The internet can be a mean, nasty place. For some, going online means bullying, harassment and abuse.

But as CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains, a new project called HeartMob wants to put an end to that.

How does HeartMob work?

It's intended as a place for people to report abuse and harassment online, and a place for people who are being harassed to get support from a community of people who've signed up to help.

The platform was created by Hollaback, the non-profit organization that fights street harassment.

Emily May, one of HeartMob's founders, said people are coming to the site with serious problems.

"People report feeling afraid to leave their house, feeling afraid to stay in their home, feeling afraid to go to work," she said. "There's this really deep psychological impact that online harassment has."

HeartMob screen grab

A still from the HeartMob promotional video, showing the website's harassment reporting tool. (iheartmob.org/YouTube)

So if you were a victim of that type of harassment, you could go to HeartMob, file a report, and ask for support. 

That support could come in the form of positive messages from community members.

Or it could mean other people reporting the abuse to the online platform where it originally appeared, to flag it for review.

Why not just use a website's reporting tool?

Many websites and online networks do have ways to report abuse, and many have "block" functions that allow users to control who sees the things they post.

Some, like Twitter, have a "mute" function that let you block messages from certain people, and they won't see that you've muted them.

But May said there's a key difference between such features and HeartMob.

"The block button is not designed to give you a warm fuzzy feeling. HeartMob is," she said.

HeartMob co-founder Emily May

HeartMob co-founder Emily May said the platform provides users not just with reporting tools, but with support and a 'warm fuzzy feeling.' (iheartmob.org)

May says being harassed online can feel isolating and lonely, and a block button doesn't provide a reassuring human touch.

So HeartMob aims to create a supportive community of people you can turn to if you're being harassed, and feeling ganged up on. 

HeartMob users will send you positive, supportive comments — that "warm fuzzy feeling" May refers to — as a kind of antidote for online abuse.

Why don't more people take a stand against harassment online?

May, who is also a Hollaback co-founder, said that's a question the HeartMob team has spent years trying to answer, and they've talked to a lot of people who have witnessed online abuse, but didn't do anything. 

"What we discovered is that the reason why they're not responding, many of them, is because they don't know what to do," she said.

Another problem is uncertainty over what actually constitutes harassment.

"They may think, 'Gosh, is this some kind of inside joke?  Do they know this person? What's really going on here?'" May said. "It's very hard to know what to do in these situations."
    
That's the issue HeartMob is trying to address. They want to create a platform for people to actually take action, whether that's sending an encouraging message to counteract the harassment, or helping to document or report abuse.

Is there a danger of bullies using HeartMob to find new targets?

That is a worry, May said. And for that reason, HeartMob is pretty strict about keeping the cyberbullies, or "trolls," out.

Users have to log into the platform. Every new account has to be verified by someone at HeartMob, and all messages sent through the system are vetted.

But even those measure haven't stopped trolls from trying to gain access to the system. HeartMob has only been publicly accessible for a few days, but May said they've already had attempts to infiltrate into their system.

How will we know if tools like HeartMob are successful?

HeartMob is still quite new — it launched publicly on Jan. 27, after a successful Kickstarter campaign last year.

Since its launch, HeartMob organizers say they've helped about 300 people, and that more than 600 actions have been taken by their community.

The long-term goal, according to May, is to end online harassment. But in the shorter term, the goal is to reduce trauma for people who are being harassed online, and often receiving terrible, hurtful messages.

HeartMob has hired an independent researcher to measure their progress toward those goals over the next two years. So we won't know the direct impact for a while.

But anytime someone's working to reduce online harassment, it's worth paying attention.