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Tips and tools for journalists to deal with online harassment

Tips and tools for journalists to deal with online harassment

Natasha Tynes | February 23, 2015

As journalists depend more on social media for crowdsourcing and connecting with sources, they are also facing online harassment as a result of the topics they cover. I recently wrote about my experience dealing with online harassment from fans of the Islamic State (IS) in a blog post published in the Huffington Post.

Most of the harassment is happening these days on social media sites such as Twitter. Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter has recently admitted in a leaked memo that the company "sucks at dealing with trolls and abuse." Some users and journalists have taken it upon themselves to handle harassment. Among them is Michelle Ferrier who was the first female African-American columnist at Daytona Beach News Journal, and who had to deal with her share of harassment.

This experience prompted her to collaborate with other female journalists to create Trollbusters, a platform - currently under development - that allows women in digital media suffering from online harassment to type in the URL of an offensive message in order to locate the troll. The platform received the top prize at IWMF's Cracking the Code hackathon. 

Using network analysis technology developed by Ferrier’s students at Ohio University, Trollbusters will identify “troll nests,” or online clusters of haters. The victim will also receive support from an online community that will fight back against the barrage of abuse with positive messages.

When asked about the advice that she would give for journalists facing online harassment, Ferrier gave the following tips:

- If they’re threatening you with bodily harm, go to the police and document the harassment (i.e. keep screenshots of threatening/abusive messages).

- If they’re insulting you (but not threatening you), step away from the computer.

- If they’re attacking your professional reputation, you might want to get friends to support you and provide you with professional endorsements. 

- Some journalists have dealt with the problem by outing trolls. No research has been done regarding how successful this has been but it does alert others to potential trolls.

Similar tools that have been developed to combat online harassment include Block Together, an app developed by Jacob Hoffman-Andrews from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The app combats harassment on Twitter. Another tool is The Block Bot, which blocks the “nastiest of people” on Twitter.

“I think that journalists should take extra care to differentiate between harassment, which is personal, and criticism, which can be awful and persistent but is about ideas,” Jillian York, a writer, blogger and the director for International Freedom of Expression at EFF, told IJNet.

York, who said she was harassed for her “stance on Palestine” and also for her views on “feminism” and “free speech,” advised journalists to make use of the block button on Twitter.

“I think the best tool for journalists, or for any public figure, is to practice self-care," she said. "Get off social media for a bit, make some tea, meditate. Engage friends in helping you combat trolls with counter-speech if you have to. And talk to your friends, especially fellow journalists, about the harassment - we shouldn't have to deal with it alone.”

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via thamirainbow

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