Emily May "One of the opportunities for the open internet movement is to fully embrace combating online harassment."

“My big question for Mozilla — and for the entire open internet movement — is: What needs to happen for online harassment to be seen as part of that framework?”

Emily is an international leader in the gender justice movement. In 2005, at the age of 24, she co-founded Hollaback! in New York City, and in 2010 she became its first full-time executive director. Under her leadership, the project has scaled to over 50 cities in 25 countries. Emily brings a fresh perspective to social action in the digital age: she argues that the internet gives us new opportunities to tackle injustice by transforming discrimination from a lonely experience into a piece of a larger, public movement. Emily believes that through the power of storytelling, decentralized leadership, and deep empathy we can disrupt cycles of hate and create a world where everyone has the right to feel safe and confident. She recently co-founded HeartMob, Hollaback!’s platform designed to support people being harassed online. Her challenge to Mozilla: How might we include online harassment in an open/healthy internet framework?


Emily’s Story

Could you start by telling me a bit about your work?

I was a co-founder of Hollaback! in 2005, and we turned into a non-profit in 2010 and I was our first Executive Director. We started off really just looking at this issue of street harassment and our collective right to walk down the street and feel safe doing it, and that took off.

We had an app where we collected stories of street harassment, and we built a global movement using decentralized leadership, training people around the world for six months a piece, and have since launched in 56 cities in 31 countries and 19 different languages. It’s been this amazing trajectory.

The issue of street harassment is not limited to the streets. People are marginalized in public space across a lot of different areas.

Our team started getting harassed online as early as 2005. At that point, it was in email form. It continued into social media, comment sections, you name it, throughout the duration of all of our work.

The idea that we thought we should be able to freely and safely navigate public space was something that was immediately perceived as a threat. We also started to see our friends who worked in social justice spaces, and our friends who are journalists, really become targets of online harassment.

There are a lot of conversations about the problem. There are not a lot of conversations about what the potential solutions could be. I was very deeply inspired by a training that I had gone to around human centered design, which focuses on how we support people who are impacted by the problem — but who don’t identify as designers. How do we put them at the steering wheel of how we impact change?

As part of using this approach, we held convenings and initial conversations — focus groups, one-on-one interviews — we talked with a lot of folks who had been very severely harassed online. Their gut response was a burn-them-down approach: “How can we get this people off the internet? How can we silence them?” For some people it was even about “How can we get them in jail? How can we strengthen the laws that criminalize online harassment?”

We knew, from having addressed street harassment and other forms of gender-based violence, that this was a very gut response. So one of our questions was “Is that actually what you want?” We did this amazing activity, which I was initially very skeptical about because it was just so silly. We gave people craft supplies and invited them to develop a solution to online harassment that ranged from practical to magical. The theme of every single one of those things was that they wanted _transformation_. It wasn’t about burn-them-down, it was about disrupting the cycle of hate with love, with empathy, with kindness. This informed the basic infrastructure of Heartmob.

How can we fight fire with water? How can we disrupt this cycle of hate? How can we use all the stuff that we’ve been building for years? All the stuff that we know about bystander intervention that is so hard to do in person and so possible to do online, how can build that? We launched Heartmob in its pilot form in January 2016 and we’ve been chugging along from there.

Can you hone in on a specific instance where you felt a sense of success with this work?

When you do work around online harassment, the loudest feedback you hear is more harassment. It’s a thankless job. So what success looks like becomes an important question, because figuring that out can keep you going. — Where are those moments of success? In many ways the feeling of success, to me, has come through the process, the process of elevating the voices of people who have been severely harassed, to try and build something that’s transformative. Ultimately, I want success to look like a reduction in trauma for those harassed online. But it will take us a while to study that, and figure out if what we’re doing is working. Anecdotally we know it is though, and that’s motivating.

More tangibly, we just won Best New Product at Netroots Nation, which was really exciting and a great reflection of what we’ve built so far. I have so many great and deep hopes for what’s possible with Heartmob, and I think that we’re just starting to peel back the layers of what’s possible within the context of the internet.

I’m also just deeply proud of us for trying something, for inserting a potential solution in a conversation so devoid of solutions, and in an environment that is so dangerous people are scared to take risks..

Probably an equally difficult question, because I’m sure you face a ton of challenges: Is there one story about a challenge, an example that you would highlight?

When we first launched the pilot of Heartmob, we were hit pretty hard by online harassment. It’s one of those things that you expect, obviously. We can’t even talk about street harassment without getting harassed online. If you want to talk about online harassment, you’ve got to learn to expect it but not accept it.

The way that that played out on our team was really hard. I personally was sick for three straight weeks following the launch of Heartmob, which is something I did not expect. I rarely get sick. We locked down our individual security, our organizational security, and developed an in-depth safety plan.

Someone had the idea for all of us to have pepper spray at our desks, and then we bought all this pepper spray and quickly realized that having pepper spray at our desk actually made us feel less safe. It was a constant reminder that we were potentially under attack.

Obviously, we got brute force attacks on the site, we survived those with flying colors. We knew that the site could be infiltrated, that that possibility existed. But we did not think that it particularly mattered because everything was fully moderated.

If somebody got on, they would only be able to see things that they can already see on the internet. They wouldn’t be able to leave any kind of hateful comments because they were fully moderated.

We had somebody infiltrate the system. They took screenshots of the commenting section, took those images into Photoshop, and typed in hateful, horrible, horrific things. Then, they started tweeting out their fake images, claiming “Heartmob had been infiltrated since day one.”

The comment wasn’t allowed on the site, but the photoshopped image started being re-tweeted by people who we thought were on our team, by feminists.

We were able to explain that in fact it wasn’t true, and that it was planted from someone intending to harass us. Now we’ve revamped security at the cost of what we were intending to do, which is to improve user design based on feedback.

Now it’s playing catch up. We invested so much in security. And what are the limitations to having something that’s so secured that it’s hard to get into? In an age where it’s a best practice that if you have to click more than twice then you’re going to lose your people. But the cost of having a system where people are not safe, or do not feel safe, is much higher than the cost of four clicks.

Those are just some of the questions that we’re thinking through in this really nascent and complicated space.

Turning now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, keeping the web open and free, what does the open internet mean for you?

It’s a great question. I’m actually really interested in the open internet space. First of all, it’s huge. Second of all, there’s a ton of money and interest and power circulating in this space.

But it’s quite limited in terms of how inclusive it is. One of the opportunities for the open internet movement is to really fully embrace online harassment. In some ways our work has even been perceived as a threat — the fact that we would in some way limit free speech could be a threat to an open internet.

But that fear lacks an analysis of what’s actually happening, which is that free speech is being limited. The freedom of women and people of color is being limited by online harassment. I am a big proponent of free speech, but the question becomes “Free speech for who?”

The open internet movement is interested in moments of censorship by government. But we have a world, right now, in which so much of our communication is not happening in person, is not happening on the telephone, it’s happening online. We have social media companies that have been given the charge, whether they like it or not, of determining what is free speech and what that looks like.

But these companies are not governments. This is not the United Nations. They are corporations with a bottom line of increasing usage. So their response to it is to take a pro-social approach, which basically means encouraging users to go in there and battle it out — because the more that you’re on their platforms, the more money they make. And that makes sense from a bottom line approach.

It also makes sense from a bottom line approach that they’re going to take on online harassment to a certain degree. If it’s so horrible that people, like me, very rarely use Twitter, then that’s a threat to Twitter’s business model. So we see that happening too.

It’s very dangerous to put free speech in the hands of corporations without any kind of oversight. The movement around the open internet really needs to also open up to looking at how can we create healthy public debate. How can we make sure that everyone has equal access to be able to speak and fully present themselves in public?

It’s a hard question. Time just came out with an article where they said that 80 percent of their editorial staff were self-censoring for fear of online harassment. That’s a huge threat to journalism. If you compound that by including regular everyday people self-censoring for fear of online harassment, then that’s a huge threat to public debate — to democracy online.

So there’s a lot of space there. I’d love to talk further with Mozilla about how to actually build that out and get people to include online harassment in that framework.

Can you tell me about a time, if ever, that you’ve benefited from the open internet?

There’s tremendous promise in the internet. The street harassment movement, in and of itself, is a very interesting case study. Street harassment is something that has been around since the advent of streets. We’ve seen interventions to address street harassment dating way, way back, but documented as early as the 1800s.

In the 1920s, J P Morgan’s granddaughter was bringing in jujitsu experts from Japan to train women to defend themselves. We also saw women carrying hairpins on the subway and poking people who tried to grab or grope them. Then there was the feminist liberation movement and women’s liberation movement in the ’70s, where this conversation reemerged and there were projects, projects, projects.

But when Hollaback! Started in 2005, there was only one other project, the Blank Noise Project, that was doing this work — and it was a slow murmur. Through this act of just starting to tell our stories, we saw the movement grow from two, three little projects in 2005 to 20, 30 little projects in 2010, to 100 or 150 projects today, around the world.

We’ve seen even the term “street harassment” go from something that was buried in an academic journal somewhere to something that’s commonly known and discussed, that people can identify “this is what happened to me.” It’s not just called catcalling anymore, what the crap guy said to me on the street. That’s all through this power of being able to openly share your story, no matter who you are, no matter where you are, and finding people who have experienced that.

We had analog versions of that called consciousness raising groups in the ’70s — they had a huge impact on the participants, but it stayed within the realm of personal transformation, because it was people participating in a group. When you start to move that online, it moves from personal transformation and being able to more deeply understand your experiences to the level of societal transformation.

You’ve got people hearing and seeing these stories that have never before experienced street harassment, or that maybe heard their girlfriends talk about it, but they thought it was just random, that is wasn’t something that was consistent or broad, or a problem across society.

I think that, plus the opportunity to not just connect with each other’s stories, but to connect with each other, has fostered what we now know as the global street harassment movement, which is stronger and fiercer than ever.

Getting more specific about Mozilla, what is your involvement with them been like and how did you get to learn of them?

I’m not super involved with Mozilla. The Heartmob is a project funded by the Knight Foundation. I know Mozilla works closely with Knight, and that there might be some synergy there. I also think I’ve been to a key meeting sponsored by Mozilla at some point.

My big question which is to Mozilla, but not just to Mozilla — it’s to the entire open internet movement — is what needs to happen for online harassment to be seen as part of that framework?

I ask in a couple of ways: What’s been learned in that movement? What are the movement’s priorities? What do people need to know or see about online harassment? Then I also ask in a practical way: Who is the right person to deliver that message? Where do they deliver it?

I don’t think it’s me who should deliver that message. It’s somebody who’s already very well entrenched in that movement. Someone who can stand up and make this case and to make the case for why this is the right time and this is a part of what everyone is fighting for.

If there are answers to those questions in your stories, if there are people who are also asking this question, that would be really helpful. I would love to hear what they’re thinking about and connect with them.

You reached out to me. You were like, “I want to talk to you about this thing.” So it’s already coming up. It’s in these conversations.