By David Maas
Online violence against women journalists is on the rise and intensified by racism, religious bigotry and homophobia, among other forms of discrimination, new research produced by ICFJ for UNESCO shows.
The disinformation-laced, misogynistic attacks are often triggered by political figures, spurred by populism and extremism, and enabled by major social media platforms.
The heightened nature of the attacks among those who are subject to other forms of discrimination is one of eight key international online violence trends identified through the research. It is the first time such factors associated with gendered online violence have been analyzed on a global scale.
The study, titled “The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists,” documents how online attacks discourage journalists from carrying out their reporting, place them in harm’s way and chip away at independent journalism. ICFJ’s Global Director of Research Dr Julie Posetti led a team of international researchers including co-authors of this report, Nabeelah Shabbir, Diana Maynard, Kalina Bontcheva and Nermine Aboulez.
They surveyed more than 900 journalists in 125 countries and across 5 languages to support their findings, in addition to interviews with over 170 international journalists and experts.
Among the findings, between 80-90% of Black, Indigenous and Jewish women journalists surveyed said they have experienced online violence, compared with a still alarmingly high 64% of all white women.
Award-winning BBC investigations correspondent Rianna Croxford recounted the racial violence she has experienced: “It’s not the first time somebody called me the N-word. It won’t be the last time. I’ve had racial abuse… ‘monkey’, mocking my appearance in different ways.”
While more than 70% of heterosexual women said they have been attacked online, this rises to 88% and 85% for women identifying as lesbian and bisexual, respectively.
When the online attacks spill offline, they continue to affect women journalists subject to other forms of discrimination at higher rates. Over half of Arab women respondents said they have experienced offline attacks that they believe had originated online, compared with 11% of white women respondents, and 20% of women respondents overall.
“[Every day I went on air], I would receive on my Al-Jazeera email — because somehow it was leaked — a death threat,” said Ghada Oueiss, Al Jazeera’s principal Arabic presenter. “One of them that I can never forget [said]:
‘You will be looking at the camera to talk to your audience and you will start reading the bulletin and reading the autocue in front of you. You will notice that there is a gun and [a] bullet, that bullet will go straight to your head.’”
Almost one in five women journalists surveyed said they felt physically unsafe because of the online violence. More than one in four women journalists said that the most significant consequence was harm to their mental health.
In the U.S., The Grio’s White House Correspondent April Ryan said that people have come to her home and waited for her outside the White House to abuse her in person. “I’m in therapy and they say it is trauma, not only from Donald Trump, but the minions, always having to …make sure someone’s not coming after you,” she said. “Will my life ever be the same? No.”
When journalists report on gender-related issues in particular, such as domestic violence, reproductive rights and transgender issues, attacks increase significantly. More than one third of respondents also pointed to political figures as sources of the online violence they experienced.
Former HuffPost UK reporter Nadine White was targeted after the UK’s Equalities Minister shared tweeted screenshots of her emails and called her “creepy and bizarre.”
“As a Black woman journalist, coming into this industry as the vast minority within this white dominated elite base, it’s daunting on so many levels just to get up in the morning each day and do what I do, much less to know that you’ve been targeted by a minister and that’s been effectively sanctioned by the people that run this country, by the powers that run this country,” she said.
Despite the severity of the issue, targets of the violence frequently elect not to report attacks to the social media platforms on which they proliferate. While approximately three in four women journalists said they use Facebook or Twitter for their work, only 39% had ever reported violence to Facebook, and just 26% had done so to Twitter.
This likely suggests a sense of both futility and reluctance among the women to escalate complaints of this nature, the researchers note.
When the abuse is reported in less prominent local languages, the platforms’ response becomes even more ineffectual. Said Pakistani journalist Youssra Jabeen: “There is no point in us reporting anything because we know nothing is going to get done there. They operate in English, so how do you report threats in Urdu?”
Women journalists are even less inclined to report attacks to their employer (25%) or to the police (11%), according to the study.
In fact, many of the interview subjects felt abandoned by their employers when experiencing online violence, the researchers note.
Instead, many women journalists shared how they have changed their own behaviors, shifted their patterns of movement and even relocated or went into hiding as a result of the online harassment. Others said they increased their physical security in anticipation of potential offline attacks. Some have left journalism altogether.
“When I’m walking to and from work, it’s me that has to be hyper-aware, me that can’t listen to music or podcast when I’m walking anymore,” said Marianna Spring, who reports on disinformation for the BBC. “It’s me that kind of has to forfeit certain freedoms as a consequence of these people being horrible.”
In Sri Lanka, author and former journalist Sharmila Seyyid fled her home country for India amid graphic, hate-filled attacks from self-identified Islamic fundamentalists who falsely reported her death online.
The researchers urge an end to the inaction that exists today, as online violence grows, evolves with technology and intensifies along different points of identity. “Impunity emboldens the perpetrators, demoralizes the victim, erodes the foundations of journalism, and undermines freedom of expression,” the authors write.
The report concludes with 28 recommendations to help intergovernmental organizations, individual States, Big Tech platforms, news organizations and more improve and implement measures to combat online violence.
It also includes two big data case studies that forensically examine the online attacks experienced by Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa and British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, and their consequences.
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.
David Maas is the director of IJNet.