Screen shot of Hollaback!'s "Introducing HeartMob" video (YouTube)

A 2014 Pew study found that 40% percent of internet users have been personally harassed online, and more than half of the study's participants reported having witnessed online harassment happening to someone else.

So, how do we begin to address a problem this massive? The creators of HeartMob have an idea.

HeartMob is the latest initiative from Hollaback!, a global movement to end street harassment. The initiative's website offers internet users a place where they can talk about how and where they are being harassed online, so that other registered users can offer them support—essentially creating a safe space for those in need. More than 300 people have been "supported" since the site's launch on Jan. 27, according to the figures listed on the HeartMob homepage.

I recently spoke with Hollaback! co-founder and executive director Emily May about "fighting fire with water" and her mission to end online harassment once and for all. Here's what she had to say.

Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!
Photo by Carly Romero, courtesy of Emily May

John Walker: HeartMob's stated goal is to "help end online harassment." What made you want to focus on online harassment specifically?

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Emily May: After 10 years of running Hollaback!, I've been harassed and attacked online repeatedly. Even worse, I've seen our site leaders, partners, and friends harassed online, and I've seen incredible women leave the internet as a result. I've had enough of adapting to the problem—I'm ready to change it.

In October 2013, I got fed up. Alongside the Hollaback! team, I thought: Why don't we take everything we've learned from addressing street harassment and apply it to the internet?

From Hollaback!'s "Introducing HeartMob" video (YouTube)

JW: How does online harassment differ from street harassment?

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EM: There is a false dichotomy between online and offline harassment. Both have the same root causes—sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia—and both have similar effects: They silence victims and cause depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

We knew from addressing street harassment that the movement to end online harassment would be built similarly: People would boldly share their stories, decentralized leadership would be key, and research and policy solutions would follow.

From Hollaback!'s "Introducing HeartMob" video (YouTube)

That said, we also knew that the issues presented different challenges and opportunities.

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First off, there is no "corporation" that you can appeal to in order to solve the problem of street harassment. With online harassment you can appeal to the social media and technology companies that allowed online harassment to proliferate in the name of "free speech." On our end, we've been able to partner with Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and Tumblr to create a series of safety guides.

Secondly, the role of bystanders is different in online harassment. Instead of bystanders sometimes being around—as with street harassment—bystanders are always around online. And if they missed something, they can "fly back" through time and space to address the harassment after the fact.

From Hollaback!'s "Introducing HeartMob" video (YouTube)

JW: Are you worried about trolls and other potential harassers infiltrating HeartMob?

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EM: To protect the safety of our users, we hired an independent team to try and hack the platform prior to launch. New users have to go through a robust security check prior to logging in, and the site is fully moderated by our team.

JW: Is there a punitive aspect to HeartMob?

EM: We aren't here to harass the harassers. We're here to end online harassment by fighting fire with water.

From Hollaback!'s "Introducing HeartMob" video (YouTube)

JW: The choice of language in HeartMob's mission statement is interesting. You aim to "end" online harassment, not just "manage" it or "cope" with it. Do you think it's actually possible to end online harassment?

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EM: Call me delusional, naïve, or just plain ridiculous for this answer, but yes, I think it's possible to end online harassment. HeartMob is just one piece of that puzzle, though. Our immediate goal is to reduce trauma for people who are harassed online.

JW: So, part of your mission is to create an online landscape where a service like HeartMob won't need to exist?

EM: Absolutely. We'll know we've won when we succeed in putting ourselves out of business.


This interview has been edited and condensed. A version of this piece was originally published on Fusion's Snapchat Discover channel on Feb. 3, 2016. Hit up our Discover channel every day for more cool stuff like this.

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