IDDP-Led Team to Develop Rapid Response System for Online Harassment Victims

Multidisciplinary, multi-institutional team will initially focus on supporting female journalists, funded by an award from the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator.

October 5, 2021

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By Ruth Steinhardt

As part of the 2021 cohort of the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator, a team headed by Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics Director Rebekah Tromble of the George Washington University has received an award to develop a rapid response system that will aid experts facing coordinated campaigns of online harassment. The project will focus initially on female journalists.

Over the next year, the multidisciplinary, multi-institutional team will use its $750,000 grant from the Convergence Accelerator program to build on the work of groundbreaking anti-harassment organization Hollaback! in creating quickly accessible resources and support for online harassment victims. The team also will develop an educational campaign for online bystander intervention—how a friendly fellow Twitter user, for instance, can help someone being attacked without escalating the conflict and potentially making things harder for the victim.

“Female journalists are often at the forefront of efforts to provide accurate information to the public, but their voices are too often being shut down and silenced by coordinated campaigns of harassment,” Dr. Tromble said. “Our goal is to give journalists the tools and support they need to deal with these attacks, and ultimately to disincentivize online hate campaigns as a whole because people are able to stay online and raise their voices even when these campaigns crop up.”

One of the project’s major goals, Dr. Tromble said, is to take the pressure off individuals to respond to or recover from coordinated harassment alone. Ultimately, anti-harassment resources like those the project is building should be embedded within the institutions that employ those most likely to fall victim to coordinated troll campaigns.

“Right now, people who are being harassed online are forced to respond to it as individuals,” Dr. Tromble said. “They may have friends and family and colleagues who are expressing sympathy, but the burden of dealing with the attack and all that comes with it ultimately rests on the shoulders of the individual. And given that journalists, academics, public health officials and so on are entering the public sphere primarily because they have institutional incentives to do so—because their employers want them to have a public Twitter profile, for instance—we very firmly believe that it should be an institutional level responsibility to provide needed support for their employees who are facing harassment.”

Though the project will initially focus on supporting female journalists, long-term the team aims to assist journalists, scientists, public health officials and other experts all-too-frequently targeted by coordinated harassment.

Besides Dr. Tromble, the collaborative team includes David Broniatowski of GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science; Jill Dimond of social justice web development co-op Sassafras Tech Collective; Angie Holan of the Poynter Institute/Politifact; Hollaback! cofounder and executive director Emily May; Kathleen Searles, assistant professor of mass communication and political science at Louisiana State University; and Hollaback! program and communications associate Ana Valasquez. Kristina Wilfore, co-founder of #ShePersisted, and a part-time faculty member in GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs, also will provide guidance to the team.

“The collaborative aspect of this work is so important, because it’s a wide-ranging problem, and our solutions will have to be drawn from a range of fields,” Dr. Tromble said. “We need to be learning from best practices in a variety of different areas and have connections to a variety of impacted communities.”

Launched in 2019, the NSF’s Convergence Accelerator was established to deliver tangible solutions with nationwide social impact at the fastest possible pace. The program funds a cohort of teams that work interactively toward solving major societal challenges along focused research track topics. Twenty-eight teams were selected to be part of the 2021 cohort. Dr. Tromble and her team are one of 12 funded under “Trust & Authenticity in Communication Systems” (Track F) while 16 are funded under “The Networked Blue Economy” (Track E).

The 2021 cohort is now in Phase 1, during which teams will further develop their initial concepts, identify new team members, participate in the organization’s “innovation curriculum” and develop an initial prototype for their project. At the end of Phase 1, each team participates in a formal pitch and proposal evaluation. Selected teams will proceed to Phase 2, with potential funding up to $5 million for two years.