Today, President Biden will sign a Presidential Memorandum establishing the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse, responding to the need for government leadership to address online harms, which disproportionately affect women, girls, people of color, and LGBTQI+ individuals. Vice President Harris will launch the Task Force by hosting a survivor and expert roundtable this afternoon. The tragic events in Buffalo and Uvalde have underscored a fact known all too well by many Americans: the internet can fuel hate, misogyny, and abuse with spillover effects that threaten our communities and safety offline.
President Biden has long championed efforts to prevent and address gender-based violence, including writing and passing the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) nearly three decades ago as a U.S. Senator and signing its reauthorization into law earlier this year. The reauthorized VAWA includes historic new protections against online harassment and abuse. Vice President Harris, who is hosting today’s Task Force, has long been a champion of addressing online harassment and abuse throughout her career, including as United States Senator and California’s Attorney General.
The Task Force will produce recommendations for the Federal government, state governments, technology platforms, schools, and other public and private entities to prevent and address technology-facilitated gender-based violence, including a focus on the nexus between online misogyny and radicalization to violence. Recommendations will focus particularly on: increasing support for survivors of online harassment and abuse; expanding research to better understand the impact and scope of the problem; enhancing prevention, including prevention focused on youth; and strengthening accountability for offenders and platforms. The Task Force will be co-chaired by the Gender Policy Council and the National Security Council, and will include the Attorney General, the Secretary of Health and Human Services and other heads of Federal agencies.
Strengthening the Federal Response to Online Harms: White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse
The Task Force is an interagency effort to address online harassment and abuse, specifically focused on technology-facilitated gender-based violence. In consultation with survivors, advocates, educators, experts from diverse fields, and the private sector, the Task Force will develop specific recommendations to improve prevention, response, and protection efforts through programs and policies in the United States and globally by:
- Improving coordination among executive departments, agencies, and offices to maximize the Federal Government’s effectiveness in preventing and addressing technology-facilitated gender-based violence in the United States and globally, including by developing policy solutions to enhance accountability for those who perpetrate online harms;
- Enhancing and expanding data collection and research across the Federal Government to measure the costs, prevalence, exposure to, and impact of technology-facilitated gender-based violence, including by studying the mental health effects of harassment and abuse perpetrated through social media, particularly affecting adolescents;
- Increasing access to survivor-centered services, information, and support for victims, and increasing training and technical assistance for Federal, State, Tribal, local, and territorial governments, as well as for global organizations and entities in the fields of criminal justice, health and mental health services, education, and victim services;
- Developing programs and policies to address the disproportionate impact of online harassment, abuse, and disinformation campaigns targeting women and LGBTQI+ individuals who are public and political figures, government and civic leaders, activists, and journalists in the United States and globally;
- Examining existing Federal laws, regulations, and policies to evaluate the adequacy of the current legal framework to address technology-facilitated gender-based violence and provide recommendations for strengthening it; and
- Identifying additional opportunities to improve efforts to prevent and address technology-facilitated gender-based violence in United States foreign policy and foreign assistance, including through the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse.
When President Biden first wrote and championed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in the early 1990s, the internet was still in its infancy. Today, the internet has transformed our ability to connect, communicate, and access services and support. At the same time, social media and other forms of technology are increasingly misused as tools of abuse, harassment, and exploitation.
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. Individuals may also be disproportionately targeted because of their race, gender and gender identity, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, or at the intersection of various identities. Online harassment and abuse take many forms, including the non-consensual distribution of intimate digital images; cyberstalking; sextortion; doxing; malicious deep fakes; gendered disinformation; rape and death threats; the distribution of child sexual abuse materials; online recruitment and exploitation of victims of sex trafficking, including youth; and various other forms of technology-facilitated intimate partner abuse.
Technology-facilitated gender-based violence can have serious consequences, ranging from psychological distress and negative health impacts, including self-harm and suicide, to self-censorship and disruptions to education and economic loss. It can also lead to physical and sexual violence, including homicide. In the United States and around the world, women and LGBTQI+ political leaders, public figures, activists, and journalists face virulent and often sexualized online harassment and abuse, which can undermine human rights and full participation in democracy, governance, and civic life.
Recent mass shootings have also underscored the connections between online harassment, hate, misogyny, and extremist acts. For example, the Uvalde shooter had a history of threatening girls online, yet these violent, sexualized harms and threats were dismissed and ignored when reported. In their annual report on Mass Attacks in Public Spaces, the U.S. Secret Service notes that special focus should be given to assessing threats and preventing violence related to “men who use digital platforms to voice misogynistic views and general animosity toward women.”
The Biden-Harris Administration Efforts to Combat Online Harassment and Abuse
President Biden and Vice President Harris have long been committed to standing with survivors of gender-based violence wherever it occurs—including online. Through this Task Force, they will lead a strategic vision for countering online forms of violence, harassment and abuse. Alongside the launch of the Task Force, the Biden-Harris Administration is undertaking several key actions, including:
- Advancing Technology to Assist Victims of Crime Program. The Department of Justice (DOJ) Office for Victims of Crime will award $3 million to victim services organizations through the Advancing the Use of Technology to Assist Victims of Crime program. This program will support initiatives that use technology to increase access to services and information about victims’ rights, enhance service providers’ understanding of technology-facilitated gender-based violence, and strengthen the responsiveness of victim service organizations supporting survivors of technology-facilitated gender-based violence.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline Survivor Survey. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, through funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Family Violence Prevention and Services Program, will provide a preliminary report on its survivor survey research project, which was undertaken this spring and for the first-time asked survivors about their experiences of online harassment and abuse. The Hotline heard from approximately 1,000 survivors who completed the survey. Every survivor reported they had experienced at least one form of online harassment or abuse, including 45% who said they experienced cyberstalking, 27% reported being threatened with the posting of intimate images without permission; 17% reported the posting of intimate pictures without permission; and 12% reported sextortion. These insights will help inform the work of the Task Force.
- Research from the National Threat Assessment Center. The U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), under the Department of Homeland Security, is adding to its research on the nexus between online misogyny and domestic terrorism by preparing a report examining the role of domestic violence as a motive and precursor to mass violence, including an analysis of the prior communications and online presence of the attackers. This report will build on its most recent report, Hot Yoga Tallahassee: A Case Study of Misogynistic Extremism, which analyzes the background of a 2018 attacker who killed two women and injured four more at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, FL, and highlights the specific threat posed by misogynistic extremism.
- Research on Access to Services for Survivors of Cyberstalking. The Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women has funded the National Opinion Research Center to collect nationally representative data on cyberstalking in the United States to assess its scope and nature, as well as determine survivors’ access to services and any unmet needs. Research is underway, and report findings will be published later this year.
- Expanded Focus on Technological Abuse in the Reauthorized Violence Against Women Act. The Department of Justice (DOJ) will implement new statutory provisions in the recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 2022, which includes for the first time a definition of “technological abuse,” recognizing the importance of addressing this form of abuse at the intersection with domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence. Under VAWA 2022, the Attorney General will develop a national strategy to prevent and address cybercrimes against individuals, including cyberstalking and the non-consensual distribution of intimate images of adults, and directs the FBI to improve data collection regarding these crimes. DOJ will also help raise awareness among victim advocates of the new VAWA provision that establishes a federal civil cause of action for an individual who has an intimate visual depiction of themselves disclosed without their consent, with damages up to $150,000 and attorney’s fees.
- New Report on the Online Harassment of Women Political Figures. In partnership with the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, Texas A&M University’s Program on Women, Peace, and Security are releasing a report on “Technological Threats: How Online Harassment of Female Political Figures Undermines Democracy.” The report highlights research and policy on the intersection between online harassment, technology, women’s political participation, and democracy.
- Expansion of the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse. To address online harassment and abuse globally, the State Department will expand the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse, announced at the Summit for Democracy in December and officially launched in March at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The Global Partnership brings together countries, international organizations, civil society, and the private sector to better prioritize, understand, prevent, and address the growing scourge of technology-facilitated gender-based violence around the world. Since its launch, the Global Partnership has continued to grow its member countries, and recently welcomed the governments of Canada, Chile, and New Zealand, who joined the United States, along with Australia, Denmark, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.