Content warning: This story includes graphic content that illustrates the severity of gendered online abuse.*
There is a new front line in journalism safety – one where women journalists sit at the epicenter of risk. The digital, psychological and physical safety threats confronting women in journalism are overlapping, converging and inseparable. Where and when they intersect, they can be terrifying and potentially deadly.
The risks range from online harassment and abuse to threats of sexual violence. Increasingly, they also include digital privacy and security breaches, along with disinformation tactics.
These combined threats can be termed “gendered online violence.” The perpetrators range from individual misogynists and networked mobs, to State-linked disinformation agents aiming to undercut press freedom.
That is why the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is partnering with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on a global survey into the incidence and impacts of online violence against women journalists, and effective measures to combat the problem. The survey, launched this week, will help us understand the manifestation of gendered online violence in 2020.
Being able to describe and understand the problem is just the first step. To respond to it effectively, we need to know what countermeasures are being tested and implemented, whether or not they’re working and what women journalists need most.
How do women journalists experience online violence?
Online violence threatens women journalists around the world, across a range of platforms and digital communities. From news website comments to social media channels, women in journalism are confronted daily by online violence that follows them from work to home, invading their professional and private spaces. The abuse can be prolific and feel unrelenting. It can inflict psychological injury, cause professional harm, force women out of journalism and lead to physical violence.
Many women who experience these attacks use terms commonly associated with physical warfare to describe their experiences of online violence. “Women are targeted in cyberwars the same way they are in kinetic wars,”said Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro.
When gendered online violence first emerged, it was often dismissed by media employers and social media companies as something that required acceptance as a consequence of online engagement with audiences. Frequently, the responsibility to manage the problem was placed on the targeted women themselves, who were told online attacks weren’t a real concern.
However, extensive reporting, research and civil society advocacy has resulted in the problem and its impacts being recognized internationally, and there are several collaborative initiatives being developed to support those targeted. At the same time, online violence has become increasingly complex and widespread, posing significant challenges to efforts aimed at countering the problem.
One of the most chilling examples of online violence against a female journalist remains the 2013 case of Caroline Criado Perez in the UK. This is the kind of abuse that she suffered for suggesting that literary icon Jane Austen’s head should be on a bank note:
There were threats to mutilate my genitals, threats to slit my throat, to bomb my house, to pistol‑whip me and burn me alive. I was told I would have poles shoved up my vagina, dicks shoved down my throat. I was told I would be begging to die, as a man would ejaculate in my eyeballs. And then they started posting an address linked to me around the internet. I felt hunted. I felt terrified.
Three converging threat types
There are three converging online threats currently confronting women journalists:
(1) Misogynistic harassment and abuse
This includes patterns of targeted, sexualized abuse and harassment including threats of violence (such as sexual assault, rape and murder) against the women journalists (and their daughters, sisters, mothers, etc.). It also includes gendered swearing and insults targeting their appearance, sexuality and professionalism, which are designed to diminish their confidence and tarnish their reputations. Such abuse can come from individuals, organically formed “pile ons” or coordinated groups as part of a networked attack.
(2) Orchestrated disinformation campaigns that exploit misogynistic narratives
Women journalists are frequent targets of digital disinformation campaigns, including orchestrated efforts with links to state actors. Typical features of these attacks are falsely accusing them of professional misconduct, spreading smears about their character designed to damage their personal reputations and spreading malicious visuals such as deepfake porn videos, abusive memes, manipulated images. The objective is to undermine the journalist’s credibility, embarrass them into retreat and chill critical journalism.
(3) Digital privacy and security threats that increase physical risks
Methods of attack designed to compromise women journalists’ online privacy, security and safety include malware, hacking, doxxing and spoofing. They escalate the physical threats faced by women journalists because these acts can involve revealing their residential and work addresses, along with their patterns of movement.
Features of online violence
Online violence targeting women journalists manifests itself in a variety of ways, but it has a number of common characteristics.
- It is networked: Online violence is often organized and orchestrated.
- It radiates: Online violence against women journalists radiates to women’s families, sources and audiences.
- It is intimate: In detail and delivery, the threats are personal.
The link between online violence and offline attacks
A new pattern has emerged, connecting online violence campaigns and offline attacks, highlighting the escalating threat faced by women journalists globally.
In October 2017, investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed when a bomb placed under her car detonated close to her home in Malta. She was investigating corruption with ties to the state. Before she was murdered, Caruana Galizia endured frequent online threats and harassment with clear gendered aspects. The pattern of online violence associated with her death is so similar to that Philippines-based editor and CEO Maria Ressa is experiencing that Caruana Galizia’s sons issued a public statement expressing their concerns that Ressa was also at risk of murder when State-sponsored harassment against her rose dramatically in 2020.
“This targeted harassment, chillingly similar to that perpetrated against Ressa, created the conditions for Daphne’s murder,” they wrote.
Likewise, the death of the Indian investigative journalist Gauri Lankesh also drew international attention. Lankesh, who was shot dead outside her home, was known for being a critic of right-wing extremism and she was subjected to significant online abuse before her death. In the days after Lankesh’s killing, trolls took to social media to celebrate.
The case of another Indian journalist, Rana Ayyub, led five United Nations special rapporteurs to intervene in her defense following the mass circulation of false information online designed to counter her reporting. Ayyub was the target of disinformation published on social media, including deepfake videos that led to rape and death threats. In the statement from UN experts, they pointed to the murder of Lankesh, and called on India to act to protect Ayyub, stating: “We are highly concerned that the life of Rana Ayyub is at serious risk following these graphic and disturbing threats.”
Recognizing the likelihood of online violence crossing over into the offline world, and underlining the serious mental health impacts of online abuse, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution condemning all "specific attacks on women journalists in the exercise of their work, including sexual and gender-based discrimination and violence, intimidation and harassment, online and offline.”
Online violence against women journalists amounts to an attack on media freedom, encompassing the public’s right to access information, and it cannot afford to be normalized.
About the ICFJ-UNESCO action research project and how to participate
The survey we launched this week was produced in collaboration with the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) at the University of Sheffield. It is part of an ongoing UNESCO-ICFJ study into online violence against women journalists.
Together, we are mapping the problem as it manifests in 15 countries: Brazil, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, and Tunisia. We’re also producing high-tech case studies focused on targeted women journalists.
Our objectives include:
- Mapping the scale and breadth of the problem internationally, especially in the under-studied Global South.
- Establishing how patterns of online violence against women journalists vary around the world.
- Examining how women journalists experience online violence in an intersectional way.
- Assessing the effectiveness of attempts to address the crisis.
- Making recommendations to the UN, governments, industry, civil society organizations and technology companies for more effective ways to counter the problem.
- We are supported in our work by project partners the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), the Dart Center Asia Pacific, and the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT).
Participation in the survey is now closed.
*If you've found this content distressing or difficult to discuss, you're not alone. There are resources available to help. Start by exploring the resources from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and please seek psychological support if needed.
This article draws on a keynote address that Julie Posetti gave to the Oslo Safety of Journalists conference - in November 2019 - titled The New Frontline: Female Journalists at the Intersection of Converging Digital Age Threats. It also includes content from a book chapter of the same title, written for a forthcoming anthology on peace and conflict reporting edited by Prof. Kristen Skare Orgeret to be published by Routledge in 2021.
Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization