Maria Ressa is a former CNN war correspondent, but none of her experiences in the field prepared her for the destructive campaign of gendered online harassment that’s been directed at her since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016.
A journalist with more than 30 years experience, Ressa is the founding CEO and executive editor of the social media-powered news organization Rappler, based in the Philippines.
In addition to being threatened, she’s been the subject of hashtag campaigns designed to whip online mobs into attack mode, discredit both Ressa and Rappler, and chill their reporting.
Every journalist in the country reporting independently on the Duterte presidency is subjected to rampant and highly coordinated online abuse, she says. Especially if they’re female.
“We’ve realized that the system is set up to silence dissent — designed to make journalists docile,” she says.
This onslaught represents a real threat to the psychological, digital and even physical safety of journalists, she adds. But she refuses to be cowed by online armies of “super trolls,” whom she believes are part of a campaign to destabilize democracy in the Philippines.
Investigative journalism as a fightback weapon
Her response to the threats includes investigative reporting on the intertwined problems of online harassment, disinformation and misinformation. She believes in “throwing sunlight” on the abusers.
But after Rappler published a feature series mapping the corrosive impacts of organized political “trolling” on the Philippines in October 2016, the onslaught of abuse and threats of violence escalated dramatically.
In the days following publication of the Rappler series, she received on average 90 hate messages an hour. Among these was what she describes as the first “credible death threat” against her.
But speaking up and speaking out brings protection through awareness, Ressa believes.
Asking loyal audiences to help
In early 2017, Ressa received another threat that stunned her. It was the kind of threat that women journalists are increasingly familiar with internationally: a call for her to be gang-raped and murdered.
Ressa responded like a digital journalist who understands the power of audiences. She asked her online communities to assist in identifying the threat-maker, who was using a Facebook account in a fake name. With her supporters’ help, Ressa was able to identify the man as a 22-year-old university student. When his university learned of his activities, he was forced to call Ressa and apologize.
Then, in the middle of an online storm triggered by a deliberately misleading report that misquoted Ressa, active and former members of the Philippines military piled on with abuse and threats.
Again, she activated her online communities in response, and one “netizen” wrote an open letter to the chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, asking him to intervene. He was upset by the incident, ordered an investigation and issued an official apology.
Tightening security, online and off
As Ressa began to realize, online threats to harm a journalist, or incitement of others to harm a journalist, must be taken seriously. They can’t just be dealt with by blocking, muting, reporting, deleting and ignoring, because “you don’t know when it will jump out from the virtual world and sneak into the physical world.”
In response, Ressa decided to upgrade security in Rappler’s newsrooms and provide protection for the journalists facing the worst of the online attacks. In parallel, she strengthened digital safety defenses.
The sheer number of attacks means that it’s not possible to follow through on each one, Ressa says. But Rappler is recording every online threat and storing the data for possible future legal action.
Calling the platforms to account
Ressa’s public Facebook page is the target of about 2,000 “ugly” comments every day, she explains.
“The propaganda machine uses it to incite anger and then we have to deal with real people who believe this stuff,” she says.
She rejects the idea that the onus is on journalists to police the platforms by constantly reporting problems. While she recognizes the enormity of the challenge confronting Facebook, Ressa is adamant that the only way forward is for the social media giant to take responsibility for the problem and accept its role as a news publisher.
Emotional and psychological impacts
Women journalists are often told to “toughen up” or “grow a thicker skin.” But the cumulative effect of constant derision must be recognized, Ressa says, not just because the damage includes well-documented impacts on emotional and psychological well-being, but also censorship and erosion of trust.
She’s offered counselling and support to affected Rappler journalists, along with the social media team on the frontline of the battle. Ressa also seeks to support others who are suffering online abuse, but may not be as empowered as Rappler staff.
“We come together to help each other through it. We know what’s going on — it’s being done to intimidate us. We galvanize each other. And I think we’ll get through it,” she says. “I’m an optimist and I think we’re being forged by fire and we’ll emerge stronger.”
Julie Posetti is a journalism researcher at the University of Wollongong and head of digital editorial capability at Fairfax Media in Australia.
This post originally appeared on The Conversation. It has been condensed and republished with permission.
Main image of Maria Ressa CC-licensed by Flickr via Franz Lopez.