Fierce: the app that aims to empower those facing Twitter harassment

It might be well meaning but ultimately this app is incredibly misguided

If you read our article on on Mia Matsumiya’s Instagram that’s calling out her online harassers, you’ll know that we’re all for ending the culture of abuse that’s so pervasive online and is undeniably disproportionately directed at women. Being a tech magazine targeted towards women has made us victims of it ourselves. Trolls don’t care whether they’re attacking a prominent public figure, a business, or an individual, they’re just out to inflict pain, physical and emotional. Twitter is one of the worst places on the web for this with abuse ranging from hurtful comments, to aggressive threats, to hacking, and worse still. I think we can all agree that this shit is absolutely not okay.

Software developer and writer Stuart Fitzwilliam feels like this too and has created a Kickstarter campaign to fund Fierce, an app that ultimately wants to empower those who are being harassed on Twitter by trying to offer a way to build confidence via a support network.

The app works by having you share a message of harassment you’ve received to the Fierce app and identify what type of harassment you are experiencing (threatening, racist,sexist, or homophobic). The app then generates a positive statement which it thinks should help you to regain your confidence. You can then share this message across your social networks to gather support from friends. Users of the app can send and receive anonymous messages of support others in the Fierce community and also choose to share messages with harassers to let them know you’ve remained strong in the face of their abuse.

In an interview with VisualNews, Stuart Fitzwilliam admitted that he himself has never experienced any serious degree of online abuse.

“I’m a straight, white, middle-income male with no visible tattoos and a charming accent. I’m in the demographic that’s exposed to probably the least amount of prejudice on the planet. People may disagree with me or not like something I’ve written, but I don’t receive even a fraction of the harassment people go through. But I see people on Twitter who have terrible experiences with this; whenever I try to interject, their harasser rarely engages with me. They want someone to be angry at at, and I don’t fit the typical demographic they hate on.”

It’s not often you see privilege checking in action. However, whilst that’s refreshingly positive, and there is an attempt to empathise with those who suffer online abuse, we can’t help but feel that Fitzwilliam’s project is ultimately incredibly misguided and dramatically underestimates the extent and severity of the harassment many women are facing.

Firstly, the app doesn’t seem to take into account that people have very different reactions to receiving messages of abuse. Not everyone wants to, or even feels able to, share what’s been said to them. It’s a pretty one dimensional understanding of how people react to abuse as often the feeling of hiding and staying quiet is the first and most powerful reaction. It takes a fairly established sense of your worth as a person to know that you can recover it using this app, but for someone who has been emotionally and mentally eviscerated what this app is offering would probably not seem like a viable option at all.

I know I’m not alone in thinking that having my crippling insecurities being picked apart, my safety being threatened, and my life being described as worthless, is hardly going to be solved by channelling the spirit of bloody Beyonce. I don’t know where this idea that holding up Beyonce to a misogynist is akin to holding up a crucifix to a vampire has come from, but it’s just not, and it’s a really shallow understanding of the complex nature of this misogyny and abuse.

Not only this, the app seems pretty open to misuse. The creator says on the Kickstarter page only positive messages can be sent, but by opening the app to a community who, according to this very same Kickstarter, can write their own messages, who says the trolls won’t come in there? I imagine creating an interactive community is an effort to make the entire experience seem more meaningful and less hollow that purely randomly generated messages. Although Fitzwilliam has said that he’ll make sending and receiving messages completely anonymous, and eliminate Twitter handles from featured posts, this just isn’t enough to stop trolls using anything specific in the reported tweet at all to hunt a person down.

Even more, the option to customise messages of support is a prime opportunity to kick someone when they’re already down. Imagine facing a torrent of abuse on Twitter and opening up the app that you think is supposed to be a safe space, only to find that someone has managed to utilise it to attack you there as well. Unless Fitzwilliam is prepared to hire a moderation team that dwarfs the staff numbers at Twitter itself I don’t see how this is manageable. Anything other than the option to share pre-made messages of support seems like a risk. And don’t even get me started on the option to be able to share your positive message with your harasser to help them see the error of their ways. Talk about a red flag to a raging bull.

Possibly worst of all, the app puts the responsibility on those who are being harassed to find a way to make their experience more bearable. Our editor Holly, who has had to deal with more than a few harassers on Twitter, says:

“The problem with ‘solutions’ like this is that they put the onus on the person being harassed to change things. It’s the same problem we’ve seen with rape prevention devices, where well-meaning people create products and services for the victim to use, rather than focussing on the person causing the problem. The question shouldn’t be ‘how do we make people feel better about being harassed?’ – it’s ‘How do we stop people harassing?’ Yes, that’s harder – that’s why no one’s solved it yet.”

And that’s the problem. As much as this app has been created with the best of intentions at its core, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s an app that’s showing a shallow attempt to understand those who harass women online, and the women themselves being harassed. It’s a depressing thing when we begin to see more things offering vague support to victims of online harassment than we do actual initiatives from platforms like Twitter themselves to stop the harassment in the first place.


Main Image via Kickstarter