Saturday March 12, 2016

Trollbusters: fighting to keep women writers online

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters. (Jatin Srivastava / Scripps College)

Listen 5:55

Michelle Ferrier wants to make sure women writers stay online in the face of harassment.

It's a passion born out of a difficult time in her life. In 2008, Ferrier was forced to leave her job as a columnist at a Florida newspaper after years of receiving racist hate mail and threats. 

"The letters continued for about three years with me escalating that activity from the local police to the local FBI to the CIA — and I didn't really receive much support or ideas on how to deal with the issue."

Michelle Ferrier

Ferrier received racist threats for over three years. (Michelle Ferrier / Twitter)

For the protection of her family, Ferrier quit her job and moved out-of-state.  Eventually, she joined the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University. That's where Trollbusters was born. 

A "just-in-time rescue service" for women writers and journalists facing online harassment and trolling, Trollbusters springs in to action when incidents of digital hatred are reported.

"We focus on women writers and journalists because they experience the most extreme forms of trolling on the net – including bodily harm, economic damage, and other reputation issues," said Ferrier. 

Operating mainly on Twitter, Trollbusters disrupts trolls by injecting positive messages in to the stream of the journalist needing assistance. Here's an example: 

 

Ferrier came up with the idea of sending positive messages after a racial incident on her university's campus. To open up a conversation about race with her students, she decided to tell them about her experience in Florida. 

"That class was a very emotional class, there were several students that were in tears... and I was as well." 

The next day, her students arrived to class with cards, love letters, and messages of support. Some told Ferrier that the class had changed their lives. 

In January of 2015, Ferrier was at a 'hack-a-thon' event. When the time came to pitch an idea, she recalled the love letters her students had sent and realized just how helpful they were at a difficult time. 

"How about we use something that is counter-speech—positive messaging—to be able to bolster women emotionally as they're going through this kind of attack, and let them know someone has their back?"