Report documents escalating online attacks against journalists

bySherry Ricchiardi
Oct 10 in Journalist safety

In today’s high-tech world, journalists are facing unprecedented levels of online attacks.

Whether spewing insults or calling for a reporter’s murder, posts can be distributed instantly and on a massive scale. Doxing, bots and email bombing have become favored weapons for trolls seeking to intimidate the media and control the news.

In July, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a report, “Online harassment of journalists: the trolls attack.”

“We felt we had to denounce this trend. That’s why we wrote the report,” said Elodie Vialle, head of RSF’s journalism and technology desk.

Over six months, the Paris-based NGO used its vast network of correspondents to look at how cyberstalkers operate, who they target and tools they use to wage hate campaigns.

“Online harassment is a phenomenon that is spreading throughout the world and now constitutes one of the gravest threats to press freedom,” said RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire when the report was published. “Information wars are not just waged between countries... Journalism’s predators also deploy troll armies to hunt down and harass all those who investigate and report the facts honestly.”

RSF’s study reached across the globe, documenting online harassment in 32 countries, including China, Turkey, Algeria and Iran. Correspondents interviewed cybercrime experts, newsroom managers, lawyers, and media staff. Some journalists told them they had been attacked “on a scale they never imagined possible.”

The report noted that new technologies and social networks provide “press freedom’s enemies with an unprecedented echo chamber for magnifying hate speech and disinformation.”  RSF spotlighted targets of troll attacks.

In April, freelancer Rana Ayyub was sitting in a New Delhi café with a friend when a pornographic video appeared on her mobile phone. She was stunned to see her face edited onto a naked woman performing a sex act.

“I saw the first two frames and froze. I wanted to vomit and fought tears,” the investigative reporter wrote in a New York Times opinion piece. “It was aimed at humiliating me, breaking me.”

Ayyub has received rape and death threats online for her political reporting and coverage of India’s minorities. Trolls have also posted her phone number and home address. This incident of slut-shaming, as she calls it, was a new low.  

“If this is the depth of their hatred, what will stop them from coming into my house as a mob and killing me?” Ayyub said in the report. RSF petitioned the Indian government and New Delhi police “to do everything possible” to protect her.

Mass harassment of journalists has never been easier. Ayyub’s attackers used free platforms  such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and did so without ever having to travel or even leave their home.

Vialle, the report’s author, described the fallout when journalists are attacked.

“Imagine receiving hundreds of messages every day – insults, death threats, rape threats. A lot of journalists disconnect for a while or stop working on certain topics to avoid attacks,” she said. “Online harassment leads to self-censorship. It becomes a matter of survival.”

Algerian reporter Abdou Semmar pulled back on covering social issues after trolls threatened his sister with rape.

“These online attacks affected my family life. I’ve reduced my presence on social networks. I no longer talk about gays. I talk less about socially taboo subjects in order not to give any weapons to my enemies. It’s unfortunate, but you have to be strategic if you don’t want to be forced into exile,” Semmar said in the report.

According to RSF, veteran French journalist David Thomson fled to the United States last year after receiving death threats while covering Jihadi networks.

Besides documenting the harassment, the report also offered 25 recommendations, including “strengthen[ing] laws authorizing prosecution for online harassment of journalists and strictly [enforcing] them.”

However, most people don’t have the opportunity or authority to make systemic changes, and the authors also include suggestions for organizations, newsrooms, advertisers and individuals. For example, the report suggests organizing a training for newsroom staff and forming a task force to monitor and collect evidence when online harassment occurs.

“It’s not only about protecting journalists. It’s about protecting the integrity of the public debate and our democracies,” Vialle said.

A tutorial included in the report, “Journalists – how to deal with troll armies,” recommends that media organizations initiate newsroom training and spell out “indispensable rules” for staffers. This includes withdrawing all personal information from online accounts, running a Google alert for their name, using passphrases instead of passwords and never clicking on suspicious links.

For more information, the tutorial lists the following resources:

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Blake Connally.