Julie Lalonde knows all too well what it’s like to be harassed on social media.
Lalonde is an Ottawa-based women’s rights activist intimately familiar with the deluge of abuse a single tweet can trigger. She’s endured everything from whack-a-mole trolls impersonating her online to enduring a coordinated campaign of abuse against women who dared to comment on Canada’s first Twitter harassment criminal case.
The system shifts the burden of fighting abuse to someone who isn’t the victim.
Twitter abuse targets often struggle to get the company’s attention. And this week the social network is trying to do more. But Lalonde has found another source of support. HeartMob is a service designed to connect targets of harassment with thousands of well-intentioned users ready to leap into action as a force to stand up to Twitter eggs. The site lets anyone sign up to send positive messages to people being trolled; volunteers can also help document and report abuse so that victims don’t have to keep telling their painful stories.
People want to help, but they don’t know what to do, says Lalonde. “HeartMob creates a space that validates victims’ experience, and it gives people practical tools.”
It’s also not the only support network that exists to serve the 40 percent of internet users who say they’ve experienced online harassment. There’s Crash Override, an abuse hotline created by game developer Zoe Quinn, the first target of the infamous Gamergate movement; TrollBusters, which like HeartMob lets users send supportive messages and monitor attacks; and the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, a comprehensive resource for women dealing with online abuse. These exist because online harassment still does, and companies are still not doing enough to police trolls on their platforms.
A Grassroots Effort
Grassroots efforts will only become more important if the reported post-election uptick in attacks against minority groups continues, says Emily May, co-founder of the anti-street harassment group Hollaback, which launched HeartMob in January.
“We’re built for this. We’re ready for this moment,” May says.
Since launching eleven months ago, May says more than 3,000 volunteers have worked to support 631 people on HeartMob. Typically, about 50 to 100 people rally around the target of abuse. Though the platform is still in beta, May says anyone can sign up. You gain access when you create an account and add your social profiles or get recommended by another “heartmobber.” The HeartMob team verifies and approves your application, which can take a day or two.
Once you’re a member, you can browse cases and offer support to others, or you can get help by filing an incident report with screenshots or links to the abusive behavior. When you “level up,” you can also pitch in by documenting and reporting abuse others are receiving. Moderators monitor all activity on the platform and may reach out to social networks directly to alert them to particular incidents.
Lalonde, who is involved in the Ottawa Hollaback chapter, says HeartMob has helped her and encourages others to use it. “Supportive messages from people who you might not even know, who have taken time out of their day to send you support and break up the onslaught of hateful mail, have been very helpful,” she says. The system also shifts the burden of monitoring the abuse to someone who isn’t the victim, she says. In the process, this support pushes back against the still-common idea that because online harassment is in many ways intangible, it’s not legitimate.
Twitter itself has just added new tools to the anti-harassment arsenal by allowing users to mute keywords, phrases, user names, hashtags, and threads in their mentions. Like HeartMob, the company is now allowing bystanders to report harassment and hate speech.
But neither HeartMob’s nor Twitter’s solutions are complete, says Brianna Wu, a video game developer also targeted by Gamergate. Filtering and muting doesn’t mean the end of abuse—just that it’s hidden. And that in itself could be a problem if the targets don’t see that harassers are exposing their personal information.
But she says that doesn’t mean grassroots efforts like HeartMob don’t have value, especially as a means of providing emotional support. “I don’t think there’s one answer—there’s a multitude of answers,” Wu says. “But it’s clear that the system as it is is clearly failing.” Wu says solutions have to come from all sides—companies, grassroots advocates, and lawmakers. (She’s considering running for public office herself in hopes of making a bigger impact on this issue.)
“I applaud anyone that’s going to get up and throw their heart into the ring to make this better,” Wu says. “Something’s gotta change.”
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