March 28, 2016

Michelle Ferrier’s experience with harassment didn’t start online, but that’s where she’s fighting back.

Years ago, as the first African-American columnist at the Daytona Beach (Florida) News-Journal, Ferrier started getting hate mail.

“One particular letter writer wrote to me over the period of three years with letters threatening death, a race war and hanging to Black people,” she said. “I ended up leaving my job at the newspaper and going back into higher education.”

Ferrier, now an associate dean at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication, started TrollBusters, a website dedicated to drowning out the voices of harassers attacking women who write on the Web.

As part of Poynter’s ongoing series on social justice journalism leading up to the centennial edition of the Pulitzer Prizes, we spoke with Ferrier via email about how TrollBusters works, how harassment online is different than harassment offline and how universities and news organizations are failing women.

Please tell us more about TrollBusters, how it got started and what it does.

TrollBusters is a just-in-time rescue service for women writers and journalists. We use positive messaging and education to create a hedge of protection around targets in online spaces like Twitter. We help targets persist online in the face of troll attacks and provide emotional, technological and other supports to help targets rebuild their digital identity and reputation.

TrollBusters was born at the International Women’s Media Foundation hackathon on women news entrepreneurs on Jan. 30, 2015. We’ve developed our prototype to test whether positive messaging helps women persist online. Our goal is to test this method with the most egregious cases and then expand the platform to serve others.

We have also taken on cases that expand the types of people we serve such as those who are the subjects of a viral story that damages their reputation. How can they become gainfully employed with SEO results that paint them in a bad light? We’ve coached these targets about how to deal with their harassers and clean up their online reputation. We’ve also dealt with men who are also targets of this harassment. We want to explore all the different ways in which harassment occurs so that we can understand how to grow our platform to serve others.

When you look at your experiences on and offline, how do they compare?

Hate mail through the postal system is very different from the online activity we see on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. The speed of transmission of social media and how quickly content can go viral are key dynamics that differ between online and off. Plus, we see more mob activity — like Gamergate — where groups of individuals are piling on to a target. It creates a “feeding frenzy” that is both vicious in its messages and overwhelming in scale.

How should we be thinking about harassment online?

Online behavior mimics the offline behaviors we have seen against women and marginalized groups such as people of color and those with different sexual orientations. Culturally, citizens need to understand that they are in a different environment online where hours can make the difference in maintaining your reputation and identity online. They also need to understand how exposed they are in online spaces and how this activity manifests and migrates to offline activities such as swatting and stalking.

Online harassment is often dismissed by law enforcement and frequently ignored by the platforms that enable the abuse. Do you see any solutions that could make the Internet a safer place for women?

TrollBusters has just signed onto legislation by Massachusetts Rep. Kathleen Clark to educate law enforcement about how to investigate and respond to cybercrimes. This is a critical gap in support for our targets at this time. Targets often are revictimized by local law enforcement who don’t understand the online dynamics and often will just tell women to get off the Internet. That’s just not realistic or possible for the people TrollBusters serves. I think creative solutions like TrollBusters that address the gaps in services for targets, rather than looks at how to block the behavior, need to continue to be developed.

What responsibility do newsrooms and schools bear here? Are they preparing women for what they’ll face and offering any support or ways to handle it?

I think journalism programs need to do a much better job of instructing students on the hazards of journalism in general and specifically about how to operate safely as a journalist online. Media organizations are woefully unprepared for this type of activity and also need training in providing appropriate support. They need help thinking through the cost-benefit analysis for individual journalists using social media to promote their brand.

What advice do you offer women in journalism about their online work and lives?

I would encourage women to learn more about the dark Web and how they can conduct their work safely online and off. I would educate these women about their digital identity and how to create and maintain it. I’ve often told students to begin creating their professional identity while in school. But I’m rethinking whether women should use their real names or pseudonyms that protect their gender and identity online.

Editor’s note: This Q-and-A has been edited for clarity.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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