Hollaback, a nonprofit organization that targets street harassment, has a new target: online abuse. Hollaback is launching a site, Heartmob, that aims to be a refuge and resource for women experiencing the condition known loosely as “being female on the internet.”
“There is a false dichotomy between online and offline harassment," Emily May, founder of Hollaback, told BuzzFeed News. "Both have the same root causes: sexism, racism, and homophobia. And both have the similar effects: They silence victims and cause depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Heartmob’s work is twofold: It acts both as a support network, and as a place to document harassment. According to the site, a woman (or anyone) can ask for help from other people on Heartmob for support, to help document the abuse, or to intervene. (It’s unclear exactly what intervening would look like, or how fellow bystanders can do it safely without putting themselves at risk.) The site launches today, and will also have resources for survivors of harassment who are seeking information about legal options or how get help from other organizations.
In recent years, various social networks have had to reckon with how to deal with harassment. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, for example, admitted last year that Twitter “sucks” at dealing with abuse; new measures that make it slightly easier to report people for impersonation or harassment have since been rolled out. Recently, Twitter has begun to un-verify serial harassers – a move that might look like a weird light slap on the wrist, removing the fake candy checkmark the company invented in the first place.
It's unclear, of course, whether creating a third-party safe haven for harassment victims is better than improving policies and reporting. Women who have a large megaphone attract more attention from trolls than most normal internet users. While some research shows a huge percent of people have witness or been a victim of online harassment, there are a lot of different kinds of online harassment — it doesn't all look like the most high-profile cases of, say, feminist writers getting death threats on Twitter.
This includes things like arguing with someone you know about politics on Facebook, or someone commenting that your dog should lose weight on your Instagram (this regularly happens to a friend of mine whose dog is normal weight, by the way). Those comments about her dog really irritate and upset her, but they're not apples to apples with someone writing violent rape threats to Anita Sarkeesian. Both types of harassment are real, but the nuances are so varied it's difficult to see how they could fit side by side on a site like Heartmob.
Also unclear is how the site won’t just attract tons of trolls itself — you can almost imagine what 4chan would look like when it discovers the site. According to Heartmob’s press release, it will be moderated, but the site’s founders did not respond to questions about how it will be troll-proofed by publishing time.
Given all that, it's unlikely that Heartmob will end online harassment, but that can’t be the only goal. Doctors don’t just try to find cures for cancer; they also treat patients who have it. At its best, Heartmob may be useful palliative care for the victims of harassment, something that has yet to really exist anywhere else on the internet.