In the third post of the online violence against women series, Dr Michelle Ferrier – founder of Trollbusters – explains the consequences of online abuse for women journalists and how the absence of redress has changed the way they approach their work.

For many journalists, critiques and insults are a badge of honor. A few slings and arrows are considered part of the job of ‘afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted’. These attacks become a mark that you must be doing something right if ‘they’re coming after you’.

However, the letters to the editors and emails of old have given way to online abuse that ranges from gendered barbs and insults about looks to explicit rape and death threats. From online impersonations to the pile-on effect of smart mobs and political operatives, increasingly journalists are finding that in the age of social media, online harassment has short- and long-term consequences that cannot, and should not, be ignored.

According to the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International News Safety Institute, 88 per cent of journalists worldwide feel their work is more dangerous now because of the use of social media to connect with audiences, and distribute news and information around the globe.

These same social media channels are used to stalk, discredit and threaten women journalists with rape, with death, with the release of personal information designed to instill fear, intimidation and ultimately silence their voices from the media.

In some cases, this online harassment crosses professional boundaries and affects the personal lives of these women. Twenty-five per cent of online activity manifests in physical abuses. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that 40 per cent of murder victims reported receiving threats before they were killed.

This violence against women journalists becomes a mechanism to stifle freedom of expression and leads to loss of work for freelancers, loss of ties to home and family as journalists flee for safety, and the ultimate sacrifice of these women’s lives for telling these stories and speaking truth to power.

I am a former journalist and columnist who experienced hate speech, threats and online harassment more than 10 years ago. In my book chapter, ‘Progression of Hate’ in the 2016 Committee to Protect Journalists volume called ‘Attacks on the Press’, I tell the story of being driven from my work as a journalist and fleeing my home to keep myself and my family safe. It was this life-changing and devastating experience that led me to create TrollBusters in 2015.

Click to view full size image, by TrollBusters: Online Pest Control for Women Journalists.

At TrollBusters, we provide just-in-time rescue services to support women journalists at the point of attack on Twitter or Facebook. We use social media monitoring and machine language to monitor and track online abuse and its perpetrators. We provide education in digital safety practices and managing online attacks. We offer assistance in navigating how to deal with the types of threats women journalists experience online. Our goal is to keep these journalists alive, working and online in the face of these attacks.

As I discovered here in the United States, these nefarious online actors are organized groups of government operatives both foreign and domestic. They are hate groups including white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations. They are misogynists who band together to attack women who have a voice.

Since 2015 when I launched TrollBusters at an international hackathon for women news entrepreneurs, I have met women who have left their homes and families because of online threats. Other women have left journalism, changed their social media profiles, or stopped writing certain stories to try to avoid online abuse.

Yet besides the personal, emotional, and psychological harm done to these women journalists, we also find the news enterprise suffers as well. Women journalists report self censoring – choosing assignments and topics that won’t draw online fire from harassers and abusers. The online abuse has damaging consequences to speaking truth to power.

We’ve found that getting redress for these attacks is long and painful. These online perpetrators act boldly, with no fear of repercussions for their acts.

Here in the United States, American journalists are increasingly finding themselves at risk. Since November 2016 and the rise of the new administration here, journalists here have been painted as the enemy. We’ve seen an increase in online and physical attacks as a result of the divisive rhetoric and fake news labels that have been cast upon us.

We must address the transnational activity of the state actors seeking to destabilize our democracy and our free press. That means increasing pressure on global corporations and social media platforms that breed hate speech and stifle freedom of expression.

Impunity thrives in nations whose governments seek to control media coverage. Impunity hides in the cracks in our legislation. Intimidation and threats, both online and off, are eroding our freedom of expression globally.  We need supports as journalists to hold the powerful accountable so that we as journalists can continue to tell the story… and not BECOME the story.


About the author

Dr Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters: Online Pest Control for Women Journalists. She is an associate professor in journalism at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Her research centers around digital identity and reputation management, online communities and social media strategies.