Vice President Kamala Harris has launched a White House task force with the mission to fight online harassment and abuse following a spate of mass shootings that are connected to online hate.
Harris announced the task force Thursday during a roundtable with officials, advocates and survivors, stating, “no one should have to endure abuse just because they are attempting to participate in society.”
“The Internet is an essential part of life in the 21st century,” she said. “And for far too many people … the Internet is a place of fear.”
The task force was established through a memorandum signed by President Joe Biden, fulfilling a campaign promise he made to combat online hate.
A senior administration official speaking to reporters Wednesday night said the mission of the task force is to address this growing problem, “which disproportionately targets women, girls and LGBTQI+ people.”
“The president made this commitment because in the United States, one in three women under the age of 35 report being sexually harassed online, and over half of LGBTQI+ individuals report being the target of severe online abuse,” the official said.
The memorandum states online harassment and abuse includes non-consensual distribution of intimate pictures, cyberstalking, sextortion, gendered disinformation and the recruitment and exploitation of sex trafficking victims as well as rape and death threats, among others.
The task force will focus on prevention, services and support for survivors, research on the scope and impact of the problem, accountability and the connection between online hate and extremist violence.
Within 180 days, the task force will submit Biden with a blueprint outlining recommendations for the federal and state governments as well as for technology platforms, schools and other public and private entities.
During her remarks, Harris said the United States continues to see acts of mass violence that follow online expressions of hate and abuse, highlighting the connections seen in recent mass shootings that have left scores of Americans dead.
She said the shooter who killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket on May 14 was a White supremacist who was radicalized online and that the shooter who killed 19 students and two teachers at a Texas elementary school 10 days later had threatened to kidnap, rape and kill teenage girls on Instagram.
Harris added that one of the girls who said she had been harassed online by 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, the accused gunman of the Uvalde school shooting, stated that is “just how online is.”
“Think about that,” Harris said. “Hate has become so common on the Internet that, as a society, it’s kind of becoming normalized, and for users, some might say unavoidable.”
A fact sheet from the White House underscored the connection between online hate and real-world violence, stating “the Internet can fuel hate, misogyny and abuse with spillover effects that threaten our communities and safety online.”
Sloane Stephens, the U.S. open tennis champion, a survivor of online hate and an advocate, spoke before Harris and described how she is constantly confronted with hate online, including credible threats.
“It is so triggering to constantly advocate for myself and relive the trauma of these messages while knowing I’m getting more messages because I’m speaking out,” she said. “No matter the emojis I block or the filters I put in place I’ve learned that as someone is determined to be abusive and threatening they will get very creative.”
She said she “loves” social media, which she uses to communicate with friends, family and her community, but “in that same inbox there are people threatening to harm me.”
The announcement came months after the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized and updated to permit victims of cyber exploitation to sue their abusers in federal civil court.
Harris on Thursday called this progress but said there is more work to do.
“This affects all of us if it affects any of us,” Harris said. “And we therefore, all of us, have a responsibility to stand together to support those who have gone through this but to also recognize they shouldn’t have to be alone fighting on this issue.”
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