Michelle Ferrier, associate dean for innovation of Scripps College of Communication, launches TrollBusters, a website which aims to combat cyber harassment against women.

Michelle Ferrier is watching for trolls.

On her website, TrollBusters, Ferrier creates what she calls a “hedge of protection” around women to let the trolls know that people are watching their behavior online. Ferrier, associate dean for innovation at the Scripps College of Communication, launched the updated website on Aug. 31.

Women experiencing online harassment can report an “SOS” to the site, to which the team will ask the victim how they want TrollBusters to engage — whether that be offering legal services or providing resources for psychological counseling. What sets TrollBusters apart, however, is its feature of sending a stream of positive messages to flood the hate comments.

Ferrier had been a columnist with the Daytona Beach News-Journal in Florida for two years when she started getting hate mail in 2005. Her writing wasn’t about anything controversial — she wrote about her family life and what it means to be a black mother. The mail came from a variety of sources, but many of the letters were all from the same anonymous person. Every few months, she would receive them at her house.

“Not only were they threatening a race war against black people, there were constant references to the n-word and killing n-people,” Ferrier said. “It got to the point in this last letter where you could tell he had totally devolved in his thinking and really blamed me and other black people for the issues that were happening in his personal life.”

Ferrier said she tried everything. She changed her work hours out of fear, wore different wigs in public to hide her identity and everywhere she went she carried a gun. She went to the local police, the CIA and the FBI. She bought cell phones for her children — who were six and eight years old at the time — because she wanted to know where they were at all times.

Because of the harassment and fear, she said she and her family moved from Florida to North Carolina, taking every cautionary step to make sure the harasser couldn’t track her.

North Carolina was a new slate, she said. Ferrier began teaching at Elon University, but when she wrote about diversity issues in the new media landscape on the side, people still flooded the comment section with hate speech.

While working at her new job, she said a young woman on campus became the victim of a racially-motivated attack. This sparked a conversation about race at Elon, and it was then that Ferrier decided she should share her own experience with racism to her class, including showing them the letters she received. She said she wanted to help them understand the impact of this kind of hate on people’s lives.

“A lot of them left the classroom in tears, just not understanding how that kind of hate … could still exist,” Ferrier said, adding that many came to the next class period with cards and letters. “The love letters I got from the students helped me emotionally deal with what had been a very traumatic several years of my life. It put some closure to it.”

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But she wasn’t done yet. In January, she went to the International Women’s Media Foundation hackathon in New York. That’s when she remembered the outpour of love from her students.

“I thought, why address the trolls directly?” Ferrier said. “Why not look at a way for women (experiencing online harassment) to be able to support themselves — to let them know somebody’s there, to offer them psychological, technological and legal support in the moment when they need it?”

Ferrier presented her idea for TrollBusters at the hackathon and received a $3,000 top prize from Google. In April, the Knight Prototype Fund awarded her a $35,000 grant, which she used to develop the prototype.

In her online summer class, Social Media Management, Ferrier and her 15 students worked on creating a campaign against harassment. Karen Riggs, professor in the School of Media Arts and Studies who co-taught the online class with Ferrier, said even though the class was online, the hands-on learning was beneficial to the students.

“(Women) usually try to ignore the trolls … or they throw up their hands and say, ‘Well, I can’t deal with this anymore’ and they get offline, and the trolls win,” Ferrier said. “So if (the trolls) are talking about rape and killing people, we want to dilute that with positive messages — anything from positive quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., courageous quotes, inspiration quotes, funny things … to drown out the voice of the troll.”

Bobby Walker, a junior studying women's, gender and sexuality studies, said while she understands the importance of having support when giving an unpopular opinion, she is more committed to radical systemic changes in society as opposed to momentary solutions. Walker said she herself knows what it's like being harassed online as a woman of color.

“It would be a lot less scary to exist on the Internet if I knew that these people didn't have any sort of institutional power over me. I think that is the really scary part,” Walker said. “If we have that, then it doesn't matter that a man tells me mean, abusive things online because I would know that he has no institutional privilege and power over me and could not get away with any realistic threats.”

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Program Coordinator for the Women’s Center Sarah Jenkins said a platform such as this is an important way to deal with issues short-term, especially for women and women of color.

“Technology and the Internet has been a boys’ club from its inception,” Jenkins said. “It’s still very hard for women and people of color to feel accepted in a lot of tech-related areas. It’s something that is controlled by white, middle-class men essentially, and our culture has yet to make adequate space for people who feel other ways.”

The hope, Ferrier said, is that women with a strong online voice won’t fear publishing their work.

“We want to let the trolls know that they can’t just bully this one person," Ferrier said. "There’s a team of people that have got this person’s back. ... We hope that alerts the troll that somebody’s watching, and they back off.”   



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