A New Tool For Fighting Online Abuse Lets You Recruit Friends For Help

Photo: Courtesy of Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL.
Here’s what we know about online harassment: It affects 41% of U.S. adults, with 18 to 29 year-olds experiencing the most abuse. The majority of this abuse occurs on social media and targets political views, physical appearance, gender, or race. According to the Pew Research Center, one in four Black Americans have faced harassment targeted towards their race or ethnicity.
Here's what we don’t know about online harassment: How to stop it. Many who have experienced harassment on Twitter, Facebook, or another social platform, tend to believe it's the platform’s responsibility to police it. But what do we do about people who are targeted with abusive comments outside of social media, in places like their email inbox?
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This is what a team at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory is hoping to solve with a new product called Squadbox. The idea is simple, but smart: Create a private email account that you can feel safe posting publicly and recruit a squad of friends to moderate it. This "friendsourcing," as the team calls their model, makes it so that the person facing harassment doesn't need to read offensive emails on a day-to-day basis — their trusted moderators can sort through the worst of the abuse.
"We were interested in harassment that comes at you, as opposed to something like revenge porn or doxxing where someone is talking about you somewhere else," Amy Zhang, an MIT Ph.D. student who worked on the tool, told Refinery29.
Zhang and her teammates interviewed multiple people who have experienced harassment and found that many already ask friends and family to look through their emails, often sharing their passwords so they can do so. Squadbox makes this process both more streamlined and more secure.
Photo: Courtesy of Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL.
There are two ways to use the service. If you have harassing emails coming to your current email address, you can set up filters to detect emails sent by certain individuals or with specific keywords. These emails will be sent to your approved team of moderators who can decide what to forward to you and what to delete. The alternative approach is to set up a new @squadbox email. Any emails sent to that address will go directly to your approved moderators who can decide what to do with them, reducing the risk that you'll see any of the hate mail. At any point, the person setting up the tool can make changes, adding or taking away keyword filters or switching up their team of moderators.
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In a paper announcing Squadbox's launch, the MIT team explained the reasoning behind these two options: No one solution will work for everyone who faces harassment. Each option is intended to give the person experiencing online abuse more control over the messages that show up in their inbox every day. While Squadbox is focused on email for now, Zhang says that it may expand to address harassment on Twitter and other social platforms in the future.
Today's tool, which you can sign up for at Squadbox.org, joins a number of recent initiatives seeking to put an end to online harassment. Congresswoman Katherine Clark and Senator Kamala D. Harris are fighting for legislation against revenge porn and doxxing. Jigsaw, a tech incubator owned by Google's parent company, introduced Perspective, a project that uses AI to identify toxic comments in online comment sections.
Squadbox's creators are right: There's no single solution to fixing this problem. But the more tools that are available, the better the chance there is to decrease one of the internet's most pervasive problems.
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