by Colin Hanner
Michelle Ferrier, the Associate Dean for Innovation in the Scripps College of Communication, has been cyberbullied before. As a columnist for the Daytona Beach News-Journal in 2008, Ferrier said she was ridiculed by racist hate mail that forced her to eventually step down from her position.
“The attacks were personal,” Ferrier said. “They addressed my research. They were slanderous, in terms of how they portrayed me as a liar, as someone who had an axe to grind, as someone who had a personal vendetta.”
Seven years later, Ferrier is taking steps to look out for others who have been, or will be, in the predicament she faced. At January’s International Women’s Media Foundation’s Cracking the Code hackathon, Ferrier and her team took home $3,000 in seed money for their new venture, Trollbusters, which seeks to protect women with a voice online by supporting victims of Internet trolls, while proactively seeking out trolls in different communities.
Internet trolls are people who take to the Internet to instigate arguments, often upsetting discussion threads with blatant offensive and inflammatory comments.
“It’s personal in nature,” Ferrier said. “It’s usually not addressing the issue at hand. It can devolve into personal threats. It involves name-calling. There can be everything from the ‘I think you suck,’ which is fairly tame, to rape and death threats.
Ferrier has plans to deal with them.
“We’re going to kill them with kindness,” Ferrier said. “Really, it’s to combat hate with love and we can’t stop human nature. Human nature will manifest whether it’s through technology or face-to-face or otherwise.”
After leaving her post as a columnist because of the continued threats, Ferrier travelled north to Elon University in North Carolina. An experience at the school, where a student was called a racially-offensive name in public, prompted her to share her story with a class she taught.
“And I was wrestling with how I was going to deal with this issue in my own classes and decided I was, really for the first time, [able to] share my story of what happened to me as a columnist and I actually showed students some examples of the letters I received and by the time the class was over, about half the class was in tears,” Ferrier said.
The students’ response—letters of love and support to Ferrier the next time the class was in session—primed the idea for Trollbusters.
The name evolved from Anti-Gamergate—a play on the series of events that surrounded women who were harassed due to their views on sexism and feminism in video games—and morphed into Trolltracker, and eventually Trollbusters.
With help from Ohio University students involved with the Scripps Innovation Challenge, Ferrier has been able to build the framework for an application and hopes to be running a prototype within the next six months.
Ferrier recently applied for a grant to further a prototype on a notification and alert system, as well as a identification system that will track where trolls spend their time. Twitter, where trolls are able to roam without much of a community-generated support network, is at the top of Ferrier’s research in where people are trolled most.
“We want to be able to look systematically at what’s happening with trolls and begin to identify them in various discreet ways, which could be interesting.”