TrollBusters teaches women how to scrub their information from online databases, and how to catalog harassment for future legal action. But the company's primarily aiming to stop trolls in their tracks, using one simple tool: positivity. When they receive a report of harassment, TrollBusters flood victims' timelines with "positive messages, virtual hugs or reputation repair services."
Ferrier knows the importance of such services first-hand, having been a victim of trolling herself. As the first Black columnist for her local Florida newspaper, Ferrier began receiving violent, racist hate mail. Authorities refused to help her when she reached out.
"I couldn't get any organization really to take up the case and investigate," she told Revelist. "And so I began looking at what they had sent me, and began to discover that organized hate groups use this as a tactic for fear and intimidation."
Trolling, she maintains, is just a modern version of this tactic — an effective means of silencing those who stand outside the norm.
"We have to understand that this is a larger cultural issue than cyber-harassment, cyber-bulling even," Ferrier told Revelist. "This is about diverse voices, and making spaces for them online — and a backlash to that that's very harsh, and very terrifying."
Ferrier's story is one repeated again and again, across the internet.
I can't engage any more trolls. They're in my Twitter mentions, my Facebook messages, my Instagram mentions. Enough.
Trolls forced a high school valedictorian to close her Twitter account by threatening to reveal her status as an undocumented immigrant. Blogger Ella Dawson received death threats when she blogged about having herpes. The Guardian even ran a study that found their Black and female writers are the most frequent targets of hate.
Revelist’s own senior news and identity editor, Evette Dionne, felt the heat from trolls when she dared to claim boxer Muhammad Ali as a hero for the Black community.
"Facebook and Twitter users called me idiotic, hurled slurs at me, and even attempted to hack my Twitter account," she wrote of the experience. "The attacks continued for hours — which is when I made a startling realization: All of these trolls were attempting to silence me."
But the scariest thing about trolling is that it's difficult to control. Despite multiple policy updates, Twitter users are still saying there's not enough protections against trolls. Just this month, The New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman deleted his account when Twitter failed to stop violent, anti-Semitic attacks.
According to Ferrier, these kind of online mobs are harder to stop than other forms of cyber-harassment, like cyber-bullying or revenge porn.
"With revenge porn, you most of the time would know how somebody got those pictures of you, so you'd know the avenue of recourse," she explained. "…In the kinds of troll behavior of smart mobs, you don't know where the attack is coming from."
That's what gave Ferrier the idea for this groundbreaking means of stopping trolls.
Ferrier pitched her "kill 'em with kindness" solution during the International Women's Media Foundation 2015 Hackathon, which focused on ending cyber-harassment of women. Ferrier and her team crafted the winning proposal for TrollBusters, and scored $3,000 in the process.
Now, Ferrier works with a team of students at Ohio University, where she teaches, and with colleagues across the country. She has advisers from the International Women’s Media Foundation and Stop Online Violence Against Women, and receives funding from the Knight Foundation. She calls this support network a "ministry" of people dedicated to building a better internet.
"We're looking at some new rules [for the internet], and how to write those," Ferrier explained. "And inviting people to ask, 'Is this what we really want to experience? What we want other people to experience?'"
But she warned that this project is about more than just online insults. With an eye toward the recent mass shooting in Orlando, Ferrier suggested that the climate we create online influences our actions in the real world.
"We really need all eyes on this issue, because it's symptomatic of
things that happen in physical space," she told Revelist. "We can't
deny the connection between what people see online and their behaviors
in physical space. We've just experienced that this past weekend."