Earlier this month, Facebook released its policies on harassment—a decision that was made at least partially to respond to and amplify the #MeToo movement. At the time, a Facebook executive said in an interview with TechCrunch that she wanted tech companies to contribute to conversations around harassment and abuse. This week, Facebook makes good on its promise. The platform announces a new suite of anti-harassment tools, built in consultation with victims’ advocates to protect women, journalists, and especially domestic violence survivors.
The tools include a new method that helps Facebook track and block users who generate multiple accounts to harass victims and rolls out the option to ignore a conversation—rather than block its initiator—which the company believes will let domestic violence survivors collect evidence on harassment and intimidation but not have to experience it in their inboxes
“No one should ever experience harassment, either in person or online,” said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in a statement to. “These new features will provide more ways to stop it from happening on Facebook.” Sandberg went on to thank the organizations that consulted on the new features for their counsel “and for all the work they do to help people who have experienced harassment. Everyone deserves to be protected.”
Earlier this month, Facebook came under fire for banning a woman for posting “men are scum” in a reaction to the wave of sexual harassment allegations that have been made public over the past several months. The post qualified as “hate speech,” according to Facebook policies. Facebook later said the ban and similar actions were a mistake, but the Guardian reported that its continued to delete and block similar posts.
Antigone Davis, who heads Global Safety at Facebook and oversaw the release of the new anti-harassment tools, tellsshe knows the platform still has work to do to refine its practices around abuse. Davis hosted a series of roundtables for those who face particular harassment online, like women and journalists, in countries like Ireland, the United States, and Kenya to better understand how people experience unwanted contact on social media around the world. Based on those conversations and in consult with over 250 partner organizations, her team developed the a combination of user-activated and AI-based tools to help people deal with harassers on Facebook.
“It really requires that we rely on both people as well as technology,” said Davis, who adds that she’s had loved ones who’ve had to contend with abuse online. “We create these important tools, but there’s also real opportunities to make the rules more powerful” through sustained discussions around harassment and deliberate action.
While women are more likely to be harassed on social media than men, which raises questions about how safe the platforms can ever be for women, Davis sees them as fundamentally positive spaces for engagement. “[Facebook] let people reach out to connect and utilize an online platform to express themselves,” she said. “If you think about women’s harassment, it’s occurred offline for centuries. When we have these conversations online, we’re able to reach more people, to be more connected, to understand them more deeply—both by ensuring that people can have these kind of conversations and by developing tools that better protect people from harassment.”
Cindy Southworth, executive vice president and founder of the Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), has worked with survivors for close to three decades and as an advisor to Facebook since 2010. She emphasizes how well these tools respond to what victims need—a means to track abusive behavior without escalation and to protect themselves from the emotional toll that harassment can take. “These survivors don’t want to block their ex or their abusive partner, because they want to know his tone, his state of mind, if he’s tried to contact them daily or hourly, instead of weekly or monthly,” she explains. Until now, many survivors have chosen not to be on social media at all, wanting to avoid their abusers at all costs. “But we know that so much of domestic violence is about power, control, and isolation,” Southworth continues. “Social media can be this phenomenal way to reconnect with your entire network of support that you were spliced away from during the abuse. I don’t want any survivor to think, ‘I have to isolate myself again to protect myself online.’ These granular features will make a huge difference in their lives.”
Of course, Southworth would like to see Facebook do even more to minimize harassment, but she appreciates what she sees as their commitment to victims. “For me, these features will allow survivors to stay connected and not feel like they need to be alone to be safe.”