Historically, the press has endured different types of pressure and attempts to silence it. However, with the growth of new technologies, individuals, political leaders, criminal organizations and powerful economic actors have found new channels to accomplish their goal of curbing independent journalism.

Digital journalism and social media have closed the gap between journalists and their audiences and allowed the rise of independent voices in dire and repressive political and cultural contexts worldwide. Yet state actors and powerful institutions are using these same new technologies to control the public discourse and impose a narrative that suits their agenda, including through the proliferation of disinformation as well as through organized attacks and smear campaigns on individual journalists and media houses intended to discredit and silence them. And even when organized actors are not involved, these technologies also give individuals a new portal to respond to journalistic coverage in a highly personal, aggressive and abusive manner, taking advantage of the anonymity that the Internet purports to offer.

Far from seeking to criminalize these new technologies or the platforms on which they operate, IPI’s Ontheline Platform aims to highlight measures that newsrooms can implement to protect targeted journalists from the professional and emotional impact that often accompanies this new form of harassment and the accompanying danger to press freedom.

Online harassment

Online harassment is a broad concept that is also in constant evolution due to the very nature of the technologies through which it is propagated. It is perhaps best understood through its goal: silencing journalists who cover certain politically or socially contested topics or who express diverse opinions. This silencing is achieved, on the one hand, by generating fear and self-censorship among journalists, and, on the other, by discrediting journalists in the public eye, leading to a loss of trust – journalists’ most precious commodity – or loss of employment.

The means through which this goal is achieved cover a spectrum that includes threats of violence, the use of smears and epithets, online stalking and trolling, insults and propaganda content as well as hacking and the dissemination of journalists’ private information. “Online abuse”, “online attacks” and “online threats” are all terms that can be used to describe aspects of this phenomenon.

Three separate elements can be identified when defining online harassment: the perpetrators, the patterns and the methods used.

Perpetrators: Online harassment targeting journalists may originate from an individual with no particular agenda other than disagreement with or anger over journalistic content, even if those emotions are inflamed by rhetoric or views present in a particular societal context. However, online attacks may also be the work of groups of individuals or accounts that show a certain level of organization and coordination. The individuals or accounts will often share the same or similar messages and are usually orchestrated in support of a particular political, economic or other interest, and may be part of a governmental or state strategy to discredit critical journalism. In this case, they are frequently referred to as “troll armies” or “Internet brigades”.

Patterns: The patterns of harassment reflects to a large extent the perpetrators involved. Online abuse generated by individuals who act out of (organic) anger tends to be more erratic and depends on when, where and how the individual in question accesses the content.

Orchestrated attacks on journalists, on the other hand, work according to a specific logic and frequently involve huge numbers of (apparently unrelated) message that threaten the target or seek to destroy the target’s reputation through smears (such as “traitor”) or accusations of bias.   

These types of organized attacks show certain similarities. They usually take place during a short period of 24 to 48 hours in which an influential figure launches a first message against the target that is disseminated by close followers. In a second stage, the same messages are picked up “organically” by, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, creating an impression of a mass attack against the journalist. In a third stage, propaganda sites, often linked to the originators of the attack, cover the trend, “validating” the attacks. Ultimately, the labels employed in the attack are employed over and over again against the journalist, creating a long-term stigmatization in the public eye.

Methods: Online harassment and abuse can take place in different forms. These can include:

a. Direct threats of violence, i.e., messages containing clear threats of physical harm or death. These messages can also be very graphic.

b. Implied threats: Implied threats are common because they allow the perpetrators to hide behind a level of deniability. E.g., “Watch out every time you cross the street.”

c. Verbal abuse: Messages containing insults, which might differ depending on the context. E.g., calling someone a “dog” has a different meaning in Arabic countries that in Europe.

d. Trolling: Constant and repetitive messages of mockery. While less intense individually, these types of messages can easily become overwhelming due to their great number.

e. Smear messages: These are messages that are part of an effort to represent the target and the target’s work as unpatriotic, biased or beholden to a particular interest.

f. Online impersonation: This occurs when, e.g., an anonymous user creates an account impersonating the targeted journalist and uses it to post comments that impact the journalist’s credibility.

g. Doxxing: The release of personal and sensitive information about the targeted journalist – e.g., phone number, home address or the name of the journalist’s children’s school.

The impact of online harassment

Online harassment has been shown to lead to serious professional and personal consequences for journalists, including long-term health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Even low-level harassment, day-in and day-out, can be a source of tremendous stress for working journalists, making it more difficult for them to do their jobs. There is also an ever-present risk that online violence can turn into physical violence, presenting a danger to journalists and their families, in some cases forcing them to upend their work and home lives.

However, it would be mistaken to understand online harassment as a “professional hazard” that only affects the media and journalists. To the contrary: Online harassment has grave consequences for the free flow of information necessary for democracy. On the one hand, journalists who fear receiving attacks may practice self-censorship, thereby depriving the public of essential news and information. On the other hand, long-term harassment and orchestrated smear campaigns erode the trust that journalists enjoy with their audiences and nullify the impact that journalistic work in the public interest – especially investigative journalism – ought to have. In this sense, society as a whole has an interest in ensuring that journalists can work free from harassment and abuse.

It should be emphasized that combating online harassment should not be understood as demonizing or even suggesting the criminalization of social media, which in IPI’s view plays an essential role in the consolidation and development of democracy in many countries as well as in giving individuals everywhere a voice and a chance to take part in debates of public interest. It is also important to recognize that not all forms of online harassment violate the law; much of what is considered “harassment” may be protected by freedom of expression and be perfectly legal. And that, in a broad sense, is good. But speech does not need to be illegal in order to have a detrimental impact on the exercise of journalism and press freedom. In this sense, combating online harassment is about helping newsrooms and journalists cope with a phenomenon that restricts their freedom as well as promoting healthy conversations and interactions between journalists and their audiences based on respect.

Gender, minority status and intersectionality

Research has shown that online harassment has a strong gender component. IPI’s recent report “Newsroom Best Practices for Addressing Online Violence against Journalists”, which summarized findings from visits to 45 newsrooms in Europe, found almost complete agreement, across all countries and news organizations visited, not only that female journalists are more often targeted in online attacks, but also that the attacks experienced by women are especially vicious and often highly sexualized.

There is no doubt that there is a link between the particular subject covered by a journalist and the ensuing level of hate that he or she receives through online channels. Coverage of certain sensitive, polarizing topics carries a high possibility of harassment. But while men tend to be criticized, insulted and threatened on the basis of their professional output (news content and social media posts), attacks on women frequently also focus on the journalist herself and her physical traits.

Gender-specific abuse merits particular attention. The violent, sexualized attacks observed against women journalists are especially serious and pose a deep challenge to the targets’ ability to work; they are an alarming reflection of latent and widespread misogynist sentiments present across our societies, and ultimately contribute to the legitimization and normalization of such sentiments.

At the same time, the type of attacks targeting women journalists are in many ways similar to those targeting journalists who belong to or who are perceived to belong to ethnic, religious, sexual or other minorities. In these cases, too, it is the journalist’s identity that is the primary target of online aggressors rather than the journalistic output. Attacks on female and minority journalists aim to silence diverse voices and thereby have the effect of depriving audiences of diverse perspectives on issues of public interest.

Additionally, measures to address online harassment need to take into account not only gender and minority status but also intersectionality, which describes overlapping forms of discrimination. If women journalists are in general doubly targeted due to their profession and gender, women who also belong to minority groups face additional dimensions of harassment. As Roxanne Hill, director of the Scottish investigative journalism cooperative The Ferret and chair of the Scottish Trade Union Congress Black Workers’ Committee, told IPI earlier this year, for female journalists of colour, “people find an extra dimension to attack you”.

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