Articles by

Emily May

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    Emily May is co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!, which receives Knight support. She is the latest contributor to a Knight Foundation series on the First Amendment. Knight recently announced the launch of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University to promote free expression in the digital age. The internet is the new battleground over free speech—and the battle lines between free speech and online harassment are being drawn not by the legal system, but by social media companies. Last year, my colleagues and I went on a mission to try and make sense of how social media companies defined online harassment. We worked with five social media companies to develop safety guides on online harassment that would be easy for people who are being actively harassed to navigate. What we found was a sea of definitions with little to no consistency. For example, on Twitter, what counts as abuse “must fit one or more criteria: reported accounts sending harassing messages; one-sided harassment that includes threats; incitement to harass a particular user; or sending harassing messages from multiple accounts to a single user.” Twitter then cites examples such as impersonation, doxxing—where someone searches for and maliciously publishes private information about someone—or threats. Meanwhile on reddit, the definition of harassment hinges on the expectations  of a “reasonable person.” Reddit defines harassment as a “systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person 1) conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or 2) fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.” But who is reasonable—and who isn’t—is subject to interpretation, and neither of these definitions offer insight into how reddit trains moderators to draw the line.   We found more insight in asking reddit what is “not harassment.” They said they “do not consider incidents in which the parties involved are provoking one another as harassment.” Similarly, “reddit does not consider attacks on an individual’s beliefs as harassment.” At face value, this makes sense and is something we’ve heard echoed in our conversation with other social media companies: Many reports of harassment come in to social media companies when two people are in an online fight and one gets sick of it and reports it. But what if that debate is about whether or not the folks at the Pulse in Orlando “deserved what they got” and you are LBGTQ? Or if slavery should be reinstituted and you are black? In these cases, there is a fine line between opinion and abuse. These types of opinions can cause very real trauma, and side effects include depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. When companies tell their users that these types of opinions are protected “free speech,” not harassment, they—intentionally or not—create space for those types of opinions to be spoken freely. Meanwhile, those who dissent lose their protections from reddit when they go into battle—and the conversation moves from an “opinion” to “two people provoking each other. Interestingly, from a trauma perspective “fighting back” is one of the few things shown to reduce the long-term impacts of trauma. It’s in these moments we’re left asking, “Free speech for whom?”
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    Video: HeartMob completed a successful Kickstarter fundraising round in May. After over 10 years of running Hollaback!, I’ve been harassed and attacked online repeatedly. For those of you who have never been harassed online, here’s a little peek into what the Internet looks like for me: The rest range from being so graphic that Knight Foundation’s editorial director won’t allow them on this site to just being too offensive and disgusting to repeat. We get about 2,500 comments like this a year. That’s more than 200 a month, if you’re counting. On the good days, I can brush it off as the “price I pay” for being a woman online. I act tough, I make funny jokes about it, and I pretend that it doesn’t hurt. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that more often than not these comments sit with me like lead weights. With every status update or tweet that I post, I evaluate whether or not what I have to say is important enough to warrant potential backlash. More often than I’d like to admit, I remain silent.   And I’m not the only one. According to a Pew Research Center survey from late last year, 40 percent of people have been harassed online and 73 percent of people witnessed someone else being harassed online. With a problem this big, the old adage “don’t feed the trolls” is akin to telling people on the receiving end of online harassment to adapt to this problem, when what they really need to do is change it. When it comes to addressing violence — in almost any form — one of the best practices is bystander intervention, or what some people term “upstander” intervention. It’s the idea that when you see violence, or even the threat of violence, there are things that you can do to intervene and help out. Typically the list includes actions creating a distraction, contacting authorities, asking the person if they are OK, or of course, intervening directly. In situations like street harassment, someone else is around maybe 50 percent of the time. But when it comes to online harassment, people are around 100 percent of the time. And if the right person isn’t around right when the harassment strikes, they can fly back in time and space through the magic of the Internet to help out.
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    Above: Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Hollaback! Knight Foundation supports Hollaback! through its Prototype Fund, which accepts applications on a rolling basis. Emily May is co-founder and executive director of Hollaback! We recently relaunched our Hollaback! app in New York, making the New York City Council the first local government in the world to accept real-time reports of street harassment.  Based on the reception in the Big Apple, we hope to scale the additional features to other cities in our global network, which is thriving in 65 cities and 22 countries. Here’s how the new features work in New York: If you get groped on Wall Street—or anywhere in the five boroughs—and report the incident through the Hollaback! app, you’ll be given the option to include your demographics, location information and what, if any, formal reporting process you went through. Your report will flow into CouncilStat, the City Council’s citizen reporting system formally reserved for grievances like potholes and noise complaints. From there, it will be sent to your council member and will also be available publicly at nyc.ihollaback.org. The New York app also provides a list of resources for people who experience harassment and a “Know Your Rights” guide. To ensure that legislators take these reports seriously, Hollaback! plans to issue semi-annual reports that look at issues and trends across New York. Those reports will also help us advocate for harassment education, policy changes and improvements to make the city safer. For example, if we find out this is happening most often to 16-year-olds, we will focus our energy on educational programs in high schools and middle schools. If we find out that most of the harassment is happening in the subways, we will launch a public service campaign. If we see that the majority of this is happening outside Penn Station, we’ll work with community members to do a safety audit of the surrounding area, looking for issues like insufficient street lighting that may be creating an unsafe environment.