An important aspect of online harassment and smear campaigns is the damage they cause to journalists’ reputations and the trust journalists enjoy among their audiences and the community at large. Because trust and credibility are core aspects of successful journalism, it is in the interest of news organizations and journalists to take all necessary measures to protect themselves against such attacks and to counter the smears.
Assessing the damage that online attacks can cause will be helpful in determining the amount of resources that needs to be invested in countering them.
Polarized or hostile climate: Online smear campaigns in general have a divisive function and are more likely to attract the attention of audiences in a pre-existing climate of polarization or an existing hostile atmosphere towards the news outlet or the journalist by those in power.
Credibility: While smear campaigns by definition relate to the dissemination of false information about journalists or news organizations, some of these include elements that are likely to be perceived as facts by audiences and so influence the opinions of these audiences. The degree of credibility that a smear campaign appears to have will determine its ability to turn audiences against targeted journalists or news organizations and affect their reputation.
Volume, reach and engagement: The spread or potential spread of the smear campaign needs to be taken into account. Consider the following:
• The use of memes or elaborated graphic designs, as these can cause the messages to be carried farther more quickly
• The use of botnets, which can increase dissemination exponentially
• The employment of specific labels to describe journalists that can catch on (e.g., the “failing New York Times”, “British spy”, “enemy of the people” . Even if the smear campaign itself does not last, these labels are often recycled over and over again to undermine the credibility of the journalist or media outlet.
• The use of common hashtags. Use specific tools to measure hashtag performance.
• The potential that the campaign will be picked up by propaganda websites, which may further spread the campaign’s message.
• Whether the campaign appears to be orchestrated and/or following a specific pattern. The involvement of an influential public figure with a large social media following in targeting, directly or indirectly, a journalist increases the spread of the campaign. The attack is then shared widely by the figure’s followers, who repost and share organically, creating a wider narrative to discredit the target.
Training on strategies and methodologies to identify organized networks on social media, such as social network analysis, should be provided to relevant actors in the newsroom such as heads of audience.