Tech Companies Enable Online Violence Against Women Journalists: Report
The report found a majority of women journalists have faced online violence, made worse by tech companies’ failure to respond effectively.
A majority of women journalists said they have faced online violence and threats while conducting their work, a new report says. Recognising the role of technology companies in enabling such abuse on digital platforms, the researchers called for a complete redesign of the algorithms that promote both “misogynistic content” and groups “engaged in online harassment and abuse.”
Women journalists bearing the brunt of online abuse is not new. A U.S. based study found that female journalists viewed harassment and attacks as a “part of the job.” The latest report adds that journalists face multiple forms of discrimination simultaneously. While misogyny and sexism fuel the storm of online hate against women journalists, it intersects with other forms of discrimination including racism, religious bigotry, homophobia and transphobia. Journalists identifying as Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Arab, Asian or lesbian experienced “both the highest rates and most severe impacts of online violence,” stated the report.
The UNESCO-supported three-year study by the International Center for Journalists surveyed over 1,000 female journalists from 15 countries, finding nearly three-quarters to have experienced gender-based online violence. This included death threats, sexual violence, threat of violence to family members including children and image-based abuse. Much of this abuse takes place away from the public eye, with almost half the journalists stating they experienced harassment through private messages on social media platforms.
Most of those surveyed flagged the inaction and unresponsive nature of tech companies, along with the cumbersome processes for reporting such incidents of online abuse as serious issues that often lead to fatigue and frustration. “I feel nothing will be done, so I don’t bother [reporting incidents to the platforms] anymore,” the report quoted Nigerian journalist Kiki Mordi as saying.
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Journalists are increasingly relying on social media platforms for news gathering, distribution of content and audience engagement. However, this dependence also exposes them to greater abuse, noted the report. While online platforms are supposed to provide safe environments for their users, most companies claim they are “passive” platforms for third-party users, diverting the responsibility for protection and safety onto the women themselves. This is exacerbated by social media platforms’ failure to respond effectively to online violence, which, in turn, reinforces a “climate of impunity” for crimes against female journalists.
Tech companies have also failed to address or remove abusive content online, often stating it was not in breach of their corporate policies. While hateful and violent speech against journalists remains unaddressed on the one hand, the report noted that publication content continues to be censored by these platforms.
For instance, Al Jazeera journalist Ghada Oueiss told the researchers about online threats to her life, where an individual’s Facebook post offered US $50,000 to anyone who would kidnap or kill her. She reported the incident to the police and the accused was arrested. However, the threatening post remained live on Facebook.
In fact, a majority of the survey respondents said Facebook was where they faced most frequent online attacks, followed by Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp respectively.
Even in cases of doxxing – where private information about an individual is posted online, substantially increasing the risk of offline violence – threats were not dealt with fast enough. For instance, Serbian journalist Jovana Gligorijević was doxxed in YouTube comments in 2019. However, her personal information was removed by the company only after the security breach was reported over 30 times.
The report further highlighted key concerns which include a lack of human points of contact in response mechanisms, the absence of transparency and accountability in policies as well as the lack of gender sensitivity and awareness about intersectional threats.
In 2021, Nick Pickles, Senior Director of Global Public Policy Strategy at Twitter, acknowledged a need for change in how platforms respond to incidents of online violence. “We definitely hear the feedback that the burden is way too much on victims. And that’s something that we’re working to change now in real time… Now we’re at a point where more than half of all the content we removed is detected proactively by us,” Pickles had said.
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Further, much of this online violence is politically motivated, with politicians assuming the role of “major instigators and amplifiers” of online violence. The report also finds disinformation campaigns have been weaponized as a tool to perpetrate online violence. All this is compounded by news organizations failing to respond effectively and protect their journalists — while social media platform algorithms simultaneously promote misogynistic content.
Moreover, inconsistencies in how these platforms moderate content online also differs across languages and countries, limiting the ability to detect violence against women journalists that might manifest differently online based on cultural nuances. A 2022 paper analysed search engine results in African indigenous languages and highlighted how global power imbalances manifest in content moderation practices, where problematic keywords in indigenous languages continue to show up in autocomplete suggestions, amplifying their impact. Further, in 2021, Reuters reported that Facebook’s internal documents revealed the company had not hired enough linguistically-diverse employees with knowledge of local issues who could identify abusive posts in developing countries. The platform reportedly also lacks AI systems that can detect hate speech in different languages, allowing abusive posts to accumulate.
The prevalence of online violence has far-reaching impacts on the health and well-being of those targeted. It not only negatively impacts mental health, but also ends careers. Those surveyed reported greater self-censorship on social media, having to take time off work to recover, quitting jobs or switching fields altogether. As Margaret Sullivan wrote in The Washington Post, “Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to comprehend how deeply destabilizing it is, how it can make you think twice about your next story, or even whether being a journalist remains worth it.”
The report’s findings then point to a need for all stakeholders to take urgent action to address what professor Kalina Bontcheva, senior researcher in the UK arm of the study, calls “… a crisis point in the level of violence being directed towards women journalists.”
Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.