Harassed Online? HeartMob Plans to Have Your Back

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Apr 30, 2015

Are you a woman who has openly expressed your views on the Internet? Do you write a blog, have an active Twitter account, or participate in a social justice movement? If you do, there’s a good chance you’ve faced some form of online harassment.

It may be some disparaging tweets from someone you can write off as a troll. But perhaps it’s been more serious. Maybe you’ve received hundreds of nasty comments and tweets, some even threatening physical harm or rape. And if you’re particularly high-profile–or just unlucky—you may have even faced hacking-based harassment. This includes an attacker invading your e-mail and social media accounts, bringing down your website or posting your address and phone number online.

These are the kind of experiences that HeartMob, a new project from the anti street-harrassment group Hollaback!, is designed to address.

Founded in 2005, Hollaback! is best known for the app they released in 2010 that invites people from around the globe to document experiences of street harassment and receive support from other users. In 2013, an updated version of the app for New York City users also allowed users to send their street harassment reports to their city council members. Now the group is taking what they’ve learned in addressing street harassment and applying it to the Internet.


“I think the place where we saw a lot of hope [in the street harassment work was] bystander intervention,” says Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!  “[HeartMob gives] the person being harassed a way to identify how they want to be helped.”

The Heartmob platform invites victims of online harassment to record the abuse using screenshots of social media posts or e-mails. If they choose to make their report public to other users, they can categorize the abuse. Among the options are "racism,""sexism," "transphobia" and "Islamophobia." Once the user has categorized the abuse, she can choose types of support she wants to receive including helpful e-mails or having someone else document their harassment.

The team is also planning to offer resources through HeartMob, like directions for developing a safety plan to help users better secure their technology, and even how to report abuse to the police or FBI.

Unlike the NYC street harasment app, May says they have no plans to provide an option for directly reporting online harassment to government authorities.

“The idea behind HeartMob has nothing to do with the police for a whole range of reasons,” says May. “The first of which is the police have their own history of harassment. The second is that the laws on online harassment are archaic.” Lastly she explains that even when people have tried to report online harassment to the police, they’ve found that officers haven’t been trained to deal with it. “I think the criminal justice system is a really limited solution to online harassment,” she continues. “HeartMob at its core is about changing systems. We want to provide information to people so they can make their own decisions.”

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Just six months ago, Hollaback! faced intense criticism for a video they produced documenting how many times a white woman walking around New York City was sexually harassed. Critics said the video, which had white catcallers edited out, over-emphasized harrassment by men of color. The video went extremely viral, receiving 15 million views in just a few days. May later posted a response, apologizing for the “unintended racial bias” in the video.

Throughout my interview with May and with Courtney Young, a Hollaback! board member and founder of Think Young Media Group, they made a point to emphasize that HeartMob is seeking to serve women of color. “We look a lot at intersectionality—like, ‘I’m a black woman. I have all of these identities and they could be part of how people choose to harass me,’” says Young. "In terms of women of color…it’s interesting to see how race and gender and class are used as ways to harass people.”

While there are many different types of online harassment, Heartmob will focus on “women and women of color who are in the public space,” says Young. Hollaback! is in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to finish development of the pilot, which is set to launch in September. Within just a few days they reached their initial goal, of $10,000 and are pushing for stretch goals that will allow for additional tools as well as money for research.

In developing the tool, the organization consulted with a group of 30 to 40 people who had been severely harassed online. “We got information from them about what they did, what they didn’t do, what they wanted, and how they asked for help,” says May.  It’s clear to me that Hollaback! is focused on making sure their tool works for people. Although the mechanism for helping users may be complex, the goal is simple.

“Our goal is to reduce trauma for people who are harassed,” says May. “[If] we don’t see early traction on that we’re going to have to change course to make sure that we do.”