The Alan Turing Institute’s public policy programme today (27 November) publishes a new policy briefing, How much online abuse is there? A systematic review of evidence for the UK.

The briefing identifies some considerable shortfalls in existing monitoring practices for online abuse and its recommendations include:

  1. a representative survey dedicated to understanding the experience of people in the UK of online abuse should be administered each year.
  2. a new platform for monitoring the prevalence of online abuse in real-time should be created.
  3. Government statistics on different types of illegal online abuse should be made available in a single bulletin.

The briefing is released at a time when online abuse, including interpersonal attacks like harassment and bullying and verbal attacks against groups (usually called ‘hate speech’), continue to receive increasing attention in the UK. Recently, several high-profile women MPs have cited abuse as a factor in their decision to stand down at the forthcoming general election on 12 December.  

Assessing the prevalence of online abuse is a difficult task. Nonetheless, there is concern about its harmful effects: according to a 2019 survey by Ofcom, 18% of UK adults are concerned about hate speech on the internet and a survey of 500 women in the UK showed that 61% of respondents believed online abuse/harassment of women is common and 47% stated that current laws are inadequate. A recent report from the Commission for Countering Extremism found that 56% of the public believe ‘a lot more’ should be done to counter extremism online.

Report authors and Turing researchers Bertie Vidgen, Helen Margetts and Alex Harris have conducted this research as part of a wider hate speech project at the Turing. The briefing features previously unreleased analysis of the 2019 Oxford Internet Survey data, demonstrating that a large number of people report having been exposed to online abuse at some point: between 30-40% of people in the UK have seen online abuse.

The research also finds that 10-20% of people in the UK have personally been targeted by abusive content. However, the prevalence of online abuse is very low overall, accounting for a very small percentage of all online content.

Conclusion

Notes to editors:

  1. Find the new public policy programme briefing on the website: Online hate monitor: Understanding the prevalence of online abuse
  2. Download the public policy programme’s policy briefing executive summary, How much online abuse is there? A systematic review of evidence for the UK Policy Briefing – Summary as well as the full policy briefing.
  3. Read a blog by the briefing authors explaining the new research: How much online abuse is there? 
  4. Contact the lead author, Dr Bertie Vidgen, [email protected]
  5. Please note that the policy briefing contains some terms and phrases that are considered ‘online abuse’ or ‘hate speech’. These have been included for educational and research purposes.