Reports of harmful online content increase almost 300% in a year

Report Harmful Content’s 2021 state of the nation report shows that public understanding of identifying and relating incidents to official bodies have improved, but also highlights a worrying surge in reported cases

Report Harmful Content (RHC), a national and impartial online content dispute resolution service, has published its 2021 state of the nation report, Through These Walls, revealing a worrying 292% rise in reported harmful content incidents compared with the same period in 2019-20.

RMC’s remit surrounds harmful but legal online content – an area that remains a persistent and problematic legal grey area that needs to be addressed at policy level.

The report delves into harmful content reporting over the last 12 months, not only regarding harmful content proliferation during the pandemic, but also public attitudes towards identifying and raising incidents with an official dispute resolution. It provides insight into the types of harmful content that has been flagged, as well as a breakdown and analysis of the most common forms.

Of the 644 unique reports logged during 2020-21, almost a third involved bullying and harassment, whilst a quarter highlighted pornography.

Impersonation, violent content and intimate image abuse were also repeat offenders, while associated complaints of ‘hate speech’ rose by 225%. Those reporting this type of content where overwhelmingly either bystanders or observers (75%), as opposed to the victim themselves.

This rise in cases can, in part at least, be attributed to growing awareness around ‘hate speech’ issues in the aftermath of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Furthermore, RHC also launched a dedicated ‘Negate the Hate’ resource across UK universities in Autumn 2020, which drove a sharp increase of 34% in active ‘hate speech reporting within the student community. This highlights a growing sensitivity around social issues, particularly among young people.

The report also unearthed an emerging trend of young males actively searching for harmful content, then reporting it. It found that men are twice as likely to be searching for harmful pornographic content than women (66% of men vs 34% of women) – especially in the 19-30 year age bracket.

One thing stimulating this could be that young men are reporting such content to alleviate the guilt they feel about accessing it to begin with. This points to a broader issue surrounding men’s relationship with porn; RHC feels more research must be done in this area to understand whether guilt is driving young men to report pornography to manage their feelings.

On a more positive note, of the reports logged by RHC, 90% of the content escalated to industry was successfully actioned and removed, indicating the right tools do exist to report and resolve these traumatic events and experiences.

Kathryn Tremlett, manager of RHC, commented: “Although the report indicates the web is still awash with harmful and inappropriate content, it is a positive sign public awareness around this important issue is increasing. Although these findings indicate an urgent need to better regulate online content and protect internet users, they also show that bodies like RHC are efficacious in giving redress for victims by getting these disputes raised and resolved.

“It will surprise no one that this is just the tip of a much larger iceberg,” she added, “which needs more exposure. It’s our ongoing aim to offer a channel for the public to raise their concerns directly with industry, where legal routes don’t currently exist or reporting channels on platforms aren’t proving effective. COVID-19, and more time spent online, has thrown this into the spotlight, prompting the need for a wider discussion. As such, the UK government’s recent Online Safety Bill represents a welcome opportunity to move the conversation on.”

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