This Chrome Extension Scrubs Your Internet of Offensive Material

It's like an extra-effective trigger warning.

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Jun 27 2017, 12:00pm

If you've ever fantasized about being able to surf the web without a tweet or Reddit post increasing your blood pressure, you're in luck.

Soothe is an extension for Google Chrome that blurs out content deemed homophobic, racist, sexist, transphobic, or violent, depending on the user's preferences. It was developed by two Canadian university students who were trying to help out a pal. Certain online content has been shown to make mental illnesses worse, like pro-anorexia sites that can trigger people with eating disorders, or violent content that can disturb people with PTSD.

"A friend from high school has been suffering from bad anxiety and she asked me if there was a tool that did exactly this," said Nikola Draca, a 22-year-old computer science student at the University of Ottawa who helped create the extension. "A lot of the existing tools expected you to enter all of the terms you thought you needed. There were a lot of features missing."

Draca and his friend Angus McLean, a student at McGill University in Montreal, attended a hackathon this spring at Carleton University in Ottawa, where they focused on creating the tool their friend wanted. Soothe has users choose which general topics they'd like to have filtered and then the extension combs through sites to blur out potentially triggering comments or content, without censoring things like news stories.

"It uses sentiment analysis so once it finds what could potentially be a malicious piece of content, it tries to look at sentiment," Draca told me. "If it determines it to be negative, it blurs it out before the user can see it."

So far, the extension is in a beta format and they've shared it with 100 family members and friends to test it out. I installed it on my browser and while it doesn't work perfectly, I could see the potential use. I specifically looked up blog posts from noted pickup artist and misogynist Roosh V, all of which were untouched. But r/redpill posts on rape culture, homophobic tweets, and some Google search results were blurred out:

Tweet while using Soothe.
Same tweet with Soothe deactivated.

I wondered if this was the best option for people who have survived trauma or are living with an anxiety disorder, since avoidance can often exacerbate these conditions. While that's true, encountering upsetting content on the internet doesn't do much to help anyone, explained Debra Kaysen, a professor in the school of psychiatry and behavioral science at UW Medicine.

"Avoidance of anxiety cues is part of what keeps anxiety disorders running," said Kaysen. "If I'm scared of snakes and I avoid anything that reminds me of snakes, I don't learn to distinguish that a snake behind glass isn't dangerous or that most snakes are not dangerous."

Careful, controlled exposure to anxiety-inducing material is an effective and common form of therapy for people with anxiety disorders. But Kaysen said the problem with online content is that it can pop up out of the blue, which doesn't allow the person a chance to prepare and approach the situation in a therapeutic way. She said a tool like this could be helpful because it allows the person to choose what they're comfortable encountering at this stage.

Studies have found a correlation between online habits and mental health, too. People who use more social media networks or consume more news often report higher levels of stress and anxiety, and will even cite the news as one of their biggest stressors.

While avoiding anything you find uncomfortable at all times isn't healthy, Kaysen pointed out that there are some things the extension is designed to block that nobody should be expected to get used to.

"When it comes to online harassment, I don't think anybody needs to get used to those things," Kaysen said. "That's not something we want people to habituate to."

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