While the U.S. journalism and its media community have been shocked by the murders of the newsroom staff of the Capital-Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, the attacks were the latest manifestation of the growing violence, harassment and hostility toward U.S. and international journalists. This research tracks the studies, causes and commentary on the prevalence and rise of the threats, and the connections to social media and the current political environment.
Studies Reveal Prevalence of Online Threats to Female Journalists
By Dan Escalona
University of Illinois
A Canadian journalist said she rarely practices journalism online due to numerous threats and insults on social media platforms.
A female journalist from Argentina writes online with a pseudonym to avoid abuse.
“I frequently – typically after appearing on air as a commentator on political issues – receive threatening or harassing phone calls, emails and messages on Twitter that can range from comments on my appearance to threats of rape or other sexualized violence, to comments about my lack of intelligence,” said a female journalist from the United States.
Another journalist said, “For the nearly five years I worked as a technology journalist at a magazine, I was constantly criticized online. Often, this had nothing to do with the content of my articles. I was called a whore for writing a negative article about Apple, people searched me online to come up with embarrassing information and posted it beneath my articles, and people often made belittling or sexist jokes as comments.”
These are just some of the responses contained in a 2014 report by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) on harassment of female journalists.
In the survey for the report, two thirds of respondents said they had experienced intimidation, threats or abuse in retaliation to their work. More than a quarter of the intimidation, threats and/or abuse occurred online.
Dunja Mijatovic, the Media Freedom Representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), views online harassment as a particularly vicious threat to journalism in the 21st century — particularly for female journalists.
“Democracy thrives when a plurality of forces are heard online,” she said in a 2015 report by the OSCE on the online abuse of female journalists. “Yet, one particular group of voices has come under attack in the most disturbing and dangerous of ways. Female journalists and bloggers 20 throughout the globe are being inundated with threats of murder, rape, physical violence and graphic imagery via email, commenting sections and across all social media platforms.”
While Mijatovic conceded that male journalists do face harassment, she emphasizes that “the severity, in terms of both share amount and the content of abuse, including blatant sexist and misogynistic vitriol, is much more extreme for female journalists.”
Detailing the threats journalists face online, the advisory warned: “Trolls want to incite a reaction. They choose their words to upset their victim. They often denigrate the individual on a personal level, spew profanity and hate speech, issue violent threats, and use sexual language. This malicious approach should distinguish a troll from an audience member who disagrees with you and wants to be heard.”
Online Harassment around the World
The International Press Institute (IPI), based in Vienna Austria, maintains a database on online harassment faced by journalists in Austria and Turkey — two nations on the opposite ends of press freedom, according to the most recent rankings by Reporters Without Borders. Turkey, the leading jailer of journalists in the globe today, ranks 157th. Austria, which traditionally ranks highly in press freedom, is at 11 in the 2018 rankings.
The database has 1,065 instances of online threats and abuse reported by journalists in both nations. The majority of reported cases were in Turkey with 950, whereas only 115 cases were reported in Austria.
Among the findings in both nations:
- About 80 percent of this online harassment was “abusive behavior.” Forty percent of this abusive behavior involved verbal abuse, while another 45 percent involved verbal smears. The IPI defines verbal abuse and verbal smears as “messages that seek to harass, humiliate or discredit individual journalists.”
- Seventeen percent of the online threats and abuse reported by the database were specific threats of violence.
- About 68 percent of these threats of violence were “implied threats.”
- Sixteen percent of the violent threats involved threats of non-sexual physical harm.
- Seven percent of the cases were death threats, while another six percent involved threats of sexual violence.
The IPI also published a detailed report on the online harassment faced by Austrian journalists. The report illustrated that much online abuse against journalists is topic-related. Austrian journalists were more likely to be targeted if they wrote or reported on issues related to immigration, the refugee crisis and feminism.
The report highlighted different examples of online harassment journalists may face, writing: “Here, the spectrum of abuse ranges from denying the journalist’s competence or criticizing her appearance, all the way to “Go die, you whore”. Implied threats such as “You should be raped by a refugee” commonly follow coverage of refugee issues, as did comments suggesting that women will “get what comes to them.”
The report found that women were disproportionately the targets of harassment. The report noted “women are more likely than men to be dismissed as incompetent and to be threatened with physical consequences.” Male journalists were also more likely to be indifferent to online abuse.
Across Europe to Finland is another case study of the online threats female journalists face, even in a country that ranks in the fourth in the 2018 Reporters Without Borders index.
Unprecedented levels of online abuse in Finland
In 2017, the IPI reported on the “unprecedented” levels of online abuse faced by journalists in Finland. The post cites a report by the Finnish Journalists Union, the University of Tampere and the Finnish Association for Investigative Journalism which found that one in four journalists were victims of verbal harassment, including insults and physical threats. Most of the journalists targeted were women, and much of the online harassment was in response to coverage of immigration and refugees.
The report details the case of Linda Pelkonen, a journalist who wrote a story about a 14-year-old girl allegedly raped by a Finnish citizen of immigrant background. In response to the story, she received rape and death threats on social media and email. Her personal phone number was published on an anti-immigrant website shortly after. She received many threatening, violent thought calls and text messages.
Pelkonen reported the threats to the police, but a regional prosecutor originally declined to press charges. She, along with the Finnish Journalists Union, filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, arguing “that a failure to investigate the threats would set a dangerous precedent.” Eventually, Finland’s prosecutor general agreed to pursue the case. Finally, in May 2017, the Helsinki prosecutor’s office charged three men over the online attacks.
Online harassment of journalists in Mexico
Mexico, a nation that ranks much lower in press rankings and is recognized as one of the most dangerous places for journalists, also sees considerable issues with online harassment of female journalists.
The New York Times reported in June 2017 on the Mexican government using spyware programs to target journalists and activists.
In Mexico, online harassment can often manifest in actual physical violence, prominently illustrated by the case of Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio.
She was part of a citizen journalist network called Valor por Tamaulipas reporting on crime and violence committed by drug cartels in Reynosa, Tamaulipas — a city on the US-Mexico border beset by extreme violence due to the rivalry between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas. Both cartels have the final say over what gets printed or broadcast in local media.
Del Rosario tweeted under the pseudonym Felina with a photo of Catwoman as her online avatar. In response to her reporting, the cartels distributed leaflets around the city offering a reward for anyone who would provide information about the account’s administrator. The account was inundated by threats of violence. Despite constant threats and abuse, Del Rosario continued posting news alerts.
On October 16, 2014, she posted the following message: “Today my life has come to an end.” Soon after, she was reported to be kidnapped and executed by local cartels.
A Hostile Environment for Women
Writing in Michigan Law Review, Danielle Keats Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, analyzed the connection between gender and online harassment, saying, “cyber gender harassment has a set of core features: (1) its victims are female, (2) the harassment is aimed at particular women, and (3) the abuse invokes the targeted individual’s gender in sexually threatening and degrading ways.”
A 2017 report by the Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of Americans had experienced some type of online harassment. But the report found major differences in the experiences of online harassment between men and women. Women were twice as likely as men to say they have been targeted as a result their gender.
Women also encountered sexualized online harassment at a much higher rate than men. The report found 21 percent of women ages 18 to 29 reported online sexual harassment, compared to nine percent of men.
Half of women in that age group reported being sent sexually explicit images they did not ask for. Furthermore, 35 percent of women described online harassment they faced as either extremely or very upsetting. In contrast, only 16 percent of men described the online harassment they faced as such.
In addition, men and women sharply differ in their attitudes toward the importance of online harassment as an issue.
Women were much more likely than men to say “people should be able to feel welcome and safe and online spaces.” Men were much more likely than women to say that people should be able to speak freely online. Seventy percent of women view online harassment as a major problem, while only 54 percent of men do.
A major effect of gendered online harassment is “entrenching gender hierarchy in cyberspace” and to “reinforce gendered stereotypes, casting men as dominant in the bedroom and the workplace and women as subservient sexual objects who are not fit to work online,” Keats Citron wrote.
A 2016 report by the Rad Campaign found similar results. According to the survey, 17 percent of respondents had experienced sexist harassment. Women were four times as likely as men to report experiencing sexist online harassment. In an earlier report from 2014, 44 percent of people reported to experience sexual online harassment.
The report also found that Facebook was overwhelmingly the most common form for online harassment. Sixty-three percent of respondents reported to being harassed on Facebook.
Online harassment on email and Twitter were the second and third most common platforms for experiencing harassment. Even among daily twitter users, the vast majority reported to being harassed on Facebook.
Of the respondents that reported online harassment, six in 10 knew the perpetrator. Of respondents that reported harassment on Facebook, 70 percent knew the perpetrator.
Online harassment of women functions as one of many major obstacles to the equal and free participation of women in society.
The Global Fund for Women recently wrote, “We recognize that online violence is a symptom of deep-seated gender inequality, and just one more way that women and girls are denied their human rights.”
“An Attack on Women for Being Women”: Impacts of Online Harassment
Online harassment of journalists, particularly women in journalism present an assortment of problems. Online harassment presents a threat to the participation of women in journalism.
Elisa Lees Munoz, the executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, said women choose to exit journalism and media because of the gendered, personal and often violent nature of digital harassment targeted against them and female journalists in general.
“Much of the time media organizations do not have policies or support systems in place to of journalists deal with these kinds of attacks,” she said. “They don’t feel supported and don’t feel protected, and they just leave.”
This deeply exacerbates the current global gender imbalance and lack of female representation in the news media, she said.
The departure of women from the newsroom means there is less diversity of viewpoints and perspective of those who report the news. Ultimately, the perspective is male-centric, and white male-centric at that. The same dynamic for women is also felt by other minorities in the newsroom, Munoz said.
“The impact is on the news product but it is also personally on the individuals,” she said. “There is a lot of trauma associated with constant, ongoing attacks, attacks against your family, attacks against your person. It creates a real sense of paranoia, depressive atmosphere for the person experiencing this who is feeling attacked and alone.”
Self-censorship is another result of digital harassment. Journalists often second-guess and question what they will write and report on if a particular issue or statement will generate harassment. Often journalists will not cover certain topics because of the potential for threats and abuse in response, Munoz said.
These multiple impacts of online harassment felt by women in particular are part of what Munoz describes as the “ripple effect” of digital harassment and attacks against journalists.
For Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the “viciously gendered” component of online harassment is particularly concerning as journalism is becoming a majority female profession in the United States and other countries.
For example, he estimated about 70 percent of journalism students in the graduate program at Columbia University are women. A similar number of female journalism students can be found at Moscow State University where he once spoke at an event, he added.
“It [online harassment] is an attack on the legitimate place of women in this profession and an attack on women for being women,” he said. “It is a vehicle for gendered bigotry.”
Snjezana Millvojevic, professor of Public Opinion and Media Studies at the University of Belgrade, said online harassment is a broader attack on women’s freedom. In the OSCE report on digital harassment, she wrote:
“When addressed to women they are violently sexualized and with the main purpose to scare and silence them from being in public. online misogyny is not “just” a gender discrimination issue – it crosses over into the broader field of freedom of speech. Journalism is a public good in itself. It is an essential form of public knowledge in an information society. Digital threats to women journalists aims to do what misogyny has always done. They represent an attempt to prevent women from participating in public life. Society has for centuries been successful in keeping women out of public life by silencing, scaring and denigrating them, or by judging their appearance in public life to be trivial. Online threats keep this sexism alive.”
Online Harassment of Journalists on the Rise
Online harassment of journalists is occurring with a backdrop of a rising distrust and hostility toward journalism in the United States and around the world, according to, according to several major studies.
According to a 2016 study by Gallup, American trust in the news media has reached record lows.
- The Gallup survey found only 32 percent of Americans having a great deal or fair amount of trust in the news media to report the news fairly and accurately.
- In 1976, 72 percent of Americans had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the news media.
- A 2018 study by the Knight Foundation came to similar conclusions. The report found only 33 percent of Americans to have “a lot or some trust” in the news media. Forty-five percent of saw a great deal of bias in political reporting.
One aspect of this distrust in the news media that has become more pronounced is the partisan divide of trust in the news media. This trend has clear intersections with the American political climate, trends in American journalism and the culture of social media.
In a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of Democrats supported the news media’s “watchdog role”, whereas only 47 percent of Republicans supported it. The gap sharply increased following the 2016 campaign. In early 2016, 77 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats supported the “watchdog role.”
“We are at a moment of very high mistrust in institutions of all sorts. Not only are we mistrustful of the government, we are now at a point of high mistrust of the media,” said Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT.
The center works to “support and foster civic participation and the flow of information between and within communities.” Zuckerman, formerly at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, has spent his career focusing on civic media, freedom of speech online, and understanding media ecosystems
“We are now seeing attacks on journalism as an institution, and that is very different than pointing out individual places where journalists get things wrong,” Zuckerman said. “It is not only dangerous to individual journalists but our society. We need news to be members of democracy, and if we don’t believe the press can do that we are in some real trouble.”
Distrust and hostility to the news media is by no means a new phenomenon in American life. Richard Nixon often disparaged the media throughout his presidency. The Nixon administration called for ending the broadcast licenses for news networks and sought to use the FCC and the IRS to attack “unfriendly” networks. Vice President Spiro Agnew delivered a speech in 1969 criticizing the news media for its bias against the president.
“Distrust Combined With Polarization”
For Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, what makes the issue different today is “distrust combined with polarization.” The Dart Center, a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is “dedicated to informed, innovative, and ethical news coverage reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy.”
Shapiro stressed the importance of distinguishing between distrust of and hostility toward the media and journalism. He sees the distress of journalism the greater problem.
“Fox News viewers love the media; they just love their media. Nation readers love the media. Everybody loves the media; what some don’t love is journalism,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro suggested that the institution of journalism has contributed to distrust and hostility.
One reason, he said, is the “degradation of the range and relevance of reporting” in local communities in part because of concentration of ownership and newsroom cutbacks, says Shapiro. Some studies estimate that nearly 60 percent of US newspaper jobs have disappeared in the last 26 years.
He also blames the overreliance on data and less reliance on human reporting.
“When people don’t hear the stories being told they are going to mistrust the messenger,” he said.
Stephanie Craft, an associate professor in journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, put some blame on the journalists’ inability to listen.
“What we saw during the coverage of the 2016 campaign, a major criticism of it, was that the press didn’t listen to people, they weren’t listening to the average voters out in flyover country,” she said, referring to the states between the East and West Coast. “They missed this story because they didn’t listen and that is certainly a component that mistrust plays in that.”
The Trump Factor
Experts have cited the political ascendancy of Donald Trump to the White House to the way he took advantage of the intense hostility and distrust of the news media.
Throughout his campaign and presidency, Trump has used his Twitter feed as a cudgel against the press and in remarks in his press conference. It has been a tool to insult, denigrate and threaten critical and unfriendly journalists and outlets. The names he has called the media include: “disgusting and corrupt”, “fake news”, “dishonest press”, and “the failing New York Times”.
Between the beginning of 2015 and the end of 2017, Trump attacked the media 990 times on Twitter, according to an analysis by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) researcher Stephanie Sugars.
Columbia Journalism Review’s Jonathan Peters compiled a breakdown of Sugars’ spreadsheet. 250 tweets targeted an individual journalist, while 350 targeted a specific news organization. 20 percent of his attacks against the New York Times with another 15 percent aimed at CNN. The term “fake news” appeared 140 times.
Regarding Trump’s hostility to the news media, Reporters Without Borders said, in its 2018 Press Freedom Index: “More and more democratically-elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion. The United States, the country of the First Amendment, has fallen again in the Index under Donald Trump, this time two places to 45th. A media-bashing enthusiast, Trump has referred to reporters “enemies of the people,” the term once used by Joseph Stalin.”
Trump’s use of the phrase “fake news” has been spread to strongmen and autocrats throughout the globe. In Turkey, President Erdogan praised Trump for putting a CNN reporter “in his place” during the press conference. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad dismissed an Amnesty International report of about thousands of deaths at a military prison as “fake news.” In Myanmar, a security official referred to the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people as “fake news.” In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte called reporters “spies” during a meeting with Trump.
The phenomenon has even been seen in democracies. In Spain, the Foreign Minister claimed that photos of police violence during the Catalonian independence referendum were fake. In Poland, President Andrzej Duda tweeted “Let’s Fight Fake News” after a press conference with Trump.
Many of Trump’s attacks on individual journalists come with gendered language targeting women.
He told NBC reporter Katy Tur to “be quiet” during a press conference. He condescendingly told an Irish reporter she had a “nice smile.” He ridiculed New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd as a “neurotic dope.” He said former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.”
On multiple occasions, he has called for the firing of specific journalists. In December, Trump took to Twitter to call for the firing of Washington Post reporter Dave Weigle. The president had ridiculed Weigle for circulating a misleading photo of the crowd at a Trump rally in Florida, despite Weigle apologizing for tweeting the photo.
In September, Trump, through White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, called for the firing of ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, who had termed Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter.
Some of his attacks on the press have even implied violence. In July 2017, Trump tweeted a GIF of himself tackling a person with the CNN logo superimposed.
During the presidential campaign, Trump instructed the press to sit in designated “pens.” This often opened the press up to heckling from both Trump and his supporters at rallies.
Though Twitter is the most scrutinized aspect of Trump’s attacks on the press, the actions he has taken as president are an equally damaging aspect of his administration’s hostility to journalism.
In the first year of the Trump presidency, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits rose 26 percent. In fiscal year 2017, they were 651 FOIA lawsuits filed against federal government agencies. There were 515 lawsuits filed in fiscal year 2016. FOIA lawsuits have steadily increased between fiscal year 2012 and 2017. There is now nearly a backlog of 900 FOIA lawsuit cases in federal courts.
In response to leaks to the press from inside the White House, a chilling environment has developed against whistleblowers and leakers in the federal government. In 2017, the Department of Justice had 27 investigations into the leaking of information to the press. There were just three such investigations in 2016.
The impact of Trump’s anti-media rhetoric in creating a hostile climate for journalists online, especially women and other minority groups, has been documented by CPJ.
“Trolls Take Aim”
On Trump’s inauguration, the CPJ published a report highlighting the direct connection between the new president’s hostile rhetoric against the press and the online harassment of journalists.
The report proclaimed “when the president-elect tweets, the trolls take aim.”
Much of the president’s rhetoric against the press has had an impact on the online behavior of some of his supporters.
Shortly after the 2016 election, the Anti-Defamation League published a study on the anti-Semitic online harassment of journalists during the campaign. The report found 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets, which earned nearly 10 billion impressions. 800 journalists were targeted by these tweets. Nearly 2/3 of these tweets were generated by 1,600 Twitter users. Increase percentage?
A large plurality of these messages were sent by users self-identified as Trump supporters, conservatives and other extreme right wing factions. The report found that the majority of these users had words like “Trump”, “nationalist”, “conservative” and “American” in their bios.
Many of these tweets were particularly vulgar and racist, containing references to the Holocaust and Nazi imagery. One particularly vicious example of this sort of harassment was aimed at journalist Julia Ioffe after she had written a profile of Melania Trump. In response to this article, Ioffe received a torrent of tweets with anti-Sematic, misogynistic language and photos of concentration camps.
Elisa Lees Munoz, the executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, sees online harassment aimed at journalists are indicative of the political climate in the United States.
“Certainly, violence and attacks and harassment in our own country have increased because of the political climate,” she said. “This notion of ‘journalists as my enemy’ certainly contributes to more harassment.”
Elana Newman, the research director at the Dart Center, sees a larger connection between online harassment and civil discourse.
“From a US perspective, I do believe that the lack of civility in public discourse plays a role,” she said. “There has been a change of demeanor in about what is civil discourse, what is acceptable and what isn’t, and that certainly may be having an influence.”
Attacks on American Media
The increasingly dangerous state of journalism in modern America is not merely manifested in Trump’s anti-media rhetoric — though he is merely its most visceral representation — but through actual violence and legal action against the press.
In May 2017, Ben Jacobs, a reporter at The Guardian, was physically attacked and body slammed by Montana Republican U.S. House candidate Greg Gianforte.
In an audio recording of the incident, Gianforte was heard telling Jacobs: “I’m sick and tired of you guys. The last guy who came in here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Are you with the Guardian? Get the hell out of here.”
Gianforte’s hostility to journalists did not come about in that incident. At an earlier campaign event, a supporter said, “Our biggest enemy is the news media. How can we rein in the news media?”
To this, Gianforte responded: “We have someone right here. It seems like there is more of us then there is of him.” He said this while pointing at a reporter in the audience.” Gianforte was later charged with a misdemeanor. Eventually, he issued an apology to Jacobs.
Following the incident, Guardian US editor Lee Glendinning said in a statement: “The Guardian is deeply appalled by how our reporter, Ben Jacobs, was treated in the course of doing his job as a journalist while reporting on the Montana special election. We are committed to holding power to account and we stand by Ben Jacobs and our team of reporters for the questions they ask and the reporting that is produced.”
The Jacobs incident was the most high profile physical attack on an American journalist until the murders of the Capital-Gazette staff. In 2017, there were 44 journalists physically attacked in the United States, according to data compiled by the US Press Freedom Tracker — a database put together by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Two of the journalists were attacked by politicians. They were five cases where journalists were assaulted by members of law enforcement. There were another 16 cases of journalists attacked by protesters. About 70 percent of journalists were assaulted at protests or rallies that turned violent.
The database also tracks legal attacks and prosecution against journalists, which represent additional threats to American journalism.
There were 34 journalists arrested in 2017, according to the tracker. The majority of these journalists were arrested while covering protests. There were 10 journalists arrested while covering a protest in St. Louis following the acquittal of a white police officer charged in the killing of an unarmed black man.
Many of the arrests involved violent and aggressive policing tactics by law enforcement. One prominent case of a journalist arrested at the protest was Mike Faulk, a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Faulk was knocked down, pinned to the ground and handcuffed by police, according to the Press Freedom Tracker. In February 2018, Faulk filed a lawsuit against the City of St. Louis.
Another high profile incident of arrests of journalists in the Trump era occurred on the day of his inauguration. Nine journalists were arrested during protests on Inauguration Day. Each reporter was charged with a felony for unlawful rioting in Washington, DC. Charges for seven of the journalists were eventually dropped.
The government did go forth in its prosecution of two journalists, independent photojournalist Alexei Wood and freelance journalist Aaron Cantu. They were both indicted on eight felony counts, and both faced the possibility of decades in federal prison.
Wood was eventually acquitted on all counts. Charges have yet to be dismissed for Cantu, who faces up to 70 years in prison. As of January 2018, Cantu’s attorney has filed for all charges to be dismissed.
Detainment of Journalist
Manuel Duran Ortega, a journalist from Memphis, was recently detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in April 2018. His lawyers argue that ICE targeted him for deportation because of his reporting on the agency.
From the high levels of distrust to the dangerous anti-media rhetoric pushed at the highest levels of government to physical and legal attacks on individual journalists, American journalism faces unprecedented assaults on many fronts. These developments simply mirror the attacks that journalists face online.
The dangerous environment journalists face on social media also is a reflection of the intense hostility to journalism off-line.
To Shapiro, the many attacks on journalism are linked to hostility toward education and democracy.
“I don’t think this is about distrust of the media per se. I think it is about an attack on intellectualism and the values of democratic discourse,” he said. “We have had those before in American history but they are very dangerous.”
The Culture of Social Media
The connection between political attacks on journalism and an environment conducive for online harassment of journalists has been documented but the impact of social media platforms in producing this environment of online harassment also is a factor.
For Zuckerman, online harassment is a “known bug” for social media platforms like Twitter.
Zuckerman also recognizes Twitter’s persistent issues with harassment as a reflection of the simplistic and naïve view the platform takes towards free speech.
He describes Twitter as a place “where the only remedy to speech is more speech, and if you don’t like to be harassed you have to fight back.”
Twitter, after all, once described itself as the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”
The effect of it is that people, in response to harassment, believe that just quitting the platform is the best and only option, he says.
Furthermore, Zuckerman said Twitter and other social media platforms view online harassment as a “bad apple problem.”
“They see it as one person that is behaving very badly and we need to punish the person and if they don’t change their behavior, we may need to remove them from the platform,” he said. What does he base this on?
Instead, he stresses the importance of seeing harassment on social media platforms as a systemic issue.
Expanding on these criticisms Debbie Chachra, writing in The Atlantic in October 2017, articulates that Twitter can “amplify marginalized voices but it can also amplify harassment.”
For Chachra, “If Twitter wants to be the public sphere, it needs to act like it, by working to create an environment where all voices can be safely heard.”
However, she sees that “Twitter’s harassment problem is baked into its design.”
Elisa Lees-Munoz sees a direct connection between the amount of abuse on Twitter and the platform’s problems with bots and fake accounts.
Furthermore, Lees-Munoz views the reliance on social media platforms to combat harassment as an inadequate strategy.
“They say they are working on these issues and there is a feeling that technology has gotten away from people,” she said. “Responding to individual complaints is probably not an adequate way to deal with Twitter trolls who are making the life of a female journalist in India a living hell. A one-on-one response is not to be all that helpful for journalists.”
Newsroom Approaches to Online Harassment
The persistent issue of online harassment of journalists, along with its many, wide-ranging impacts, has been met with responses from media organizations, individuals and journalism advocacy organizations.
As with many issues in journalism, the most effective responses often come from inside newsrooms.
One newsroom that has been at the forefront of the battle against online harassment is Buzzfeed.
As a media organization known particularly for producing “identity-based” content, that is content produced by women, people of color and people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer, Buzzfeed faces significant issues with online harassment.
For this reason, Jason Reich, director of global security, sees fighting online harassment as an ethical obligation for the company.
“We had this realization that we have to be the best at handling online harassment because we are putting our employees on the front lines,” he said. “If Buzzfeed is going to be asking people that belong to minority groups to talk about their own lived experience and expose themselves to very emotionally challenging harassment, we have to be the best at this.”
He said it is no different than a newsroom preparing reporters to stay safe while covering a war.
Buzzfeed’s strategy to fight online harassment is not based on combating it after-the-fact but preparing the staff to prevent harassment from occurring in the first place.
This is part of a broader strategy to create a resilient workforce, Reich said.
This preparation strategy involves staff training sessions on locking down and securing social media accounts.
The majority of “doxxing,” the practice of publicly releasing one’s personal information, occurs not through malicious hacking but through information that someone has already made publicly available themselves.
Therefore, the company’s practices prioritize privacy literacy practices, such as scrubbing information from data broker websites and showing employees what it is like to be doxxed.
Once harassment is reported, the security team will make a threat assessment to make sure there is no physical safety threat. The benefit of this is that people are much better at dealing with harassment when they know there is no physical threat involved, Reich said.
After making the threat assessment, the security team will catalog examples of the harassment. The company’s strategy does not obligate the victim of harassment to do the extra work of cataloging any and all instances of harassment to avoid any further emotional toll. People often designate access to others to their social media accounts in order to have someone who is not the victim of harassment to, say, screenshot hundreds of tweets.
He said one of the most valuable approaches to dealing with harassment after it occurs is institutional support.
Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief, will publicly back an employee that has been harassed. Reich said. Smith rarely does the backing in a public press release or announcement but instead Smith casually tweets the support in a reporter’s Twitter.“People need to feel like they have institutional support and that they are not being left alone,” Reich said.Reich emphasized Buzzfeed does not believe in is “fighting the trolls.” Reich said there is no value to “engaging with people in bad faith.”
While Buzzfeed approach is one example of a newsroom combating online harassment, many strategies the company employs can be applied to journalism more broadly.
One lesson is the importance of newsrooms investing in digital security training, but that approach is not broadly used.
According to a December 2017 report by the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma analyzing the effectiveness of journalist safety training, the journalists surveyed cited limitations in effective training for online harassment. Only three percent of those surveyed reported receiving online harassment training. Only about one third of those surveyed reported to receive basic training in digital security.
“Newsrooms must take the same precautions to protect journalists online as when they send journalists to hostile environments,” Elisa Lees-Munoz, director of the international women’s media foundation, said. “They need to train journalists about how to best protect themselves digitally, what information and what information not to post online, making sure personal information is protected; just the basics of digital security, which a lot of newsrooms don’t do.”
Of equal importance, she said, is to acknowledge that online harassment does happen, to allow journalists to be absent from social media for some time if they so choose and to provide emotional and psychological support for journalists that encounter online harassment.
For Jason Reich, getting more journalists to understand the basics of digital security and privacy literacy is the biggest obstacle and the biggest key to combating the scourges of harassment and doxxing.
First, he said, journalists should spend time finding their information and removing it from data broker websites. While it is impossible to delete all the information from data broker websites, journalists should remove themselves from at least the top five.
Second, he said, journalists should make sure their social media accounts are secure. All of the platforms already have relatively simple-to-follow privacy toolkits that journalists must take time to understand. Though Reich emphasized that Facebook its privacy flaws, the platform’s privacy best practices are easily available.
Taking on the Trolls
Many efforts to combat online harassment have also come from groups that are not newsrooms or media organizations.
One such effort is TrollBusters, an organization started by former journalist and associate professor of journalism at Ohio University, Michelle Ferrier.
While working as the first African-American columnist at the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Ferrier received countless hateful letters from angry readers. Many letters were especially violent, racist and misogynistic.
As the rhetoric in the letters got worse, she contacted the management at the newspaper. When the letters cont. Ferrier took her case to local police and the FBI. The Committee to Protect Journalists also took her case to the Department of Justice. Even with these efforts, the harassment continued.
Because of these threats, Ferrier said she had law enforcement constantly patrolling her home and she even learned to fire a gun.
Eventually, she resigned from the newspaper because, she said, the emotional and psychological toll of the harassment and violent threats she received grew too much.
Because of the inadequate response Ferrier experienced due to her harassment, and the #Gamergate controversy of 2014, she established TrollBusters in early 2015.
#Gamergate was a coordinated campaign of vitriolic online harassment by male gamers against female gamers and journalists. The harassers objected to female gamers analyzing sexist and misogynistic tropes in video games.
Perhaps the most well-known victim of online harassment during this episode was activist and media critic Anita Sarkeesian. After posting a video on her YouTube channel and August 2014, she was subjected to rape and death threats. Her home address was also leaked causing Sarkeesian to flee her home. In October of the same year, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speaking engagement at Utah State University because of threats of violence.
One of the unofficial leaders #Gamergate was former Breitbart contributor and alt-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos.
In 2016, Yiannopoulos was involved in another high-profile online harassment incident. After publishing a negative review of a new all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, a torrent of racist and sexist online harassment was aimed at actress Leslie Jones. Yiannopoulos seemed to directly endorse the intense campaign of harassment against Jones. In response to this incident, Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter for inciting the targeted abuse of others.
#Gamergate played a major role in the ascent of online harassment against women to wider public consciousness.
Troll Busters considers itself “online pest control for journalists”, according to its website.
The site allows victims of online harassment to report abuse. Individuals who believe they are being subjected to online harassment are able to fill out an incident report describing the abuse they are facing. TrollBusters will subsequently respond by sending the victim of said harassment supportive messages to help drown out the trolling and harassment. It also provides journalists with legal advice and psychological support in combating online harassment. TrollBusters also works to identify trolls and report them to social media platforms.
It is funded through a $35,000 grant from the Knight Foundation.
In addition to providing support and advice for female journalists subject to harassment, TrollBusters provides social media monitoring, online security courses and lessons in digital hygiene.
“We provide a hedge of protection around women so they can persist online and tell the story, and not become the story,” Ferrier said.
There have been other efforts to take on online trolls, many of them more confrontational in nature.
Swedish journalist Robert Aschberg, also known as the Troll Hunter, has gotten attention for exposing and confronting online harassers.
He is the host of the Swedish television program called Trolljägarna (Trollhunters), which began in 2014. In the show, Aschberg and his team find and confront trolls. For example, in one episode he confronts a man who harassed a Swedish journalist. In another episode, he confronts a man involved in a trolling campaign of accusing a woman lying about rape accusations.
Aschberg’s motivations with the show are twofold: one, to help people that have been harassed online, and second, to foster a discussion about online trolling and harassment.
Another effort to combat online harassment emphasized exposing fake accounts on Twitter. Journalist Yair Rosenberg, a victim himself of a vicious campaign of anti-Semitic online harassment, teamed up with web developer Neal,Chandra to establish a Twitter bot called Imposter Buster. The effort aimed to bust and report Nazi and white supremacist Twitter users posing as Jews, leftists and other minorities. Where are they from?
In April 2017, Twitter briefly suspended the account after it was reported for harassment by the same far right accounts, which were same Nazi trolls the bot targeted. In December, Imposter Buster’s run was cut short when Twitter permanently suspended the account.
In a New York Times op-ed, Rosenberg referred to himself as a “digital Nazi hunter.”
He wrote: “The real threat, apparently, was not these trolls — who today continue to roam the platform unchallenged — but our effort to combat them. The great irony of this whole affair is that Impostor Buster was doing Twitter’s job for it. The platform has been notoriously prone to abuse since its inception and has struggled to curb it. Rather than asking Twitter to provide a top-down solution, however, we created a bottom-up one. We used Twitter’s tools to police itself — until Twitter fired the sheriff. If the platform is going to rescue itself from the trolls, it will need to foster these efforts, not fight them.”
Many individual responses to online harassment, particularly the experience of Rosenberg, further show the inadequacy of relying on social media platforms to fight harassment.
Creating a Culture to Fight Online Harassment
In 2015, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) published a report titled “Countering Online Abuse of Female Journalists.” In the report, the OSCE issued a myriad of recommendations to newsrooms to better combat online select all harassment.
The recommendations included:
- adopting “industry-wide guidelines on identifying and monitoring online abuse”;
- “ensure that journalists experiencing online abuse have access to a comprehensive system of support including psychological and legal assistance”;
- create a culture of gender and quality and non-tolerance to harassment against staff”;
- and “work with other media organizations to create support systems, including training and mentorship programs, for female journalists.”
The OSCE also points to a number of recommendations for social media platforms to better combat harassment. Among its recommendations, include: “engage in capacity building with civil society organizations on issues like counter-speech as a response to abusive content” and “collect data and statistics on online abuse to help facilitate more comprehensive research on online abuse of female journalists and media actors.”
A broader question Reich said that newsrooms and media organizations must ask themselves is: “How do we differentiate between the professional and the personal when the platforms are trying to blend them altogether?”
Many journalists, he said, whether they are social media savvy or not, struggle with this distinction between representing a medium brand and simultaneously representing their own authentic selves.
For Elana Newman, research director at the Dart Center, another difficult question newsrooms must ask themselves relates to the presence of online comments.
“The importance of journalism is to engage in communities in dialogue, but are comments necessary?” she said. “Do they promote news? Are the cost-benefits worth it?”
Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center, said the value of institutional support for journalists that have been harassed cannot be understated.
“We need to actively step up as a culture when our colleagues are bullied,” he said. “I think those public gestures of solidarity actually do matter, both to a person that may feel vulnerable and to model citizenship.”