We road-tested a feminist chatbot, here’s what happened next

Maru is a chatbot that helps victims of online abuse and harassment by providing them with resources and advice. Source: Maru Chatbot

Surveys show the majority of young girls and women in Australia have experienced online harassment. The Feed tried out a new chatbot called ‘Maru’, that’s been designed to support victims.

Maru is a feminist chatbot that provides practical advice and support to those experiencing online harassment. It was designed by Plan International, the charity for girl's equality, and Feminist Internet, a non-profit organisation aiming to make the internet a more equal space for women.

A survey, released by Plan International in October, shows 65 percent of Australian girls and young women have experienced online harassment. So, we decided to road-test the feminist chatbot which is so desperately needed.

When I clicked on the site, I was greeted by Maru, which looks like a cute little cartoon cloud. (I later found out that Maru translates to ‘cloud space’ in the Sesotho language and was chosen by a youth activist who helped design Maru.)

It assured me, “Maru is here to support and empower people who are experiencing, witnessing or fighting online harassment by providing real advice and resources from experts and activists.”

maru
Chat with Maru.
Maru Chatbot

I wasn’t able to type a response. Instead, a little bubble of text popped up automatically asking Maru, “Okay, tell me more.” I clicked on the message and an answer from Maru popped up.

The chatbox assured me that it doesn’t collect any personal data before asking if I was in a safe place to chat. I clicked “I’m safe” and was given a list of options to discuss; support others, report or respond, protect myself or learn more.

I chose ‘protect myself’ and Maru asked if I’d like to make my accounts more secure, manage my passwords safely, remove personal information from the internet or find resources on cybersecurity.

That’s a lot of helpful information from one little chatbot. 

I clicked ‘remove personal information’ and Maru told me to avoid being doxxed, I should avoid mentioning my address, location and names of people I live with to strangers on the internet. 

Maru
Maru is programmed with empathetic responses.
Maru Chatbot

It also sent much-appreciated gifs of birds and kittens and told me if I was being harassed online, it wasn’t my fault. Thanks, Maru.

Next up, I asked Maru to provide information about how to ‘report or respond’ to online abuse.

Maru asked what specific kind of harassment I was experiencing, telling me it was “here to help” me with whatever I’m “going through”.

I chose the option that ‘someone had shared sexually explicit photos of me’. 

Maru’s response was one of empathy and heart emojis. 

“So sorry to hear this. Life might feel pretty awful right now. Remember that what has happened is not your fault 🧡,” the chatbot told me.

Maru then asked if I wanted practical advice, information about connecting with others or tips about looking after myself.

I chose ‘looking after myself’ and Maru suggested reaching out to supportive friends or family members. It then gave a list of options for me to respond with, including; I’m afraid people will blame me, I won’t be taken seriously or I don’t know who to talk to.

I clicked ‘I’m afraid I won’t be taken seriously.’ 

Maru replied, “That's totally understandable. Sometimes people don't realise the impact online harassment has and it can feel awkward or impossible to talk to them.” The chatbot then sent through a series of links to resources about online harassment. 

Apart from offering practical solutions, resources and advice, Maru’s compassionate responses are a really touching design feature. They shift the blame away from the victim and emphasise the importance of informed consent.

‘The failing of social media platforms’

The creation of the chatbot comes as nearly half (42 percent) of girls reported losing self-esteem, self-confidence or feeling mentally or emotionally stressed after being exposed to online harassment, according to a survey by Plan International.

Mayela Dayeh, youth activist for Plan International Australia says Maru was developed because of “the failing of social media platforms”.

“One in four girls exposed to harassment are left feeling physically unsafe... One in five girls have stopped using or significantly reduced their use of social media while being harassed,” Ms Dayeh told The Feed.

“These are ridiculously high numbers that have left a lot to be desired,” she said.

Mayela Dayeh
Mayela Dayeh, youth activist for Plan International Australia.
Plan International Australia/Supplied

The chatbot was designed by youth activists across the world from Benin to Germany. These activists included people of colour and those who identified as intersectional. As a result, Ms Dayeh says Maru was created with universally inclusive and empathetic language.

“Maru is very friendly and empathetic. When you normally report something, you can tell it’s a machine, whereas Maru says, ‘I’m really sorry about what you’re going through’. It validates the experience for a lot of girls who use it,” she said.

Ms Dayeh says that when you report an image, video or comment on social media, there’s a lack of response and action from platforms.

“The most you get is maybe a message that says ‘we are looking into it’. It completely invalidates the concerns girls have about content online to the point that they stop reporting,” she said.

“What we’ve been trying to do for a while now is to get social media platforms to update their system and take into consideration young women and girl’s voices, so they can create a much more authentic experience on the app that they run,” she added.

“They really do need to do better if they want to support girls and help them be free online.”

You can try out ‘Maru’ for yourself, here.

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or visit BeyondBlue.org.au. 

Report image-based abuse to the e-Safety Commissioner at esafety.gov.au.

Resources and information about online harassment can be found at the Online Hate Prevention Institute.