Michelle Ferrier serves as the associate dean for innovation at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication.
The TrollBusters team, led by Michelle Ferrier, prepares for its presentation at the Cracking the Code hackathon held in January in New York City.
Photo courtesy of: Louisa Reynolds
The TrollBusters team at the Cracking the Code hackathon includes (from left) Louisa Reynolds, Debbie Galant, Michelle Ferrier, Sneha Inguva and Berta Valle.
Photo courtesy of: Louisa Reynolds
Apr 9, 2015
By McKenzie Powell
“The idea is to really fight hate with love.”
That’s how Michelle Ferrier, associate dean for innovation at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication, describes an online tool she is developing to combat a growing problem for women news journalists and entrepreneurs in particular – cyberharassment.
A former newspaper columnist, Ferrier knows firsthand what it’s like to receive hate mail, having been the recipient of threatening letters aimed at her race and her gender. Ferrier has watched as the anonymous hate letters have evolved and worsened in the digital age – an age where social media outlets provide public, and in some cases anonymous, forums in which individuals launch misogynistic, racist and other hate-filled messages at those in the media.
Trolling is a hot topic in the media industry these days. Generally a reference to online user behavior meant to intentionally anger or frustrate someone in order to provoke a response, trolling has evolved into verbal lashings tantamount to cyberbullying that is increasingly aimed at female journalists. In fact, it was the recent Gamergate controversy that prompted Ferrier to take action against the organized campaign of misogynistic online harassment that included threats of rape and death leveraged against women who wrote about sexism in the video game industry.
“It’s really chilling to have this kind of attack happen to you as a woman,” Ferrier said, drawing upon her own experiences with harassment as well as those experienced by the women targeted in Gamergate.
Those experiences motivated Ferrier to develop a product designed to prevent trolling while at the same time supporting women who are subjected to such online hate – all as a means of protecting the voices of women in the field of communication.
The idea for TrollBusters was crafted by Ferrier and further developed by Ferrier and a team of female media entrepreneurs at the Cracking the Code hackathon, hosted in January by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and the Ford Foundation.
Using proprietary technology for network analysis developed by Ohio University students who won last year’s Scripps Innovation Challenge, TrollBusters locates and identifies those engaging in cyberharassment. At the same time, this digital tool facilitates real-time counterattacks through a network of online community support.
According to Ferrier, those under attack by trolls often feel as if there is no escape from the hate and no one to support them. In developing TrollBusters, Ferrier set out to not only combat online bullies but also to create an S.O.S. team that will send positive messages of support as well as endorsements to those under attack as a means of counteracting the negative messages and protecting the victim’s reputation.
“We can tell those under attack how important it is for them to maintain their voice online while also showing them how to continue to be safe in expressing their opinions,” Ferrier explained.
Ferrier is developing TrollBusters with the professional help and support of two other women: Louisa Reynolds, a freelance journalist based in Central America; and Shireen Mitchell, director of web and interactive media at the Women’s Media Center.
“As soon as I heard Michelle Ferrier’s pitch for TrollBusters, I felt inspired by her story and I decided to work with her as I believe that cyberharassment has become one of the worst problems facing women in the news today,” said Reynolds, who is also an IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Journalism Fellow. “TrollBusters is not just an app; it aims to be a campaign and a platform to talk about freedom of expression, misogynistic trolling and cyberharassment.”
The TrollBusters team’s efforts have already been well-received in the industry. At the Cracking the Code hackathon, the team took top honors and walked away with $3,000 from Google to fully develop the TrollBusters app. According to Ferrier, the money will allow the team to launch a crowdfunding platform, to apply for grants and to develop a prototype for the technology.
“We also hope that by creating this app and raising awareness about it through the media, we can spark a wider discussion about the online harassment suffered by women in the media and women in general,” Reynolds said.
The team’s primary social media focus will be Twitter as it is a platform that does not require an authentic identity.
“Cyberbullying and cyberharassment are growing as the worldwide culture embraces digitally mediated communication. Because of that, there is a definite need for tools that individuals can use to protect themselves from inappropriate behavior,” said Scott Titsworth, dean of OHIO’s Scripps College of Communication.
“TrollBusters is unique in that it not only attempts to protect women journalists from trolling, but actually attempts to mobilize others in support of those who are attacked,” Titsworth continued. “This will be a great tool for those who face online threatening behavior, and a great example of how this new communication medium continually adapts and changes to rapidly changing opportunities and challenges.”
While TrollBusters largely emphasizes the protection and awareness of violence against women and the importance of women’s voices, Ferrier noted that the technology could ultimately serve anyone.
“We want to help women initially, but hopefully we can open it up in the near future to help anyone who is underserved and without a voice,” Ferrier said.
For more information about TrollBusters, visit www.troll-busters.com and follow @yoursosteam on Twitter.
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