Facebook Is Introducing Vital Tools For Fighting Harassment

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.

Some people say the only way to stop online harassment is to stop going online. Well, we aren't going anywhere. Reclaim Your Domain is Refinery29's campaign to make the internet (and the world outside of it) a safer space for everyone — especially women.

When Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of the Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, speaks with survivors of domestic abuse about Facebook, there are two common problems she hears.

First, women tell her they will block their abuser on Facebook, only to have their harasser create a new account and start the abuse all over again. Second, survivors don't want to block their abusers on Messenger — they fear retribution if their ex find outs and also want to keep tabs on attempts at contact — but also don't want these messages filling their inbox.

Today, Facebook is addressing both longstanding issues with two new tools aimed addressing the kind of harassment that's disproportionately experienced by two groups of users: women and journalists.

"Over the last 18 months or so we have been very focused on doing a deeper dive into women's safety as well as journalists' safety," Antigone Davis, Facebook's Global Head of Safety told Refinery29. "We wanted to see if there were things we could be doing better to be more responsive."

This deeper dive, which involved conducting focus groups around the world as well as working with online safety organizations, shed further light on the same issues Southworth is used to hearing — and proved them in need of attention.

To deal with what Southworth describes as a "never-ending Whac-A-Mole problem" — in which an abuser creates a new account when blocked to continue harassment — Facebook is expanding on its existing tools for fighting fake and inauthentic accounts. Now, the site will proactively look at different signals, such as an IP address, to identify when someone who has been blocked tries to reinitiate contact.

In addition to interrupting the cycle of harassment, there's another upside: "This makes it so that the onus is not solely on the victim to keep reporting," Southworth told Refinery29. "The tech can clearly see a pattern of stalking."

It's also important to track this kind of pattern on Messenger, Southworth says, since attempts at contact and the content of messages can help survivors assess their offline safety risk. Plus, some survivors worry that blocking their abusers here could escalate violence elsewhere. Although Facebook doesn't notify users when they are blocked, it's easy for someone to figure it out: They won't be able to see the blocker's profile anymore. That's why Facebook is introducing an option to ignore a conversation, simply by tapping on it. Users will no longer receive notifications for ignored message threads, and it will be moved to Messenger's "Filtered Messages" folder.

The most important contribution of today's new features is that both are aimed at putting control back in the hands of survivors.

"Social media is heavily misused because, of course, we’re all heavily using social media," Southworth says of Facebook's vulnerability. "Abusers target places that matter to the victim, or the victim’s family or friends, a lot."

Now, instead of feeling like they need to delete their accounts and erase any social presence, survivors have tools that can help them determine how and when contact takes place.

Still, as Twitter and other social media platforms are being pressured to take a stronger line on fighting the harassment and abuse on their sites, it will be important to keep an eye on how each enforces its new tools. Is Facebook accurately identifying and acting on signals of abuse? Are there abusers who manage to slip through the cracks? As users, there is still some onus on all of us to be watchdogs.

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