Lindsay Blackwell: Hi every­body, my name is Lindsay Blackwell. I’m a PhD can­di­date at the University of Michigan Social Media Lab, which is in the School of Information. And I am here today to talk to you about HeartMob.

HeartMob is a pri­vate online com­mu­ni­ty designed to pro­vide sup­port for peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing online harass­ment. When I talk about online harass­ment I’m refer­ring to a very broad spec­trum of abu­sive behav­iors that are enabled by tech­nol­o­gy plat­forms and used to tar­get a user or a group of users. So this can be any­thing from a flam­ing or the use of per­son­al insults or inflam­ma­to­ry lan­guage, to things like dox­ing or reveal­ing or broad­cast­ing per­son­al infor­ma­tion about some­one such as a phone num­ber or address, to things like stalk­ing and imper­son­ation and things of that nature.

So just to keep that in mind, this is not an uncom­mon expe­ri­ence. We know from Pew that 41% of adult American Internet users have per­son­al­ly expe­ri­enced online harass­ment. We also know that near­ly two thirds of American adults have wit­nessed online harass­ment in their feed. So this is some­thing that’s hap­pen­ing a lot.

Women, peo­ple of col­or, LGBT peo­ple, and young peo­ple are sig­nif­i­cant­ly more like­ly to expe­ri­ence online harass­ment than their coun­ter­parts.

And online harass­ment has seri­ous impacts both on people’s online and offline lives. So this is not just an online prob­lem. People do report chang­ing their online pri­va­cy behav­iors, per­haps leav­ing social media sites alto­geth­er when they have an expe­ri­ence with harass­ment. But they also report dis­rup­tions of their offline lives, emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal dis­tress, increased pri­va­cy con­cerns, and also dis­trac­tions from per­son­al lives and work oblig­a­tions due to the time that’s required, the emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal labor that’s required, to man­age harass­ment when you’re expe­ri­enc­ing it. So if you’re being harassed by hun­dreds of peo­ple and you want the plat­form that that’s hap­pen­ing on to inter­vene, it’s your respon­si­bil­i­ty to go through and report all of those com­ments, which takes a lot of time and a lot of effort.

No one knows that bet­ter than the lead­ers of Hollaback. Hollaback is an advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to end­ing harass­ment in pub­lic spaces, name­ly street harass­ment. And because of the nature of the work that the lead­ers of this orga­ni­za­tion do, they’ve suf­fered con­sis­tent and severe online harass­ment. So, they took their col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence in inter­sec­tion­al fem­i­nist prac­tice, bystander inter­ven­tion, and social movement‐building, and they applied that exper­tise to cre­at­ing an online space, an online com­mu­ni­ty, for peo­ple who are also expe­ri­enc­ing online harass­ment. And they did that with the help of a large group of peo­ple who were fre­quent tar­gets of online harass­ment them­selves. So they real­ly tried to design a com­mu­ni­ty that would serve the needs of the peo­ple who are most vul­ner­a­ble to these types of behav­iors.

And what result­ed is a sys­tem that looks like this. So if you go to HeartMob, which is iheart​mob​.org, as some­one who’s expe­ri­enc­ing harass­ment you’re told that you’re not alone and you have a few options. So you can tell your sto­ry. You can write a descrip­tion of what’s hap­pened to you. You can select allies; so you can choose peo­ple that you know, who you want help from. Or you can rely on the broad­er HeartMob com­mu­ni­ty.

And then you can ask for spe­cif­ic types of sup­port. So you can ask for sup­port­ive mes­sages if that’s what you’d like. You can ask for help report­ing and doc­u­ment­ing abuse to plat­forms, so that that labor is more dis­persed. You can also ask for resources and instru­men­tal sup­port.

And if you have not expe­ri­enced harass­ment, or you just want to be help­ful to oth­ers who have, you can sign up to join HeartMob as a HeartMobber. And if you choose to join the com­mu­ni­ty you can answer those requests for sup­port. And you’re shown on the home­page, after it says these peo­ple could use your help right now, it shows actu­al cas­es that have been post­ed recent­ly of peo­ple who are expe­ri­enc­ing harass­ment and the kind of help that they’ve asked for.

So with the help of my col­lab­o­ra­tors, we con­duct­ed semi‐structured inter­views with eigh­teen users of HeartMob. Eleven of those users had expe­ri­enced harass­ment them­selves, although not all eleven had actu­al­ly post­ed a case to HeartMob. Seven of our par­tic­i­pants were sim­ply bystanders; they just want­ed to be there to help. All of our par­tic­i­pants lived in the US or in Western Europe, and our inter­views were con­duct­ed in English.

And we had three major find­ings from this research. The first is that label­ing expe­ri­ences as online harass­ment is huge­ly val­i­dat­ing for tar­gets’ expe­ri­ences. So as an exam­ple, when a user sub­mits their case on HeartMob in that side that I showed you, they sort of check a few box­es. So they say what plat­form did this hap­pen on? What do you think moti­vat­ed this attack? Was it racist harass­ment, was it misog­y­nist harass­ment? And then a human mod­er­a­tor on HeartMob actu­al­ly goes through and reviews every sin­gle case.

And get­ting that sig­nal that said your case was approved and we’re rec­og­niz­ing this as online harass­ment was very pow­er­ful for peo­ple. One par­tic­i­pant said

It’s the safe­ty net. Tight now, the worst that can hap­pen is some­one expe­ri­ences harass­ment and they have nowhere to go—that’s nor­mal in online com­mu­ni­ties. But with HeartMob, if some­one says they’re expe­ri­enc­ing harass­ment, then at least they get heard… At least they have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to have oth­er peo­ple sym­pa­thize with them.
[slide]

We also heard from many par­tic­i­pants that this expe­ri­ence on HeartMob of hav­ing their harass­ment expe­ri­ence val­i­dat­ed was much dif­fer­ent than the expe­ri­ence they had on major social media sites like Facebook and Twitter who often rely—because of the num­ber of users that they have and the scale of their mod­er­a­tion prac­tices, they often rely on canned respons­es that don’t rec­og­nize indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences or the impacts of harass­ment. One par­tic­i­pant said

What I think was real­ly frus­trat­ing was the lev­el of what peo­ple could say and not be con­sid­ered a vio­la­tion of Twitter or Facebook poli­cies. If they’re just like, You should shut up and keep your legs togeth­er, whore,” that’s not a vio­la­tion because they’re not actu­al­ly threat­en­ing me. [Blackwell: That’s true.] It’s com­pli­cat­ed and frus­trat­ing, and it makes me not inter­est­ed in using those plat­forms.
[slide]

Finally, a par­tic­i­pant said It doesn’t have the capac­i­ty to sin­gle­hand­ed­ly solve the prob­lem, but HeartMob makes being online bear­able.”

Our sec­ond major result was that for bystanders, label­ing behav­iors as online harass­ment” enabled peo­ple to real­ly grasp the full scope of this prob­lem. So one par­tic­i­pant who actu­al­ly works with domes­tic vio­lence vic­tims said that in the work that she does, she helps peo­ple under­stand how soci­ety plays a role in our vio­lent cul­ture, but she still didn’t real­ly have a good grasp on how preva­lent this prob­lem was online. She said

I’ve nev­er had too much oppor­tu­ni­ty to actu­al­ly see the evi­dence on the Internet. I knew it was there. I talk about it, present about it, but actu­al­ly see­ing the hor­rif­ic things that peo­ple are see­ing and doing to oth­ers online real­ly brought that to a whole dif­fer­ent place for me.
[slide]

Another par­tic­i­pant felt that because as a HeartMobber you’re shown indi­vid­ual cas­es and very con­crete, spe­cif­ic ways that you can pro­vide help, this made online harass­ment inter­ven­tion feel like a much more man­age­able prob­lem. HeartMob is a bril­liant way of address­ing a prob­lem that I think immo­bi­lizes most peo­ple, because it seems so big and daunting—so they don’t do any­thing at all.”

And final­ly we found that in online spaces, vis­i­bly label­ing harass­ment as inap­pro­pri­ate and unac­cept­able is crit­i­cal for ser­vic­ing com­mu­ni­ty norms about what types of behav­ior are appro­pri­ate. One par­tic­i­pant said that the expe­ri­ence of online harass­ment is

some­thing that’s very iso­lat­ing, because it can make you feel—especially there’s mul­ti­ple peo­ple doing the harassing—like every­one would be against you…like they’re rep­re­sent­ing soci­ety.
[slide]

So when someone’s expe­ri­enc­ing this type of mas­sive attack, they may be get­ting pri­vate indi­ca­tions of sup­port from friends, but over­whelm­ing­ly what they’re see­ing is harass­ment. And that makes it feel like that’s the norm.

Another per­son said that if they go online to sup­port some­one, and they look at the person’s oth­er mes­sages and they see oth­er peo­ple pro­vid­ing vis­i­ble sup­port, they might think, Oh that’s neat. There are oth­er peo­ple out there inter­ven­ing as well.” As we found that when peo­ple did see those vis­i­ble sig­nals of inter­ven­tion, that start­ed to shift the norm away from what was appro­pri­ate.

Ultimately, as you can see in our results, major social media plat­forms aren’t imple­ment­ing sys­tems that address the needs of the most vul­ner­a­ble users online, the peo­ple who are expe­ri­enc­ing online harass­ment at the most vol­umes. Our research sug­gests the need for more demo­c­ra­t­ic, user‐driven process­es in the the gen­er­a­tion of val­ues that under­pin these sys­tems. Ultimately, best address­ing online harass­ment is best served if we take the needs of vul­ner­a­ble users first.

If you’d like to read the full paper it’s avail­able at lind​say​black​well​.net/​h​e​a​r​t​mob. Thank you.


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.