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

Updated March 20, 2023

Journalists reporting on disinformation, conspiracy theories, 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 or that 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.
  • Journalists based in the United States should sign up to data removal sites to have their address and other personal data removed from public databases. Google now allows users to request the removal of personal data, such as your address, from the Google search engine. This does not prevent your data from appearing on other search engines.
  • 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.
  • Consider deleting old social media posts or using a service that will delete past tweets. Abusers will often resurface old posts you have made as a way to discredit you.
  • Set up Google alerts for your name, including any common misspellings. This will alert you if your name is mentioned online.
  • Schedule calendar reminders to remind you to review your online profile on a regular basis, for example, every three months.
  • 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. Where possible, it is safer to use an app, such as Authy, rather than SMS.
  • Create long, unique passwords of more than 16 characters for all your online accounts. Consider using a password manager.
  • 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.

If you are targeted by an orchestrated smear campaign it may be helpful to write a statement outlining the situation and pin it to the top of your social media accounts. Media outlets can also write statements of support as a way to counteract a targeted campaign.

  • 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.
  • Consider disabling replies on Twitter. Only people you follow will be able to reply to your Tweets.
  • 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 safety notes on removing your personal data from the internet and protecting against online harassment. For wellbeing support read our guide, online harassment and how to protect your mental health. For more information on how to better protect against online abuse, take a look at our guide to other organizations and resources offering support.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is a member of the Coalition Against Online Violence, a collection of global organizations working to find better solutions for women journalists facing online abuse, harassment, and other forms of digital attack.

Editors’ note: This advisory was originally published on May 21, 2020. It is revised periodically. The publication date at the top reflects the most recent revision.