Anti-troll tool to help women tackle online abuse and collect evidence

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Illustration photo by Getty Images
Illustration photo by Getty Images
  • The abuse of women is common both on and off-line, and often, it goes unpunished as there is usually no evidence. 
  • Now women who use the internet can breathe a sigh of relief as Code for Africa (CfA) has partnered with Google’s Jigsaw to launch FeedShield. 
  • It's an online toolkit to help gather evidence of online abuse and allows users to unfollow, mute and block toxic content. 

A woman’s right to live free from violence is upheld by international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. However, according to UN Women, only 40 per cent of women seek help of any sort after experiencing violence.

Often women express that a lack of evidence deters them from seeking help. But what if there was a way to gather evidence of abuse and bring abusers to book? While this is incredibly hard to do in a physical setting, there is now a way to do it when it pertains to online abuse.

In response to 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.

READ MORE | 84% of black women are abused and harassed by other Twitter users

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.

Forms of abuse that exist online include revenge porn, sextortion, catfishing and cyberbullying. According to a previous News24 report, social media expert at the Digital Law Company, Emma Sadleir, said their firm had been inundated with complaints about sextortion during the lockdown. And the trend has continued. 

READ MORE | From wig-making and nail art to driving, GBV survivors learning to thrive despite abuse

Some of these forms of abuse manifest in the following ways:

Cyberbullying: The use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature. This is most common among schoolchildren as they increasingly use social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.

Revenge porn: When someone, usually a former partner, maliciously shares naked, nude or sexually explicit photos of you without your permission. The images or videos can be distributed via social media, text messages, emails or even uploaded onto pornographic websites. The intention is usually to humiliate you.

Sextortion: Images of attractive men or women are used to lure victims to carry out sexually explicit acts, such as posing for nude photographs or performing sexual acts in front of a webcam. These images or videos are then used to blackmail the victim with the threat of public exposure.

Catfishing: This occurs when a person creates a fake profile on social media in order to deceive someone else and abuse them, take their money or otherwise manipulate and control them.

"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."

 READ MORE | Drink spiking is rife - 'Never accept a drink from a stranger or leave your drink unattended'

The allied network includes a counselling 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 tip sheets and other resources to help users deal with harassment. 

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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.

READ MORE | Violence against women is staggeringly high in South Africa 

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. CfA 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." 

If you're being abused and want to connect with a counsellor, you can contact the following organisations:

• POWA on (011) 642 4345/6 or (011) 591 6800 (available from 8:30 to 16:30 from Monday to Friday) or 076 694 5911. WhatsApp POWA on 060 400 0669 (available from 8:30 to 16:30 from Monday to Sunday). You can also email counselling@powa.co.za.   

• Contact ADAPT on 011 885 3332 / 011 786 6608 or email adapt@worldonline.co.za  

 • Contacts TEARS foundation on *134*7355# (Free) or contact TEARS on 010 590 5920 (24/7)  

 • Contact the #GBV Command Centre on 0800 428 428 for counselling services 24/7. 


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