WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris and administration officials on Thursday launched a task force dedicated to addressing online harassment and abuse, which they say can be a precursor to violence in real life.
“The internet is an essential part of life in the 21st century,” Harris said, but for many — especially women, people of color, and people who aren’t heterosexual — “the internet is a place of fear.”
The working group will address several issues, including the prevention of online abuse and services to targeted individuals. It is expected to release recommendations for the federal government and private companies in 180 days.
“We all have a responsibility to come together to support those who have been through this, but also to recognize that they shouldn’t have to fight this issue alone,” Harris said.
While the issue is not new, it has taken on new urgency following mass shootings in Texas and New York that were preceded by misogynistic and racist comments on social media and message boards.
Harris was introduced by Sloane Stephens, a black professional tennis player who faced a torrent of racist abuse.
“I am a daughter, a sister, a wife. And I’m more than an athlete, more than a tag,” Stephens said. “Yet all of this is ignored when people online seek to harass and harm me. It doesn’t matter if I win or lose, someone online is crazy, and they’ll let it be known.
After games, Stephens said, she worries about picking up her phone because “I know what’s in store for me when I unlock it.”
The National Security Council is working with the White House Gender Policy Council on the initiative, and Attorney General Merrick Garland and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy participated in Thursday’s announcement.
Garland said the Justice Department has dedicated additional resources to issues such as online harassment.
“We pledge to relentlessly investigate these crimes, bring those who commit them to justice and provide support to survivors,” he said.
Murthy said people often turn to the internet when alone or looking to make connections, “but too often what they find instead is harassment and abuse.”
“It can no longer be acceptable for a technology company to release a product and shirk responsibility for its impact on users and communities,” he said. “It can no longer be acceptable that social media platforms are a breeding ground for hate.”
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