Post 1 of 3: Have you, or someone you care about, been harassed online or harassed others online?

Empathization Website

by Derek S. Chan & Shruti Deshpande

Our views in this series don’t necessarily reflect that of the people thanked below.

Thanks to Lucas Dixon (Chief Scientist at Jigsaw) for leading efforts against online toxic language and discussing with us our write-up of this series.

Thanks to faculty at UC Berkeley’s Master of Information & Data Science (MIDS) program — Joyce Shen, Alberto Todeschini, D. Alex Hughes, and Dan Gillick — and the school’s Dean, Anno Saxenian, for their support.

Thanks to the women who granted anonymized interviews, sharing their experiences with online gender harassment and informing our efforts.


According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, gender equality refers to “equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities. . . However, after 60 years, it is clear that it is the human rights of women that we see most widely ignored around the world”.

One manifestation of gender inequality — which arises from motive, thought, and behavior patterns — is online gender harassment.

The startling statistics above summarize online harassment toward women in politics who seek social change. Similarly, online harassment toward women outside of politics is pervasive. In part of the world, nearly 1 of 2 women experience online harassment.

Image Source: Norton, 2016 via Claire Reilly, c|net, 2016

Online gender harassment silences voices and suppresses equal opportunities. Twitter General Counsel, Vijaya Gadde, admits: “These users often hide behind the veil of anonymity on Twitter and create multiple accounts expressly for the purpose of intimidating and silencing people” (Washington Post, 2015). In March-April 2017, a number of women (who have been harassed on Twitter) granted us interviews. Some revealed they had become less vocal on the platform or switched to profile photos and usernames that hid their gender to avoid online harassment.

While 79% of Americans feel online social platforms should intervene, such platforms haven’t reported effective interventions yet. This raises many questions: are such interventions too difficult, are internal politics a roadblock (BuzzFeed, 2016), etc?

Partly due to high-profile events such as the #WomenBoycottTwitter campaign, Twitter released a calendar of safety initiatives. As a 3rd-party with no vested interest in Twitter, we explored one idea to mitigate online harassment that isn’t currently on their calendar: Twitter bots send automated replies to users who harass women. Some women interviewees liked the idea and proposed the phrasing of automated Twitter bot replies. For instance, one woman (who approved for her words to be published) had proposed:

Our initiative aimed to support women such as her against harassment from both men and women. Are you curious about the results of our social experiment? Check out our next blog post.