The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) have conducted a global survey to assess the scale and impacts of online violence targeting women journalists, and to help identify solutions to this pernicious problem.
It is the most comprehensive and geographically diverse survey ever undertaken on the theme, having been offered in five languages and receiving responses from 714 women journalists* across 113 countries.
The survey is part of a broader UNESCO-commissioned study to examine online violence against women journalists in 15 countries, with an emphasis on intersectional experiences and the Global South.
The women journalists we surveyed said they had been subjected to a wide range of online violence, including threats of sexual assault and physical violence, abusive language, harassing private messages, threats to damage their professional or personal reputations, digital security attacks, misrepresentation via manipulated images and financial threats.
- Nearly three in four women respondents (73%) said they had experienced online violence.
- Threats of physical (25%) and sexual violence (18%) plagued the women journalists surveyed.
- One in five women respondents (20%) said they had been attacked or abused offline in incidents seeded online.
- The mental health impacts of online violence were the most frequently identified (26%) consequence. Twelve percent of respondents said they had sought medical or psychological help due to the effects of online violence, and 11% said they had taken days off work as a result.
- Almost half (48%) of the women reported being harassed with unwanted private messages.
- The story theme most often identified in association with increased attacks was gender (47%), followed by politics and elections (44%), and human rights and social policy (31%).
- Forty-one percent of women respondents said they had been the targets of online attacks that appeared to be linked to orchestrated disinformation campaigns.
- Political actors were the second most frequently noted sources (37%) of attacks and abuse after “anonymous or unknown attackers” (57%).
- Facebook was rated the least safe of the top five platforms or apps used by participants, with nearly double the number of respondents describing Facebook as “very unsafe” compared to Twitter. It also attracted disproportionately higher rates of incident reporting among the respondents (39% compared to Twitter’s 26%).
- Only 25% of respondents reported incidents of online violence to their employers. The top responses they said they received were: no response (10%) and advice like “grow a thicker skin” or “toughen up” (9%). Two percent said they were asked what they did to provoke the attack.
- The women journalists surveyed most frequently indicated (30%) that they respond to the online violence they experience by self-censoring on social media. Twenty percent described how they withdrew from all online interaction, and 18% specifically avoided audience engagement.
- Online violence significantly impacts the employment and productivity of the women respondents. In particular, 11% reported missing work, 38% retreated from visibility (e.g. by asking to be taken off air and retreating behind pseudonyms online), 4% quit their jobs, and 2% even abandoned journalism altogether.
The report was launched at the World Press Freedom Conference 2020. Watch internationally renowned investigative journalists Rana Ayyub, Ferial Haffajee and Carole Cadwalladr discuss the main findings with ICFJ’s Julie Posetti.
For inquiries, please contact:
ICFJ: Dr. Julie Posetti (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Fatima Bahja (email@example.com)
UNESCO: Saorla McCabe (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Theresa Chorbacher (email@example.com)
Note: If you've found this content distressing or difficult to discuss, you're not alone. There are resources available to help. Start by exploring the resources from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and please seek psychological support if needed. Your privacy is of the utmost importance to us and we have worked with the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) to ensure that this research meets the highest ethical standards.
We are supported in our work by the following project partners: the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), the Dart Center Asia Pacific, and the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT).
*From an original sample of 1,210 self-selecting international survey respondents, 901 were accepted as valid detailed analysis. This report is based on a gender-disaggregated analysis of the 714 women-identifying respondents.