There's Finally a Place Where Women Can Band Together to Overpower Online Bullies
If you’re a person with opinions—and especially if you’re a woman—you’ve probably experienced some form of harassment online. If you’re lucky enough to have avoided being a target, you’ve almost surely witnessed someone else being harassed online: Research has shown that while 40 percent of adult Internet users have experienced online harassment directly, 73 percent of us have witnessed online abuse (ranging from offensive name-calling, to public shaming, to violent physical threats, sexual harassment, and stalking) being directed toward someone else.
If you’ve ever wished you could help in these situations but found yourself at a loss for what to do, there’s good news: The same brilliant women who created the global anti-street harassment project, Hollaback, have developed a new website that provides support for victims of online harassment by empowering bystanders to take action and collectively overpower bullies.
“We want to tackle online harassment with love, support, and kindness—not hate,” Hollaback’s co-founder and executive director Emily May told WomensHealthMag.com. “The name HeartMob was the closest we could come to describing the feeling we were aiming to create.”
Here’s how it works: Anyone experiencing online harassment can report and document the harassment through HeartMob’s private, highly-secure website. Members of the Heartmobber community then offer a network of support by taking actions of the target’s choosing—whether that’s sending them loving, supportive messages, banding together to downvote abusive comments on a Youtube video into oblivion while upvoting loving comments, or assisting with the documentation of harassment by taking screen shots of abusive tweets or posts.
“HeartMob is all about your right to be you online,” May explained. “Whether that's happy or sad, gay or straight, opinionated or quiet: You deserve to be your badass self without fear of harassment.”
“When people receive violent threats and harassment just for having an opinion online, it has a silencing effect,” she continued. “I regularly see people—mostly women—who are hesitant to post anything as a result of the harassment they face online. You can't blame them—they have to take care of themselves. But they deserve better, we all deserve better.”
"Whether that's happy or sad, gay or straight, opinionated or quiet: You deserve to be your badass self without fear of harassment."
May told us that her work with Hollaback has shown that intervention from bystanders on the street can be incredibly powerful, and pointed out that when it comes to online harassment, there are virtually always bystanders. Even we don’t actually bear witness to abuse as it’s happening in the moment, it’s incredibly easy to document, which means that we have an incredible, unprecedented ability to come together and address it after the fact.
“Sometimes [bystanders] aren’t sure if something is harassment or just some kind of inside joke that maybe they’re missing,” May explained. “They’re not sure what they can do for that person and they’re worried about making it worse or overwhelming them. We want to remove that barrier so that people who want to help know how to do it.”
In the last year, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have finally taken some major strides toward strengthening their responses to abusive behavior. When asked why improved reporting and blocking mechanisms still aren’t enough, May responded, “I think that social media platforms have a key role in addressing online harassment—but I think that to truly address it, we're not just talking about policy changes. We're talking about culture changes.”
“That's where HeartMob comes in,” she continued. “It's not just about reporting, it's about changing hearts and minds. It's about people coming together to build an Internet where everyone has access to free speech, not just a select few...I don’t want to be on an Internet where women, people of color, and others who are disproportionately affected by online harassment don’t feel free to express themselves.”
HeartMob primarily exists to provide support to victims of harassment and empower bystanders to help, rather than to directly confront perpetrators—but May said that they’re considering options for ways that could actually work.
“I think it’s possible to talk to harassers directly,” she explained, “but it’s very tricky to do online without putting yourself at risk. We’re currently exploring if there are ways to build empathy among the harassers, but to be clear, HeartMob will never endorse harassing the harassers. We believe in fighting fire with water.”
Ultimately, May said, she sees the community-building aspect of the site as being much more impactful.
"HeartMob will never endorse harassing the harassers. We believe in fighting fire with water."
“Too often, when people are harassed they feel alone,” said May. “With HeartMob, you don’t have to be alone...We know from running Hollaback for the past 10 years that just the simple act of documenting your harassment and sharing your story on a platform can reduce trauma. We want to take that one step further and show people that not only are others listening to what they’re experiencing, they want to help them, too.”
When it comes to HeartMob’s power to create meaningful change, May isn’t afraid to dream big.
“Long term,” she said, “I hope that HeartMob will shift the culture online away from one that is violent, threatening, and too often scary—and towards a culture where love and support reign supreme.”