the Court decides, this case has raised a pivotal question that falls outside the “traditional” scope of government regulation: who should regulate and monitor content on the Internet?

The American public, our research finds, want social media networks to step up to the plate. Moreover, Americans report online harassment as a growing threat.

In a recent survey conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies in conjunction with Rad Campaign and Craig Newmark, 25 percent of American adults – including 47 percent of adults under age 35 – report having been harassed or knowing someone who has been harassed. Moreover, among those who have been harassed, 57 percent are women.

Of particular concern is the high rate of harassment reported among young people. As this cohort ages, and if the trend continues, the number of people who have experienced harassment will grow rapidly towards a majority. As our research shows, online harassment occurs on multiple social media platforms, which makes it harder to combat. For example, while Facebook is the most common platform for harassing messages, our survey respondents also reported harassment on Twitter, email, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram and a host of other network.

And given the lack of clear rules and/or regulation, people generally don’t know what to do when cyber harassment occurs. But one thing is clear: People want action, and they’d prefer social media networks over government to be the traffic cops.

For instance, 63 percent of people agree that social media platforms should be responsible for intervening and helping stop harassment (although only 25 percent of people who are harassed online report it to their social network, half ignore it, and 30 percent personally responded to their harassers online). Just 12 percent have reported harassment to local law enforcement, and 1 percent have reported it to the FBI.

Social networks, in addition to being people’s first line of defense in reporting harassment, are also perceived to be the best responders. Sixty-one percent of victims who reported a harassing incident to a social media network say that the social network shut down the account of the offender. In contrast,  44 percent of victims reported that law enforcement tried to track down the offender.

However, Americans also think that social media networks could take a more active role in reining in harassment. For example, 75 percent agree that suspending user accounts of those who have harassed others online would be very or somewhat successful at combating online harassment, and 64 percent think that creating an online code of conduct would be somewhat or very successful.

And even though 62 percent of people think that laws against online harassment are not strong enough or even nonexistent, our research shows that Americans expect more from social media networks to protect them from the growing perceived threat of online harassment.

The Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling on online harassment and free speech will no doubt play a major role in helping determine who will protect users from harassment, But in the meantime, social media networks need to take a greater role in protecting their users.  If they chose not to, they will only have themselves to blame if the FCC or another government entity steps in and begins to take the lead.

Stefan Hankin is President of Lincoln Park Strategies, a public opinion research firm based in Washington, D.C. Follow: @lpstrategies