BY Anna Bevan

Online abuse shames and silences

Imagine it’s late at night. You’re alone in your house and your phone starts to beep. You start receiving threatening messages via email, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

They begin as criticism of your work, then move on to crude comments about your appearance. Soon death and rape threats are raining down on your phone. They tell you they know where you live.

This article is adapted from a speech that INSI assistant director Anna Bevan gave in July at the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union Global News Forum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Online abuse of journalists is one of the most insidious threats facing the media industry, and if it’s not taken seriously, the consequences could be detrimental for democracy.

The rise of social media has created platforms for fomenting hatred and for giving rise to vitriolic voices. If the threats in the past to journalists were predominantly in traditional conflict zones, today they are online, offline, physical, psychological and digital.

The nature of the threat is changing as the digital world spills into the physical. Today virtual bombs and bullets rain down on your laptop or your phone at all hours of the day and night. There is no helmet you can wear to protect yourself and often no consequences for those who fire.

They strike when you’re tucking your children up in bed, and when you’re alone in your car. You go to bed with death threats and wake up to more – before you’ve even had chance to put on your emotional flak jacket.

What are we referring to when we talk about online abuse?

It’s online surveillance, trolling, government-sponsored attacks, harassment, threats of rape and death, threats to harm your family, hacking of your emails and your social media accounts, doxing and smear campaigns.

It’s all of these things and many more that contribute to the drip, drip, drip of demeaning content designed and delivered with the purpose of shaming and silencing journalists.

Khai Don is a Vietnamese freelance columnist. Until recently, she worked for the BBC’s Vietnamese Service but decided to go freelance last year following incessant online abuse where she was regularly called a national traitor for working for a foreign media organisation.

Her social media accounts were hacked and personal photos of her were edited into memes, which were then widely circulated in an attempt to discredit her work. She was harassed on her phone, threatened via email and began to fear for not just her personal safety but that of her friends too.

Khai says this level of abuse made her incredibly anxious, and she admits that she started self-censoring. She heavily guards her personal information, never posts personal photos on social media and no longer reads the comments section beneath her articles.

Rana Ayyub is a prominent investigative journalist in India who regularly writes about violence against India’s minorities and calls out the government’s silence over it. In a recent article for the New York Times she said nothing had prepared her for the online abuse she suffered in April 2018 when a quote supporting child rapists was falsely attributed to her and it went viral on Twitter.

Her social media accounts and phone were inundated with messages urging others to gang rape her. She tweeted a clarification, but it had no effect.

Rana was then sent a pornographic video where her face been morphed into that of another woman. This video was circulated widely online, and then someone posted her address. She tried to block all the people sending her abuse, but there were too many.

Both male and female journalists are affected by online abuse; but women bear the brunt both in terms of content and volume

A 2014 study by the British think tank DEMOS showed that on Twitter, female journalists received nearly three times as much abuse as their male colleagues.

Attacks against female journalists are overwhelmingly sexualised in nature - often intended to impact their reputation. In certain cultures, these attacks stigmatise women and their families.  

As a result of online harassment, journalists are being coerced into silence, but we cannot let the trolls and their vitriol win.

This year the International News Safety Institute (INSI) started a pioneering project bringing together our media industry members and the social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter and Google – to combat online harassment of journalists.

We brought editors face to face with social media policy makers so they could discuss exactly how the platforms could respond more quickly to the abuse – or reduce and eradicate it altogether.

There’s no quick fix solution. We know it’s going to be a long journey, but we believe it’s one that both the media industry and the tech giants need to take together.

Twitter recently adopted a new approach to combat trolling, which included preventing people from signing up for multiple accounts using the same email address or monitoring accounts that are connected to ones that have violated Twitter’s rules in the past. As a result, there has already been a four percent drop in abuse. It’s a small start, but a move in the right direction.

What can news organisations do to support staff that are being harassed online?

At INSI, we actively encourage all of our members to recognise the severity of online harassment and have a zero-tolerance policy towards online attacks on journalists – whether they are freelance or staff. Those who suffer online abuse must be supported by their colleagues and editors and offered appropriate legal and psychosocial assistance. The abuse must be reported and follow up action taken where necessary.

One of our members, German broadcaster ZDF, is currently lodging criminal proceedings against two social media users who targeted one of their leading commentators with a barrage of sexist abuse. If they are successful then it could spur other media organisations to do the same, and there could be legal consequences for trolling.

Some other suggestions for media organisations include:

  • Giving moderators more power to discuss which articles to open up for comment          
  • Getting someone else to monitor a colleague’s social media accounts and emails for a few days if the abuse is getting too much.
  • Normalising the discussion. Talk about online harassment at coffee breaks and editorial meetings. Get it out in the open.
  • Building a peer support network for journalists who are harassed so they can talk about their experience and realise that they are not alone.
  • Offering a 24/7 online harassment support line.
  • Offering legal and psychological support.
  • Educate journalists on securing their online identity and minimising how much personal information they put into the public domain.
  • Think ahead to the potential for harassment before assigning journalists to a story. Do you need to publish someone’s name if there is a strong likelihood they will receive a lot of backlash from the story?
  • Constantly discuss and review your procedures for dealing with abuse.
  • Develop social media charters with clear rules and procedures to follow.

Hate speech directed at journalists is not a new phenomenon but online harassment is having a chilling effect on the news industry.

It must be taken seriously because if it isn’t the consequences will be detrimental: I’m talking about self-censorship, marginalised voices disappearing, journalists leaving the industry or not entering it in the first place.

Trolling, digital black mail, doxing - this abuse is designed with one purpose: to silence journalists. But we will not be silenced, and we will not let the trolls win.

Watch here for an INSI interview with the journalist and founder of the Rappler news website Maria Ressa from the Philippines, discussing the "unrelenting, exponential" online attacks against her.

Read INSI's director Hannah Storm on confronting journalism's misogynistic trolls.