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SXSW

More Startups Are Emerging To Take On Internet Trolls

At a recent hackathon, attendees came up with creative ways ways to fix tech's great online harassment problem.

Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt - Act II, Scene VI: Peer before the King of the Trolls

[Illustration: Arthur Rackham, Culture Club, Getty Images]

Two weeks ago, a group of developers, journalists, and policy experts showed up at the headquarters of Google and Facebook to brainstorm ideas about how to solve one of the Internet's pervasive problem: Trolls.

The hackathon, called No2H8, was organized by a company called Affinis Labs, which specializes in throwing events to brainstorm solutions to major challenges.

At SXSW's day-long online harassment summit, I heard Affinis Labs' Wajahat Ali describe No2H8; he said the attendees were split into groups and tasked with creating an online platform to tackle various forms of online harassment. Many of the participants shared their personal experiences, including getting trolled with hateful messages and even death threats on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The winning idea, a website called "Activate Your Squad," was the brainchild of a journalist, a programmer, and an employee at the United Nations. The idea is to leverage people's social capital to counter hate with positive messages. The second-place idea helps people visualize their lives in the future to help them understand how their current actions, like trolling journalists and other public figures, might impact them.

Activate Your Squad is already up and running after raising a small amount of capital. But I'm far from convinced that startups can tackle online harassment without the larger tech companies, including Twitter, taking more extensive measures to combat abusive speech.

Twitter, in particular, has been criticized for failing to crack down on abusive speech. The company faces a delicate balancing act of combating threats of violence and other abuses while protecting its users' freedom of expression. In January, it came under fire after it revoked the verified status of Milo Yiannopoulos, a British journalist known for his provocative commentary and criticism. Yiannopolous insists that his tweets aren't serious.

The largest tech companies have all spoken out against hateful speech, and promised to take down offensive posts within 24 hours. But by then, the recipient of a death threat or other hateful message has already seen the content.

I was trolled heavily on Twitter last year with misogynistic messages and outright threats of violence, and it left me feeling scared and anxious. I reported many of the messages, but that didn't take away their impact. After this experience, I've grown increasingly concerned that negative trolls will have a chilling effect on journalism (here's a fantastic article on the topic.)

That said, I'm glad to see more attention being paid to the issue of online harassment with companies hosting hackathons, and SXSW setting up a summit dedicated to the issue. My hope is that the startups tackling online harassment in smart and innovative ways will join forces with the largest technology companies to make a larger impact.


Can hackathons make a difference? How will startups play a role in combating hateful speech? Let me know at cfarr@fastcompany.com

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