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A picture taken on October 1, 2019, shows the logos of mobile apps Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Messenger. (AFP/Denis Charlet)

Digital Safety: Protecting against targeted online attacks

May 21, 2020 1:20 PM ET

Journalists reporting on misinformation, conspiracy theories, and/or false news are frequently left vulnerable to online attacks by those who originate or support these views, as well as by people with strong political leanings. People supporting the spread of this type of information online may organize coordinated attacks with the aim of forcing journalists offline and discrediting their reputation. Media workers who cover these issues can take steps to manage their online profile and protect their accounts to limit the harm caused by online attackers.

Manage your online footprint

Coordinated online attackers will organize themselves to target you directly. This will involve large numbers of people looking through your social media sites and through online public databases for personal details about you. They may use your personal data, such as your location, to threaten you or family members. Attackers may also look for personal photos of you and manipulate the image as a way to harass, discredit, or shame you.

● Review what information is available about you online and take note of the sites where this information is held

Take steps to remove any information that you are uncomfortable having in the public domain and/or you feel could put you at risk, such as your address or photos of your children

● Be aware of what images are available of you online and think about how they could be used against you

● Sign up to data removal sites to have your address removed from public databases

● Check the privacy settings of your social media accounts to see what information is available to others. Remove or limit access to content that you feel could be used to discredit you or that could put you at risk

● Disable location tracking for any social media accounts

● Be aware that a copy of any information you have online is likely to exist in some form on the internet even after you remove it. For example, in internet archive services

Secure your accounts

Online attackers may also try to gain access to your accounts. They do this to obtain personal information about you, to lock you out of your accounts, and to publish content from your own accounts that could discredit your reputation. Journalists can take a series of steps to ensure that they have secured their accounts. These steps should ideally be taken before an attack happens.

● Turn on two-factor authentication (2FA) for all your accounts, including email, social media accounts, and any accounts that may hold your financial data

● Use a password manager to create long, unique passwords of more than 20 characters for all your online accounts

● Monitor your accounts and look out for alerts from online service providers regarding any unusual activity

● Separate out your information online. Use social media accounts for either work or for personal use. For example avoid having both sources and family members as friends on your Facebook account. This means that if an attacker gains access to an account then they only have access to information about one part of your life not both

● Consider making some or all of your social media accounts private during an attack

Speak with others

If your beat attracts online mob harassment and you have been or are worried that you will be targeted, consider speaking to others about your abuse. This can help you to both prepare for and manage an attack. Consider taking the following steps:

● Think about creating a network of supportive colleagues, friends, and family members who can take over the monitoring of your accounts and help you with the isolation that online harassment often causes

● Consider telling your family and friends about the online harassment. Online attackers often target family members, so it is important that they learn how to reduce outside access to their social media accounts

● Find out if your media outlet has an online harassment policy. Consider speaking with your editor and your team about getting support at work

Dealing with harassers

Replying to those who are harassing you can often antagonize the situation. In a targeted online attack the high number of online attackers will mean journalists will be unable to keep up with the number of comments, direct messages, and emails, and they may be unable to use their social media accounts for work. The following steps may be helpful when dealing with large numbers of online abusers:

● Be aware that online abusers are looking to antagonize you and are likely to increase the amount of online abuse if you respond to them

● Understand that not all the accounts attacking you are real people. Some will be automated accounts and some may be people who are paid by others to harass people online

● Create a system for documenting abuse, especially anything that you feel is especially threatening and could lead to a physical attack. Also document accounts that regularly troll you. You should enlist help to do this if you feel the threats are taking a toll on your well-being

● Take screenshots of the abuse, including the offensive message or image, the date, the time, and the name or handle of the harasser. Create a timeline of the abuse as this can be helpful when speaking with your media outlet or the authorities

● Consider blocking or muting accounts that are harassing you. If you report abuse to a social media company, make a note in your documentation of the date and time that you made the complaint

● Once the attack has died down, you may want to ascertain who was behind it and their motives for targeting you

For more information on how to secure your online profile consult CPJ’s Removing your Personal Data from the Internet. Read CPJ’s Digital Safety Advisory on covering COVID-19 for more information on how to be more secure while working from home.