Sick of online harassment? HeartMob it.

technology / Article

Video: HeartMob completed a successful Kickstarter fundraising round in May.

After over 10 years of running Hollaback!, I’ve been harassed and attacked online repeatedly. For those of you who have never been harassed online, here’s a little peek into what the Internet looks like for me:

The rest range from being so graphic that Knight Foundation’s editorial director won’t allow them on this site to just being too offensive and disgusting to repeat. We get about 2,500 comments like this a year. That’s more than 200 a month, if you’re counting.

On the good days, I can brush it off as the “price I pay” for being a woman online. I act tough, I make funny jokes about it, and I pretend that it doesn’t hurt. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that more often than not these comments sit with me like lead weights. With every status update or tweet that I post, I evaluate whether or not what I have to say is important enough to warrant potential backlash. More often than I’d like to admit, I remain silent.  

And I’m not the only one. According to a Pew Research Center survey from late last year, 40 percent of people have been harassed online and 73 percent of people witnessed someone else being harassed online. With a problem this big, the old adage “don’t feed the trolls” is akin to telling people on the receiving end of online harassment to adapt to this problem, when what they really need to do is change it.

When it comes to addressing violence — in almost any form — one of the best practices is bystander intervention, or what some people term “upstander” intervention. It’s the idea that when you see violence, or even the threat of violence, there are things that you can do to intervene and help out. Typically the list includes actions creating a distraction, contacting authorities, asking the person if they are OK, or of course, intervening directly.

In situations like street harassment, someone else is around maybe 50 percent of the time. But when it comes to online harassment, people are around 100 percent of the time. And if the right person isn’t around right when the harassment strikes, they can fly back in time and space through the magic of the Internet to help out.

So, if you saw someone being harassed online, would you help them? I bet most of you would, if you knew how. There is huge untapped opportunity here: the opportunity for everyday citizens to stand up for each other and wrestle the Internet back from the hands of online harassment. That’s what HeartMob is all about.

Here’s a quick synopsis of how HeartMob works: For victims, HeartMob allows them to easily report their harassment and maintain complete control over their story. Once reported, victims will have the option of keeping the report private and cataloging it in case it escalates (a best practice in handling online harassment), or they can make the report public. If they make it public, they will be able to choose from a menu of options on how they want bystanders to support them, take action or intervene. They will also receive extensive resources, including safety planning, materials on how to differentiate an empty threat from a real threat, and referrals to other organizations that can provide counseling and legal services.

We first started working on HeartMob in 2013, and with initial support from the Knight Prototype Fund, we created a prototype of the project and held the first ever Online Harassment Summit to gather feedback on the design. In May of this year, we publicly announced the idea through a Kickstarter campaign, where we raised 209 percent of the goal, $20,989 from 572 donors. When the New York Times editorial board endorsed HeartMob, we couldn’t believe it. And the support kept rolling in. HeartMob was named “Killer Startup of the Day,” and we've had articles in Fast Company, The Washington Post, Cosmo, HuffPost, Refinery29 and Mic. We’re piloting HeartMob this summer and planning to launch in the fall.

We’ve seen an incredible response to HeartMob, proving further what we suspected all along: People are willing to step up and tackle online harassment. They just needed help figuring out how.

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