Responding to Internet Abuse

Ana Freitas, a 26-year-old Brazilian journalist who covers pop culture, recalled how she once had trouble convincing an editor at the news outlet YouPix to publish an article she had written about women and minorities being unwelcome on comment boards related to pop cultural videos, movies, comics or gaming.

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Attacks on the Press book cover
Attacks on the Press book cover

At the time, Freitas was a freelancer, and although the editor praised the quality of the article, the newspaper declined to publish it. “They didn’t want that type of attention,” she said during a session about violence against women online at the Internet Governance Forum in João Pessoa, Brazil in November 2015.

Freitas said she ended up publishing the article on HuffPost Brasil and immediately received vicious threats on social media. Her personal information was put online, known as doxxing, and she received packages filled with worms at her house. She left home for several weeks out of fear for her and her family’s safety.

Among the repercussions of the online attacks was that editors stopped accepting her work. “I can’t work as a freelancer anymore,” she told me. The online attackers stripped her of that livelihood.

“It would be great if during this process of rethinking their role in society, the media companies realize it is really, really essential that they back up the people working for them, whether they are freelancers or not,” she said.

After giving up freelancing, Freitas began working as a staff writer. She now writes for Nexo Jornal, and said her editor is aware of what happened, adding, “It still makes me think twice before I pitch an article that talks about minorities. That shouldn’t happen.”

Freitas was also attacked online for another pop culture article that she wrote in 2011 while working as a staff reporter at O Estado de São Paulo, and in that case, the newspaper diffused the situation by publishing a supportive editorial, and providing her with a car to transport her to and from the office, she said. The attacks subsided.

But publishers do not always respond that way and, as a result, many women journalists who face such attacks feel compelled to self-censor.

Journalists facing online threats are often told to stay off social media, but most in the profession consider this impractical. (Reuters/Albert Gea)
Journalists facing online threats are often told to stay off social media, but most in the profession consider this impractical. (Reuters/Albert Gea)

A yearlong interactive study conducted under the auspices of the Internet Governance Forum on how to counter abuse online against women and girls found that such abuse as well as gender-based violence “impede women’s right to freedom of expression by creating environments in which they do not feel safe to express themselves.” Women and LGBT journalists who are also minorities, or who are foreign to the countries in which they work, may face additional threats or violence.

“Efforts to combat and address online abuse and gender-based violence often emanate from the developed world and also tend to reflect conditions, cultural perceptions and expectations in developed countries,” the study by the Best Practices Forum on Online Abuse and Gender-Based Violence Against Women and Girls at the 2015 Internet Governance Forum concluded.

Few statistics have been compiled about the scope of online harassment and threats against women, nor about LGBT journalists who face many of the same kinds of attacks. But such problems are widespread according to numerous studies, including a joint survey by the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International News Safety Institute, as well as the work of the Association for Progressive Communications, and extensive anecdotal evidence, some of which is reported elsewhere in this book.

Non-journalists and law enforcement officials often suggest that journalists facing online threats stay off Twitter and Facebook, but most journalists consider this an impractical and insufficient response. Journalists are public figures who depend on social media both for researching and disseminating the news, as well as for engaging with their audience and building their public profile. Responding to attacks by vacating their social media space can actually amplify the abuse, which may then go unrebutted, and have economic repercussions for the journalist.

Yet reporting abuse via a social media platform often feels futile, as requests for help go unanswered and unacknowledged, say journalists interviewed for this article and who have spoken out on this topic.

Interviews with journalists and increasing controversy over #gamergate indicate that some managers of electronic and social media platforms are aware of the need to do more to empower users to combat online abuse, but there is disagreement over whether the intermediaries should play a more proactive role – and if so, how. Google briefly toyed with a real-name policy and Twitter has said it will make it easier to flag problematic accounts. All of the major platforms have been criticized for lack of transparency on reporting and redress, and failure to include perspectives of non-European/North American women.

Journalist Aviva Rutkin proposed five steps for protection against online threats, including saving records of them and reporting the abuse to the authorities. Some national governments have taken action to enable a more effective response.In South Africa, the Protection from Harassment Act, enacted in 2013, requires electronic communications platforms to assist with court orders to protect against harassment and imposes penalties for not providing necessary information.

In the U.S., users can file complaints with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) but, as in many other countries, one of the few legal avenues available to victims seeking to remove photos or videos circulating online as part of these harassment campaigns is copyright infringement. Using copyright laws to try to get redress is burdensome and can prolong the harmful impact of online attacks by requiring victims to send copies of offending photos to the authorities, extending their circulation and the harm caused to women.

In many parts of the world, including countries that have special mechanisms to address online abuse, law enforcement officials are rarely prepared to deal with these types of complaints, and can potentially perpetuate the harm by requiring that offending content be further circulated.

“The police had no idea how to deal with these attacks,” Freitas, the Brazilian journalist, observed, offering a common refrain among journalists around the world.

“One prominent obstacle in getting female reporters to talk about their cases has been shame,” wrote Kiran Nazish in a New York Times column about threats to women journalists in Pakistan. “Women journalists who speak out about their difficulties are publicly humiliated, harassed by supporters of politicians and the establishment. Their families and colleagues often suffer along with them.”

Others have expressed similar sentiments – that the choice of whether to go public is a key issue facing women journalists, since such publicity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, doing so may create a feeling of safety and camaraderie. On the other, it can bring down even greater online wrath and escalate into violence, as has been the case with the #gamergate controversy in the U.S., which has caught women journalists covering video games in the crosshairs of violent online gamers who have sought to destroy their careers and pursue them offline. #Gamergate was a harassment campaign against women in the gaming industry that included attacks against journalists and commentators covering the threats of rape and death that accompanied the vitriol.

Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani journalist working in Turkey, who authored a chapter in this book and was the target of online attacks in 2014, has continued to receive periodic hate messages, but said going public made it easier for her to deal with it on a personal and professional level.

“[A]fter I started documenting, sharing, and shaming these people, it got easier,” she said. “I think this is the right way to go, to take screen shots, sharing and tweet about these people. I even at some point had the idea of going to these people’s profiles and finding some really nice, sweet kind of picture of these people and pairing it with the ugly messages they sent. I still would like to do it.”

The latter was among the ideas raised in a session on gender-based violence online at the Stockholm Internet Forum in 2015. “Abuse doesn’t come from monsters, but from regular people,” Tanya Lokurt, a 34-year old citizen journalist and Global Voices editor based in Ukraine, told me. She described one episode in which a Russian LGBT activist used this name-and-shame approach to fight back against death threats she received on social media. “It’s a very interesting juxtaposition,” she said, because “in general, the Russian Internet isn’t afraid to use names, they’re not afraid that their names will be linked.”

In the article Rutkin wrote about how to combat rape and death threats online, she described how another journalist, Australian Alanah Pearce, who covers gaming, noticed that many of the people posting threats on her Facebook page were kids, so “she started tracking down their mothers’ profiles and sending screenshots of the concerning messages. One shocked mum forced her son to send Pearce a handwritten letter of apology,” according to Rutkin’s reporting.

Another remedy proposed by the Best Practices Forum is to require new users to a social media platform to complete a short training program on acceptable behavior and how to report abuse.

Banning anonymity is not a panacea, according to the Best Practicesreport highlighting the complexity of potential solutions to reducing online harassment and abuse.”A significant portion of online abuse and gender-based violence tend to happen using anonymous accounts or accounts with pseudonyms and/or false names, making it difficult to identify perpetrators,” the report noted. “On the other hand, anonymity is recognised as a valuable tool for women to be able to exercise their rights online.”

Some policymakers and platforms have proposed to eliminate anonymity online as a way to address this violence, as well as other ills like extremism and hate speech, but there is disagreement over whether this is the right response. The Brazilian constitution prohibits anonymity, yet that did little to mitigate the attacks against Freitas. Ecuador, Iran, Venezuela and Vietnam also require real-name registration for online services, which amounts to a kind of ban on anonymity, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, which did not gage the effectiveness of such measures. Research by CPJ has found that real-name policies can exacerbate online fraud and censorship while limiting free speech.

The Best Practice report noted the complications of using anonymity to combat online abuse, observing that, “while anonymity and the protection of privacy may be vital for the exercise of freedom of expression online, including the right of women to access critical information and support services, these rights may also help to enable online abuse and gender-based violence by providing perpetrators with a cloak of invisibility and, thus, perceived impunity.”

And it is not always anonymous strangers who harass women journalists online. Some comments come from male colleagues and sources who engage in lengthy threads that exacerbate the attacks. Nazish, a 33-year-old independent journalist from Pakistan who covers the Middle East, experienced this when she wrote the Times article.

Nazish had chronicled the range of threats and violence women journalists in Pakistan face, including her own story of intimidation during an investigation on a security related issue. Following its publication, she faced a barrage of social media hate. “There were hundreds of tweets calling me a traitor for defaming the country,” she told me.

While working on her investigation, Nazish said she was told, “if you write this story you will get killed like your friends. The threats were really specific. I had written about journalist threats often and the key words ‘like your friends’ was being used specifically to intimidate me.” The gender dimension was evident, Nazish said, because much of this harassment came from other journalists in Pakistan who told her she should expect this as a woman and that she only wanted to get attention. “They told me ‘it’s not a big deal for you to get threats, it’s part of the job,’ some people said ‘you are just attention seeking.’ And this is the key difference, when women are targeted, they are expected to take the challenge, and given no empathy.”

Nazish chose to respond to some comments that clearly came from trolls, but she did so only once or twice and then decided to let it go. “The problem with trolls is there is no formula or method on which is the right way to deal – some people targeted choose to respond and some don’t,” she said. “I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong what you should do, it’s really relative.”

A 2014 Pew research survey of online harassment in the U.S. found that only about 40 percent of journalists who were harassed online chose to respond, and only about half of them confronted the person online, such as by un-friending or blocking them or addressing the comments. Some of the journalists deleted or reported the comments or changed their username or profile.

Some platforms, including Twitter, allow anonymity or pseudo-anonymity. Others, such as Facebook, prohibit or make anonymity more difficult.

Tom Lowenthal, CPJ technologist, noted that there are two distinct types of platforms: those such as Facebook, where each person is presented with a curated selection of material based on user-defined preferences, and those like Twitter and instant messenger services, where information displayed is not determined by the platform or its algorithms. The result is that different platforms require different approaches to dealing with threats and abuse.

Blocking accounts is another tactic some journalists use to deal with trolls. Lokurt, who writes about Russia and Ukraine, said her co-editor also gets trolled, but unlike attacks on her, the attacks aimed at him focus more on his alleged lack of knowledge or on his political position than on his gender.

Another option is to create block lists, an approach that journalist Randi Harper took after she was harassed over a blog post about sexual harassment during #gamergate. She created a tool for Twitter that automated lists of accounts to block so that the offending #gamergate accounts did not show up in the user’s feed. Third party add-ons like Block Together do the same thing, though the features are not integrated or as easy to use as they could be.

“I definitely think social media and communication tools should make these sort of features more widely available,” Lowenthal said. He added that although communities of women and marginalized people are learning what tools could be effective when someone becomes targeted, there is a tradeoff involved in such an approach. “If there is a large pool of people who hate you, but others are interested in swatting or stalking or physically abusive attacks, tools that make you unaware of these threats could put you at greater risk,” he said. “If someone posts my home address, that is info I’d want to know immediately.”

The artificiality of the online/offline dichotomy for women journalists in the digital age highlights the need for a range of solutions to addressing online harassment and abuse. Ultimately, solutions to combat and reduce violence against women online or off will need to be multifaceted and take into account shifting norms so that such attacks become unacceptable. Social media platforms also have a responsibility to be more responsive and put greater control in the hands of their users. Ultimately, the best course of action for journalists under attack will be a combination of monitoring and potentially responding to the threats and reporting to platforms and/or authorities, depending on their specific situation and location.

Courtney C. Radsch is CPJ’s advocacy director and author of the upcoming book Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt: Digital Dissidence and Political Change.