“Before this world is over there will be a race war[.] Why do [sic] think so many people are stalking [sic] up on guns?” Michelle Ferrier’s heart pounded in her chest as she ran her eyes over the handwritten lines on the page. The letter continued with a stinging racial epithet and a threatening remark about lynching. It was July 2006 and this was the fourth hate letter she had received.
Ferrier was the Daytona Beach News Journal’s first black columnist. Her articles were neither controversial nor inflammatory. She wrote mostly about her family life. The personal nature of her column allowed her to break through the race barrier.
But that riled one particular hater and as the tone of the hate mail escalated, she feared for her family’s safety. The police told Ferrier that a criminal investigation could not be launched unless the author of the hate letters explicitly said that he or she was coming after her and her family. Ferrier began to work from home, she disguised herself by wearing wigs and even resorted to carrying a firearm for defense.
When living in fear became unbearable, Ferrier stopped writing the column, quit her job at the newspaper and moved to another state. The newspaper’s only black, female voice had been silenced.
In the age of social media, the anonymous letter writer that drove Ferrier out of her job has morphed into a vicious troll who bombards female commenters with abusive tweets. As the Gamergate controversy has illustrated, rape threats have become a favorite trolling tactic. This has to stop. Now.
The group I worked with, led by Ferrier, developed a prototype for Trollbusters: an app that will allow female commenters who have suffered online harassment to type in the URL of an offensive message in order to locate trolls and smoke them out of their hiding places.
Using network analysis technology developed by Ferrier’s students at Ohio University, Trollbusters will identify “troll nests,” or online clusters of haters. The victim will also receive support from an online community that will fight back against the barrage of abuse with positive messages such as “you go girl” or “end hate speech.”
Trollbusters won $3,000 in Google prize money to develop the idea, find sponsors, and turn the prototype into a reality. The judges said they were impressed by the project because “it seeks to address one of the most insidious problems facing women on the Internet.”
For Ferrier, turning a traumatic experience into a growing movement has brought her a sense of closure. “When I got up on the stage I felt I was channeling the pain of so many women. Having a voice at that moment was more powerful than receiving the prize money,” she says.
On Feb. 10, the world celebrated the 12th Safer Internet Day with the slogan “Let’s create a better Internet together.” I hope this means an Internet where a black columnist can write about her family without being threatened with lynching and a feminist can speak out against sexist video games without being threatened with rape.
Louisa Reynolds is the International Women’s Media Foundation’s 2014-2015 Elizabeth Neuffer Journalism Fellow.