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TrollBusters combat online harassment of women, with love!

August 19, 2016
topic:Women's rights
tags:#cyberbullying, #FBI, #Gamergate, #trollbuster
located:United Kingdom
by:Federica Tedeschi
The World Wide Web is for everyone, said its inventor Tim Berners Lee during the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. This almost total freedom of use comes at a price, though.

One of the worst consequences is currently cyberbullying, which, according to American clinical psychologist Joe Taravella, is on the rise among teens and adults. Most of it is happening on social media.

Using technology gadgets to send, text, post images or comments intended to hurt and embarrass another person can have long-term or even permanent consequences.

A specific answer to this problem is TrollBusters, the new digital tool to preserve the career of strong women voices online and allow them to be even more successful by addressing those trolls that want to silence their voices.

The project became a reality in January 2015, shortly after Gamergate had been at its highest level of activity.

“I had noticed lots of comments about Gamergate on my Facebook feed. Female writers in the game industry had been attacked by trolls because of misogynist abuse at women in the game world, so I decided to propose a solution to this problem. I actually developed the idea for the solution, TrollBusters, based on a combination of activities I was doing at the time”, said Michelle Ferrier, founder of TrollBusters and associate professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

Ms Ferrier knows what it feels like being under attack and physically threatened by trolls, to have to go to the police and to the FBI without really finding a solution, because the trolls are anonymous and hard to be detected:

“The story for TrollBusters goes back to ten years ago, when I was a columnist at a newspaper in Florida. Actually, I was the first African American columnist. At some point I started receiving regular hate mail; it was different from nowadays' online harassment but very similar in terms of its racist speech and even then I recognised that this was a concerted effort by hate groups to shut down diverse and strong voices in our media. The activity eventually escalated so much that I ended up leaving my job at the newspaper and went back into higher education as a professor and a teacher”.

So TrollBusters really grew out of that experience as its founder never forgot what happened to her and that it was continuing to trouble other women, especially in the online era.

This new tool has already won a top prize from Google at the International Women's Media Foundation hackathon in New York. What is so unique about it, then?

First of all its approach: fighting hate with positive messages.
“I had tried other projects in between to make it visible for people what was happening online but ended up abandoning those ideas because they focused on strategies to stop the behaviour of trolls and realised that was almost impossible to change something which is part of the human condition.

“So, I decided to concentrate on those affected instead and create a service and a technology to support women writers and journalists online in the face of the cyberattacks”, the founder explained.

The objective is to help women persisting online and staying strong even while they are going through the trolling behaviour.

Unfortunately, law enforcement societies do not always understand the scope of the problem or how much damage it can cause on multiple levels and normally suggest those who have been attacked to get off internet, not recognising that their work, reputation and livelihood are actually online and they need to be there as part of their profession.

TrollBusters’ website offers women a chance to report cyber harassment 24/7: therefore, if a female writer is experiencing attacks on Twitter and has reported it to them, volunteers or staff will typically respond to the incident within hours by tweeting positive messages or sending reputation repair services at the cyber victim.

Asking the founder about the biggest challenge faced so far, she explains how demanding it has been raising awareness among people, including journalists, as many of them are fairly naïve about these activities and might believe that trolls attack on a one-off basis. There is instead a spectrum of kind of trolls, including groups of people who organise hate mobs systematically, going after women online to create fear and to ruin their reputation.

Having one or more person attacking one’s profile,  by threating with rape or death, delivering inappropriate or violent images and causing defamation, has a strong emotional impact and the victim’s finances can be affected as well.

Moreover, actions can develop into a physical attack when all these activities migrate offline and people get access to the victim’s personal information, like where she lives.

“So we try to educate people about how to help themselves immediately to get the kind of practical and emotional support they need while still preserving all of their digital platforms”, Ms Ferrier underlined.

TrollBusters’ wordpress website provides users with specific suggestions and information, as well as a handy 16-step Digital Hygiene course to protect oneself online and therefore prevent trolling.  And signing up for the weekly digital hygiene newsletter for exclusive access is a good way to keep up to date.

“Probably because I am an educator, the first year has been about raising awareness on the issue.

Last summer we launched our pilot along with an education and awareness campaign designed to help our targets of writers and journalists to understand how to protect  themselves. We offered a series of 5-10 minute lessons on what people could do on real time to clean-up their profiles to eliminate their physical footprint, browse anonymously and understand how to be able to combat trolls by themselves, both on own platforms and on social media. It really was about giving them real tools in real time to be used immediately!”, the TrollBusters founder explained.

TrollBusters has started since the beginning to work on a large scale, by supporting big organisations.

“Our main success has been the public engagement with major media and journalism organisations, including the Society for Professional Journalists, the Online News Association and Newsquest Media Group in the USA, as well as News Impact in London. We have been able to get in front of these major journalism professional organisations and help them understand that trolling is not an issue to be taken on the side line; they have to develop pro-active strategies to be able to help their workforce do their job and stay online”  Ms Ferrier added.

This month TrollBusters are going to be rolling out new initiatives targeted to women journalists in an even more pro-active way. They are also currently working with international scholars and non-governmental organisations to design an international research around online harassment to look at what is happening in other countries: what kind of governmental and non-governmental agencies are involved in combating the problem and which technological platforms have been created. Their goal is to begin organising the international conversation and look at ways to work through cross-cultural agencies to find ways to solve this problems collectively.

Ms Ferrier, in fact, believes that it will take a concerted effort not only in the USA but internationally to have transnational corporations like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram really focused online and pay attention to the issue.

“I think there is no one solution to this problem but it is going to take some persistent effort on all our parts to change culture, change technology, change our behaviour about what is appropriate online and to challenge those norms to change them.

“I also believe that it will take some high profile cases for the trolls to be able to see the consequences of their behaviour, to have second thoughts about what they may be doing and to stop acting in that direction”, she stressed.

Photo: flickr, Steve Johnson

Article written by:
Federica Tedeschi
United Kingdom
WAM! is an independent North American nonprofit dedicated to building a robust, effective, inclusive movement for gender justice in media. (
WAM! is an independent North American nonprofit dedicated to building a robust, effective, inclusive movement for gender justice in media. (
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