TrollBusters app takes on those seeking to silence women writers

Eight years ago Michelle Ferrier was forced to quit her job as a newspaper columnist and move to a different state after being targeted by racist hate mail. But Ferrier has managed to turn a traumatic experience into an empowering one by inspiring a team of tech-savvy media professionals and entrepreneurs to create TrollBusters, a digital tool to combat online harassment, known as “trolling,” of women.

TrollBusters won $3,000 in Google prize money at the Cracking the Code hackathon hosted by the Ford Foundation and the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) in New York on January 30.

“The goal was to come up with some sort of technological solution for women digital entrepreneurs who are so grossly under-represented in this space. The judges were really taken with TrollBusters, in particular, because it is obviously applicable beyond the entrepreneurship community and [it is] something that we really feel is one of the most insidious problems for women in the digital space,” said Elisa Lees Muñoz, IWMF’s executive director, during an interview with Knight-Mozilla OpenNews.

The trolling of online journalists is increasingly being recognized by news organizations as a problem that inhibits freedom of expression on the Web and can discourage journalists from writing about issues that may make them targets of abuse, such as race or sexual violence.

Ferrier, associate dean for innovation at the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University, was the first female African-American columnist at the Florida-based Daytona Beach News-Journal. Her articles were neither controversial nor inflammatory. She wrote mostly about family life, such as taking her daughter to visit a former plantation, and what that meant to her as an African-American mother, Ferrier told me.

After she received a stream of hate mail between 2005 and 2007, which included racist slurs and references to lynching, the Committee to Protect Journalists urged the Department of Justice to investigate and take steps to guarantee her safety. However, the police told Ferrier a criminal investigation could not be launched unless the author of the hate letters made explicit threats against her and her family.

After two years of living in fear, Ferrier stopped writing her column, quit her job at the newspaper, and was forced to relocate to another state. The newspaper’s only black, female voice was silenced, which illustrates the impact of harassment on freedom of expression. “I think they’re targeting women and particularly women of color,” said Ferrier.

In recent years, the type of vicious letter writer that forced Ferrier from her job has morphed into an online troll that hides behind the anonymity of a computer screen. One of the most widely publicized examples of this behavior was the case known as Gamergate, in which feminist critics who wrote about sexism in the gaming industry were flooded with rape and death threats on social media.

Only three days after Ferrier and her team won the Cracking the Code hackathon, Seattle-based writer Lindy West published an article in The Guardian about how she had been tormented by trolls who responded to her articles on sexual violence with messages stating that she was “too fat to rape.” One troll even went as far as creating a fake Twitter account purporting to be her late father, she told the paper.

TrollBusters aims to tackle online harassment by providing a platform where journalists and commentators can type in the URL of an offensive message and locate the troll.

Documenting abuse to publicly shame trolls and raise awareness has already been done on an individual level by a number of women in the media who were subjected to online abuse. Think Progress reporter Alyssa Rosenberg began tweeting the names and institutional affiliations of her harassers under the #ThreatoftheDay hashtag. “Threaten me,” Rosenberg wrote in a blog post, “and I will cheerfully do my part to make sure that when employers, potential dates, and your family Google you, they will find you expressing your desire to see a celebrity assault a blogger.”

TrollBusters would take this action a step further by offering a tool that is available to the entire online community. In the most extreme cases, involving death and rape threats, the information could be passed to the police.

Using network analysis technology developed by Ferrier’s students at Ohio University, TrollBusters will identify “troll nests” or communities who focus on a particular issue. The victim will receive support from an online community that will fight against the barrage of abuse with positive messages such as “you go girl” or “end hate speech.” Ferrier said: “Attacks are very personal and emotional so the idea is to swarm people with love. Being able to support people at that moment is something very powerful.”

As well as offering support, the project aims to campaign to raise awareness of the impact of online harassment. According to research conducted by the Pew Center in 2014, four in ten Internet users have experienced online harassment, which illustrates the scale of the problem.

Little research has been done on the impact of online harassment on newsrooms but experiences shared by media professionals show the extent to which trolling limits their online presence, especially on social media. In October last year, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry spoke out about Twitter harassment and said trolling had “silenced” her digital voice.

“I am at the point where I don’t retweet anything that I really like because I fear that I would send all of my haters, all of the harassment that comes to me, over to some person who doesn’t deserve it,” said Harris-Perry. “It’s literally quieting whatever little digital voice I would have otherwise had.”

The good news is that journalists have been supportive of colleagues who suffer online harassment. Jeff Sonderman, a digital media fellow at the Poynter Institute, published an in-depth piece about the online harassment suffered by female colleagues in 2011. “We all–men and women–share struggles against name calling, personal attacks and general trollishness in any online forum. But women too often face an additional layer of spite, insult, and objectification,” he wrote.

The creators of TrollBusters hope this tool will be used to police online harassment in a more consistent and systematic form. Although it will be launched as an English-language device, its creators plan to make it available in other languages.

With online harassment a problem in nearly every country where Internet use is widespread, TrollBusters has already attracted attention from media outlets outside the U.S., including online publication Diario Digital in Guatemala.

Luis Assardo, whom I worked with a few years ago at El Periódico, told me that when he was the paper’s webmaster he had to sift through comments left on the website, many of which included death threats against reporters. This experience, he said, made him aware of the importance of tackling online trolling.

His article highlighted examples of misogynist trolling in the Spanish-speaking media, including the case of Guatemalan columnist Marcela Gereda, who received death threats on an online forum over her column criticizing what she described as sexist marketing by the Hooters restaurant chain.

CPJ also highlighted the case of Selin Girit, a reporter for the BBC’s Turkish service, who was subjected to a barrage of tweets in 2013 from Ankara’s mayor, Melih Gokcek, and his supporters who branded the journalist “a traitor” and “a spy.”

As Safer Internet Day is marked on February 10, with the slogan “Let’s create a better Internet together,” the TrollBusters team is working towards creating an Internet where women can exercise their right to freedom of expression without fear of backlash or being forced, like Ferrier was, to give up reporting over safety fears.

The prototype of TrollBusters was developed by Michelle Ferrier; Sneha Inguva, co-founder of the Perooz browser extension that enables experts to objectively refute false claims in news reports in real time; Debbie Galant, director of NJ News Commons, an effort to support and unite news organizations in New Jersey; Berta Valle, general manager of Vos TV in Nicaragua; and Louisa Reynolds, a freelance journalist based in Central America.