Art by Noel Ransome

How This ‘Online Pest Control’ Is Combating Trolls

As an African-American woman journalist, Dr. Michelle Ferrier knew the world needed TrollBusters.

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Jun 22 2017, 6:04pm

Art by Noel Ransome

Hi, woman who is a journalist here. Many of us are subject to harassment at some point during our careers, often online, and it can make for a really trash situation since simply doing our jobs can turn us into targets.

It should be unsurprising for anyone who has used social media that women in general are more often the target of severe online abuse, such as doxxing. According to Pew Research Center, "25 percent of young women online have been sexually harassed online and 26 percent have experienced stalking."

I'm part of the statistics above. Throughout my career, I've repetitively experienced gender-based harassment in response to my work. These personal attacks online have followed the publication of many articles I've written, but especially when I have reported on sexual harassment and dared write about my experiences using Tinder. (Note: I'm white, and what people of colour go through on the internet is on a completely different level.) Because of all of this fuckery, I contacted TrollBusters. It's a group that "provides just-in-time rescue services" that support women journalists during instances of cyberharassment.

If you've become a target of online harassment, you can fill out a short, secure form on TrollBusters' site. The team's main focus is harassment on Twitter, but it's also tracking where its services might be needed elsewhere on the internet.

"There's a proactive and reactive component: When something is happening to you, you report it to us, and we engage in a campaign," Dr. Michelle Ferrier, founder of TrollBusters, told VICE. "We direct our support to the target. We are sending them digital hygiene [tips], we're sending them other materials to get to where those next steps are."

TrollBusters' digital hygiene course, which aids in ensuring private info like your address isn't leaked, for example, is majorly helpful. The instructional tips that are part of it could be of use not just to women journalists, but to others who've found themselves victims of cyberharassment. There are currently 16 tips in total, including: "Use an 'anonymous' cloak or virtual network to stay invisible online," "add privacy protection to your website domain hosting services," and "use full disk encryption on your computer and on your phone."

Reporting trolls also helps TrollBusters document and track instances of online harassment. "I joke that we are operating in the digital dark arts and trying to use some of those forensic tools," Ferrier said.

In addition to directing victims of cyberharassment to digital hygiene tips, TrollBusters sends a "series of positive messages" to the person being attacked. Ferrier said these include "anything from quotes to memes to just put in the target's feed to make the target laugh." But another reason for sending a wave of positivity is is to let other people know that TrollBusters is there to back the victim up. "We fire a warning shot into the stream to let the troll know that we are watching."

Ferrier, who is an associate professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, was a victim of harassment when she became the first female African-American columnist at Daytona Beach News-Journal in Florida. Between 2005 and 2007 while working there, she repetitively received hate mail in the form of letters that used racist slurs and referred to lynching.

"I started protecting myself, I started disguising myself, I learned how to shoot a gun. I worked with management to change my schedule… had security put on my home," she said. The harassment led to her quitting her job at the newspaper and relocating to another state. When a final letter she deemed as feeling distinctly different from the others came, Ferrier said "I told my boss, 'I can't do this anymore. I can't live like this anymore.'"

The Committee to Protect Journalists tried to get the Department of Justice to investigate the harassment Ferrier was receiving. After police said they couldn't investigate unless there were explicit threats against Ferrier or her family, she investigated the letters herself. What she found, she said, is that they were coming from a member of a white supremacist group intimidating writers of colour.

In 2015, Ferrier participated in a Ford Foundation and the International Women's Media Foundation hackathon, where TrollBusters was initially developed and won a prize. The creation of TrollBusters was prompted in part by the infamous harassment campaign Gamergate that occurred the year before, when women in or adjacent to the gaming industry (including feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian) experienced a wave of doxxing and rape and death threats.

"It's not just technological, it's cultural, law enforcement who are not savvy, judges who are not savvy," Ferrier said. "They minimize and separate… They think online activity is online activity, and offline activity is offline activity." But the reality, Ferrier said, is that online activity can turn into offline activity.

Ferrier said that a lot of the troubling online activity lives on Twitter, a primary location for "smart mob" harassment. While she said that the social media platform has looked at some technological solutions to address trolls, "they're still trying to wrestle with the free speech issue and not necessarily dealing with the content."

For victims of cyberharassment, Ferrier said that the effects can lead to women feeling they can't be online—which is a bit of a problem if you have to be for your job.

"It's difficult unless you're in it to know the impact of it psychologically… It can be very isolating to be under that kind of warfare."

If you are a woman journalist who is experiencing online harassment, report it to TrollBusters here and use this flowchart to help you figure out what to do next. To find out more about digital hygiene, check out tips here.

Follow Allison Tierney on Twitter.

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