New research from a UN study produced by ICFJ details how news organizations and big tech companies are failing to adequately mitigate and respond to online violence targeting women journalists – a global scourge with serious and far-reaching consequences. The researchers offer concrete recommendations to better safeguard women journalists, who face credible death threats, threats of sexual violence – including against their children – and large-scale coordinated online harassment designed to silence them and their reporting.
The two new papers published for World Press Freedom Day are extracted chapters from the forthcoming book “The Chilling: A Global Study of Online Violence Against Women Journalists.” The study, commissioned by UNESCO, is led by ICFJ Deputy Vice President of Global Research Dr. Julie Posetti and Senior Research Associate Nabeelah Shabbir. The latest findings are based on the experiences of nearly 1,000 women journalists and experts from around the world who were surveyed and interviewed over the past two and a half years. An international team of researchers also produced 15 country case studies and two big data case studies focused on prominent journalists for the project, which informed the papers published today.
The onus for managing gendered online violence is currently on individual women journalists, and that must change, the researchers concluded. Instead, the burden should be placed on the news organizations that hire them, the political and other actors who frequently instigate and fuel attacks, and the digital services that act as vectors for abuse, they wrote.
Three out of four respondents to the UNESCO-ICFJ survey said they experienced online violence, yet only a quarter reported these attacks to their employers. More than 700 women journalists took the survey, which was conducted in late 2020.
“The reluctance to report and escalate when attacks occur can be linked to systemic failings such as unsympathetic, misogynistic, patriarchal or otherwise hostile workplace cultures, poor leadership, a lack of clear and established reporting procedures, and/or a lack of a formal protocol to deal with the problem,” the researchers wrote.
When journalists did report what was happening:
- Only seven out of the 714 women surveyed were offered counseling, time off work to recover or physical security, and only 21% were given any kind of digital security support.
- 10% said their employers did nothing at all.
- 10% of survey participants said they were told to “toughen up” or “grow a thicker skin.”
- Fourteen of the women survey respondents and several interviewees said their employers asked them what they did to provoke the attacks.
One Kenyan journalist, who chose to remain anonymous, told the researchers: “Having a thick skin does not protect you from a personal attack that leads to your data being shared and someone promising that they will rape you.’”
These newsroom responses fail to recognize the psychological harm of these attacks, and that they spill offline. In the UNESCO-ICFJ survey, 20% of respondents who were subjected to online abuse said they experienced offline violence in connection with it.
Patricia Devlin, a journalist from Northern Ireland interviewed for the study, has had police come to her home to warn her that she was at risk of being murdered within 48 hours. “The last two years, I have lived every week of my life getting abused and then getting death threats. And [you] just start to say to yourself, is this ever going to end?... I can't do my job without being on social media, so I can't come off social media.”
Because of their race, sexual orientation and religion, some women face even more frequent and vitriolic attacks, and news media employers must find more effective ways of protecting them, as the authors write, “to ensure that their journalism can be seen and heard.”
The BBC’s Rianna Croxford was attacked on Twitter and via Gmail by people calling her racial slurs, mocking her appearance and criticizing her abilities, while also experiencing intimidation from political actors and targeting by partisan news media and fringe blogs, which led to a political campaign for her dismissal. “I felt like I had to be silent because it's the BBC. You don't want to bring it into disrepute,” Croxford told the researchers, who said other interview subjects experiencing intersectional abuse reported similar concerns. “As a journalist of color, I sometimes feel you’ve got to work harder, that you can’t afford to make mistakes, and this feeling suddenly felt amplified.”
While many newsroom responses to gender-based online violence are nonexistent, ad hoc or inadequate, the researchers identified more empowering and effective responses from a handful of news organizations. This included employers publicly defending their journalists, creating roles such as an online safety editor and reporting on the crisis of online violence.
The report includes 26 recommendations for newsroom leaders. Among them:
- Avoid “victim-blaming” and speech restrictions when responding to gendered online violence cases, recognizing that the target is not to blame for the abuse, harassment or threats and that “don’t feed the trolls” is not an adequate response.
- Ensure that policies on social media use represent a ‘two-way street,’where the obligations of the journalist to behave professionally are matched by a commitment to support and defend her when she comes under attack.
- Work collaboratively with other media organizations, professional associations and civil society organizations to monitor online violence, create robust integrated models of risk assessment, evaluate recovery models, and create industry-standard guidelines, support systems and training.
- Lobby governments to formally recognize that online violence directed at journalists is an attack on freedom of expression (including press freedom), and that it has a disproportionate impact on women and marginalized journalists.
The researchers found a high level of fatigue and frustration among the journalists in the study over the way the tech platforms respond – or fail to respond – to online violence against them.
The journalists surveyed said they most frequently reported online attacks to Facebook (39% of respondents), followed by Twitter (26%) and Instagram (16%). And 17% of respondents said they were “very dissatisfied” by Facebook’s response to their reports, almost twice the rate reported for Twitter.
Facebook was identified as the least safe of the high-use platforms globally, with 12% of survey respondents rating it “very unsafe” – almost twice the number who said the same for Twitter.
In interviews, journalists expressed a high level of dissatisfaction with the way tech platforms responded to their concerns. They cited inadequate abuse reporting processes, the inability to signal an escalation for more serious cases, a lack of gender sensitivity and recognition of intersectional risks, and a failure to develop moderation capabilities for various languages and cultures, among others.
Ghada Oueiss, an Al Jazeera journalist who is the target of coordinated cross-platform disinformation campaigns, told researchers she had “lost count” of reports she had made to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google. Oueiss said Twitter, for example, was very slow to deal with tens of thousands of accounts sharing stolen and altered pictures of her that were part of a coordinated smear campaign. And she described YouTube and Google Search as the sites of some of the worst abuse she has experienced.
“You can never know who Ghada Oueiss is for her journalism,” she said of the smears prevalent on the sites. “You only see attacks, attacks, attacks…you would think that either I'm a terrorist, or I'm a whore.”
One journalist interviewed for the study, Patricia Campos Mello of Brazil, said she has essentially given up on trying to stop abuse using the platforms’ standard reporting tools. Another, Swedish magazine editor Susanna Skarrie, used an external consultant to liaise with Google and Facebook to get them to remove abusive content and reduce traffic to websites targeting her, her family, and her colleagues.
And there is major concern that the platforms do not deal swiftly enough with doxxing and other digital security breaches that increase the threat of offline violence. When Serbian journalist Jovana Gligorijević of Vreme was doxxed on YouTube, the company only removed her personal information after the breach was reported more than 30 times, according to the research.
The tech platforms “bear a major responsibility for enabling and facilitating the problem” of gendered online violence, the researchers wrote.
“For women journalists to be able to work safely online, the policy gaps identified must be addressed,” the researchers wrote. “Business models and algorithms must be restructured and redesigned. And more effective and comprehensive tools and protocols for detection, reporting, moderation and countering of online attacks on journalists are required.”
The researchers recommend that big tech companies should:
- Define effective policies for detecting and penalizing repeat offenders, to stop the same abusers assuming new online identities after action taken such as suspension or de-platforming.
- Develop abuse perpetrator markers, similar to systems used to identify disinformation purveyors.
- Establish clear and transparent community rules on what constitutes online violence and cease making exceptions for influencers, public figures and other high-profile actors, whose high number of followers makes it easy for them to instigate abuse pile-ons.
- Create more effective content moderation tools that provide sufficient support for all languages in which their services are offered (including vernacular or slang), and which are sensitive to contextual and cultural norms.