Amy X. Zhang: I’m Amy Zhang. I am a grad­u­ate stu­dent at MIT. And I’m going to be talk­ing about about Squadbox, fight­ing harass­ment with your friends.

Okay. So, as Lindsay men­tioned, online harass­ment is a huge prob­lem today. Pew and Data & Society have done reports that show that 40 to 50% of peo­ple online expe­ri­ence online harass­ment. That’s a huge num­ber of peo­ple.

And over the last about a year and a half, I and my col­leagues have been inter­view­ing peo­ple who have been recip­i­ents of harass­ment to learn about their sit­u­a­tion. So, these are not the actu­al peo­ple, but just to give you a sense of the diver­si­ty of peo­ple we talked to. Anywhere from YouTube celebri­ties with hun­dreds and thou­sands of fol­low­ers, to jour­nal­ists, cli­mate sci­en­tists, activists, all the way to just reg­u­lar peo­ple who are harassed by a sin­gle ex part­ner, for instance.

And unsur­pris­ing­ly, look­ing at this diver­si­ty one of the things I quick­ly came to real­ize was just how dif­fer­ent each case was. So, peo­ple had them­selves very dif­fer­ent ideas about what was harass­ing to them and what they did not want to see. They also had real­ly dif­fer­ent pref­er­ences for what they want­ed to do in response to harass­ment. So, for instance some peo­ple want­ed to respond to their harassers or wish their friends could respond to harassers. Other peo­ple just were say­ing don’t feed the trolls. Some peo­ple were want­i­ng to actu­al­ly see their harass­ing mes­sages, because they want­ed to keep a tab on the harass­ment. Other peo­ple did­n’t want to see it at all. And so much of this was so con­tex­tu­al to the kind of harass­ment that they were get­ting as well. And that was also real­ly var­ied.

So one thing that did come up over and over again in our inter­views was the impor­tance of friends and com­mu­ni­ty. (Similar to HeartMob.) There were peo­ple who were friends of these peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing harass­ment who under­stood their sit­u­a­tion deeply and under­stood their needs, and were there to help them. So doing things such as hav­ing the per­son who’s get­ting harassed giv­ing their pass­word to their friend so their friend can go in and clean up their inbox for them. Or anoth­er case we had, a friend who had their part­ner scroll through their YouTube com­ments and read aloud to them the affirm­ing com­ments only.

So, hear­ing about these prac­tices we began to won­der how can our exist­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems actu­al­ly sup­port this kind of inter­ac­tion? Because you know you gen­er­al­ly don’t want to give your pass­word away to oth­er peo­ple, even if they’re your friends. So how might com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems be designed to make it eas­i­er for you to call upon your friends, or loved ones, or your com­mu­ni­ty for help?

So to explore this ques­tion fur­ther and to real­ly cap­i­tal­ize on a need that we felt was real­ly miss­ing out there today, we built this tool called Squadbox and you can check it out at squad​box​.org. It’s a tool built for email cur­rent­ly, because as it turns out there are no report­ing struc­tures for Gmail and most of these email plat­forms what­so­ev­er. But we are also hop­ing to expand to more plat­forms. And the idea is basi­cal­ly a way for you to recruit friends to join a squad” that then helps mod­er­ate your inbox of harass­ment.

So, one way it works is if you are get­ting harassed in your cur­rent email unex­pect­ed­ly, we help you set up fil­ters so that stranger emails, that could be harassing/could not be harass­ing, get for­ward­ed to your squad who then go through the mes­sages and decide what to return to you and what to do with harass­ing mes­sages if they find one, such as trash it or give it a tag, or redact it, or put it in a fold­er, or per­haps even respond to the harass­er for you. And you can tell them, if you’re using the tool, what you’d like your squad to do for you.

So you know, just as an exam­ple, the abil­i­ty to move harass­ing con­tent out of the way of one’s inbox was real­ly impor­tant. Because we heard from so many peo­ple that talked about going to their inbox, hav­ing this hor­ri­ble feel­ing of hav­ing to sift through harass­ing mes­sages that were mixed in with emails from their boss or from their friends. Or in some cas­es get­ting so much harass­ment it’s basi­cal­ly a denial of ser­vice attack on their own com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

A sec­ond way you can use Squadbox is we also give every Squadbox user a ded­i­cat­ed email address, so that any emails to that address first go to your squad. And we found this was real­ly impor­tant for peo­ple who had a pub­lic pres­ence or want­ed a pub­lic pres­ence and give out their con­tact info to strangers, but are wor­ried about get­ting harassed.

Beyond that, there’s a bunch more fea­tures to Squadbox to make it eas­i­er to use. I won’t go over all of them in detail, but we have short­cuts for Gmail users who are get­ting harassed. For squad mem­bers, we’ve added things like col­lab­o­ra­tive block­lists, so now your squad can help you make a whitelist and black­list. We help check for spoof­ing. We have an inte­gra­tion with Jigsaw’s Perspective API, which detects harass­ment.

So just to close and give a sense of how much friends real­ly care about help­ing peo­ple with harass­ment, we talked to a friend of some­one who was get­ting harassed and they said,

If I could help in any way, shape, or form, I would do that, no ques­tion… It’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to watch some­one that you care about so much go through this, and to be by-and-large helpless…to have a tool at my dis­pos­al that would help even in the small­est way, I would leap at a chance to do that.
[slide]

So, friends. So, I know many peo­ple are think­ing about harass­ment with online com­mu­ni­ties here. As I said, we’d real­ly like to roll this out to oth­er plat­forms and think about oth­er forms of col­lab­o­ra­tive mod­er­a­tion. So for instance, col­lec­tive rec­i­p­ro­cal efforts where a group of peo­ple are maybe all mod­er­at­ing for each oth­er. And with that, this is the web site. If you have more ques­tions, feel free to email or con­tact me. Thanks.


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.