Women journalists and other public figures in Africa are routinely targeted in coordinated attacks by online trolls, who flood their victim’s social feeds with demeaning or threatening content as a way of drowning out or silencing women’s voices on sensitive topics.
In response to this growing online harassment, the continent’s largest network of digital democracy labs, Code for Africa (CfA), has partnered with Google’s Jigsaw to launch FeedShield, an online toolkit to help document abuse and unmask trolls.
FeedShield uses sophisticated AI-driven machine learning tools to collect evidence of online attacks, and then helps users package the evidence in a dossier to report the abuse for remedial action. In addition to reporting the abuse to social media platforms and watchdogs, users will be able to request CfA’s forensic investigation team to assist in tracing and unmasking the trolls behind the abuse and to verify whether the attacks were part of a coordinated campaign.
Built on Jigsaw’s open-source Harassment Manager toolkit, FeedShield also enables users to unfollow, mute and block toxic content.
“Misogynistic trolls try to intimidate, overwhelm or distract women opinion-setters. That’s why FeedShield is intended to give users actionable information, fast, so they can reclaim their voice and take back control of their social media feeds,” says CfA chief executive, Justin Arenstein. “But, FeedShield isn’t just a piece of technology: it is also a network of human allies to support women being targeted by trolls.”
The allied network includes a counseling hotline to help users deal with the emotional trauma caused by harassment, as well as partnerships with anti-harassment and digital security advocacy groups and a network of FeedShield fellows who will research how online harassment is used to distort public discourse and how Africans are fighting back. The FeedShield platform itself will include tipsheets and other resources to help users deal with harassment.
CfA’s forensic team, at the iLAB, already helps civic watchdogs detect and unmask coordinated networks of disinformation conspiracists and extremists for partners ranging from the United Nations to local investigative media. They will now also support any FeedShield users who want to trace the trolls who are abusing them, to understand whether the attacks were part of an organised intimidation campaign.
CfA will synchronise FeedShield’s rollout with a similar global campaign by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) that also uses Jigsaw’s technology, via TRFilter, to help journalists analyse and combat online abuse. CfA and TRF will coordinate training and newsroom support initiatives in Africa, and will jointly develop localised resources for the tools.
“These partnerships are key because women public figures, from journalists to activists and politicians, face disproportionate amounts of harassment online because of who they are or what they do – with severe consequences for themselves and for democracy at large,” says Jigsaw’s director of partnerships and business development, Patricia Georgiou. “In a study by Jigsaw, which surveyed 51 of the world’s most online-populated countries, nearly 40% of women surveyed had been harassed online.”
The study helped Jigsaw refine the underlying Harassment Manager technology over several years of development and user-testing with cross-industry collaborations with partners that included Article 19, the European Women’s Lobby, Feminist Internet, Glitch, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), Online SOS, Paradigm Initiative, PEN America, and Right To Be (formerly Hollaback!). CfA helped PEN America customise and translate its Online Harassment Field Manual for Francophone West Africa.
“We hope our work will help reduce the personal and collective impact of online violence on women around the world, and will inspire other stakeholders to take action on this important issue,” Georgiou adds.
FeedShield will initially tackle trolling on Twitter, with other social media platforms added as access to the relevant data becomes available. CfA’s initial launch will focus on Anglophone Africa, and will expand to offer support to users elsewhere in Africa from January. Arabic and Francophone versions of the tool will launch in 2023.
Alongside the tool and its online resources, CfA will offer online training and/or mentorship to anyone who wants to learn better ways to manage their digital security or how to respond to trolls, and will also offer newsrooms or CSOs in-person workshops and access to a suite of other digital security tools, including Jigsaw’s Outline VPN to protect against surveillance and Project Shield to protect against DDOS attacks.
“No single tool or intervention will solve trolling. It is going to take ongoing commitment by a coalition of partners, who each offer a specific expertise or solution,” says Arenstein. “FeedShield is one way for pulling all these efforts together, so users have an easy, quick way to get help.”
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