A Conversation with TrollBusters Founder, Dr. Michelle Ferrier

Jun 10, 2016

Article ImageBack in 2003 when Michelle Ferrier became the first African American columnist for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, she hardly expected her innocuous lifestyle column to become a magnet for trolling behavior. Ferrier, who holds a PhD in Texts and Technology from the University of Central Florida, says, "It didn't matter what I wrote about - they targeted me, not the topic." Almost immediately, Ferrier began to experience online and offline harassment that targeted her race and gender. Over time, the behavior became so egregious that both the FBI and Department of Justice became involved, but after three years of harassment with little redress, Ferrier was forced to quit her job as a columnist.

Now the Associate Dean for Innovation, Research/Creative Activity and Graduate Studies Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University, Dr. Ferrier's primary research focus is how best to address the specter of online harassment. She is also the founder of TrollBusters, a digital tool to combat online harassment against women journalists, bloggers, and publishers.

Q: How has trolling behavior changed in the digital age?

A: "Offline harassment can also be anonymous, as I experienced. But by moving into the digital world, what changes is the speed at which information can be shared, and the existence of organized groups operating globally - smart mobs that can rally troops to attack, as we saw in Gamergate. If you have a voice and a platform, you're a target. It's the new hunting ground."

Q: How did the Trollbusters idea come about?

A: "In January 2015, Gamergate was prominent in my Facebook feed, and at the same time, there was a racial incident on my campus that targeted a young black female student. I decided to share the story of my harassment with my students, to demonstrate the power of words. Needless to say it was an emotional class period, for my students and for me.

The next day many of the students brought me what I call ‘Valentines' - notes of support and encouragement, expressing gratitude that I'd shared my story. For the first time since my harassment, I felt a sense of healing and closure. And it made me think about how positive messaging could be used to combat the impact of trolling behavior."

TrollBusters Tweet

Q: How does Trollbusters work?

A: "We provide just-in-time rescue services to people who have been targeted by cyberharrassment. Someone who has become a target of harassment can report an incident at http://www.troll-busters.com/. We then send a warning into their social media feed that notifies trolls that we are monitoring and watching the stream. Sometimes that's all it takes to get the harassing behavior to end.

If the behavior continues, we create what we call a ‘hedge of protection' around the target - a series of positive messages to bolster the emotional state of the target and dilute the messages of the trolls. The messages could be anything from inspirational quotes to practical tips on online protection to funny memes. Our approach is to ignore the trolls and focus on preventing the emotional and economic damage that can come through cyberharrassment."

Q: What's next for Trollbusters?

A: "We'd like to add proactive monitoring - right now we can only be reactive, but we're building out a monitoring systems so we can get to work even faster. We are also turning our attention to cyberstalking laws, which are inadequate and outdated to address cyberharrassment."

Q: What can digital content industry execs do to help?

A: "It's important for management to think about policies in case their employees are targeted. It's easy to say ‘just stay off the Internet,' but if it's your job, you don't have that luxury. Trolling tends to happen very quickly, so management need to think about it putting policies in place ahead of time. For instance, while it's useful to let the trolling behavior persist so law enforcement can document it, it may make sense to put a third party in charge of the target's social media stream temporarily, to blunt the impact of the harassment. They should think about how to protect the freelancers and stringers who may work with them, too.

As for providers of platforms where trolling takes place, they need to think about stronger moderation, quicker shutdown of trolling behavior, and how they can work with law enforcement. Otherwise they are just profiting from the pain of other people."