Microsoft study: online risks that sow hate and division are growing

Online fraud, hate speech, discrimination and other divisive online risks are on the rise globally, according to results of a new Microsoft study. These findings were released in conjunction with World Kindness Day in an effort to turn that tide and encourage safer, more empathetic and tolerant online interactions among all people.

Date 2020-11-23 Author Jacqueline Beauchere, Global Digital Safety Advocate at Microsoft Section awareness, industry, online-service, research Topic cyberbullying, hate speech Audience media specialist, organisations and industry, parents and carers, research, policy and decision makers, teachers, educators and professionals
Young woman using a laptop

Some 31 per cent of respondents in 32 countries (1) say they’ve been exposed to hoaxes, scams and fraud online, up two percentage points from last year, and up three percentage points since the fraud risk was first included in this study in 2017. Meanwhile, one in five respondents (20 per cent) say they’ve been the target of hate speech online, and 15 per cent say they’ve experienced discrimination. These latter two risks are up four and five percentage points, respectively, since the survey began in 2016. All three risks are at their highest levels on record for this research.

Strangers and people whom respondents say they know online only continue to be the primary sources of digital risk – a theme that has prevailed since 2016. In fact, anonymous bullying-type behaviours jumped in this latest poll. Among those respondents who said they had been subjected to bullying, harassment or mean and cruel treatment online – 33 per cent, 47 per cent and 37 per cent, respectively – said those behaviours were exhibited by strangers. Still, risks from those identified as “friends” have been inching steadily higher as well. This year, 22 per cent of respondents said risks were perpetrated by friends, compared to 13 per cent four years ago when 14 countries were included in the research.

The findings are from Microsoft’s latest research into aspects of digital civility – encouraging safer, healthier and more respectful online interactions. The study, Civility, Safety and Interaction Online – 2020, surveyed teenagers aged 13-17 and adults aged 18-74 about their exposure to 21 (2) different online risks. This latest research builds on similar studies undertaken each year since 2016. Previous years’ projects polled the same demographics in 14, 22, 23, and 25 countries, respectively. In total, 16,051 individuals participated in this latest instalment, and more than 58,000 people were polled over the last five years. Complete results will be made available in conjunction with international Safer Internet Day (SID) on Tuesday, 9 February 2021.

At that time, Microsoft will also release the latest Microsoft Digital Civility Index, a gauge that looks at the state of online civility in each individual geography, as well as in all 32 combined. The index, which stood at 70 last year, is an indication of the perceived level of civility in that country. The index works like a golf score: a lower reading equates to a higher level of perceived civility among respondents in that country. The 2019 worldwide Digital Civility Index reading was the highest on record thus far for this research and reflects responses from survey participants in 25 countries. (Read more about the 2019 worldwide index and survey in this presentation.

Take the Digital Civility Challenge

As done since the start of this research, Microsoft is encouraging people around the world to take the Digital Civility Challenge and pledge to live by four basic tenets for life online:

  • Live the Golden Rule and treat others as you would want to be treated.
  • Respect differences of all types, including those of thought and opinion.
  • Pause before replying to something you may disagree with.
  • If it’s safe and prudent to do so, stand up for yourself and others online who may be the target of abuse or cruel treatment.

Results from the latest survey show both teens and adults appear to be championing these actions. Indeed, 58 per cent of adults and 57 per cent of teens report having taken at least one challenge action in response to online risks. “Standing up for myself” was the most common challenge action this year, with 34 per cent of respondents saying they defended themselves online. “Pausing before replying” was noted by 25 per cent of those surveyed.

The Digital Civility Challenge is not meant to be a panacea, but rather a starting place to encourage good digital citizenship and active, engaged online communities. Microsoft is not trying to thwart online debate or disagreement. On the contrary, they encourage it, while guarding against heated discussions that quickly devolve to name-calling and abuse.

To learn more about online safety issues and digital civility generally, visit the Microsoft Online Safety website and their Digital Civility webpage.

This article was originally published on the Microsoft on the Issues blog and is reproduced here with the author's permission.


1 - Geographies polled in 2020: Argentina, Australia*, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Denmark*, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia*, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Philippines*, Poland, Russia, Sweden*, Singapore, Spain*, South Africa, Taiwan*, Thailand*, Turkey, U.K., U.S., Vietnam. * Added (or re-added) to the study in 2020
2 - The 21 risks span four broad categories: behavioral, sexual, reputational and personal/intrusive. Specifically:

  • Reputational – “Doxing” and damage to personal or professional reputations
  • Behavioural – Being treated meanly; experiencing trolling, online harassment or bullying; encountering hate speech and microaggressions
  • Sexual – Sending or receiving unwanted sexting messages and making sexual solicitations; receiving unwanted sexual attention and being a victim of sextortion or non-consensual intimate images (aka “revenge porn”), and
  • Personal/intrusive – Being the target of unwanted contact, experiencing discrimination, swatting, misogyny, exposure to extremist content/recruiting, or falling victim to hoaxes, scams, or fraud

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