It sounded like the title of a horror movie but it was not. It was for real. The full title of the research paper is “The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists.”
It is based on a Unesco study that points to a “sharp increase” in online violence against women journalists. Results of the research were released on April 30, 2021, in time for the observance of World Press Freedom Day on Monday, May 3.
The study carried out for Unesco or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) included a first of its kind global survey of 901 journalists from 125 countries that involved long-form interviews and big data case studies. I was one of those who responded to the survey and recalled what I and other women journalists experienced.
I’ve been bad-mouthed and called names on social media because of what I wrote. At some point, there were comments of people who wished I got raped or gang-raped after I called attention to their rape jokes and told them rape was never funny. I experienced getting warned in phone messages in the past. I wasn’t alone because there were other journalists, including columnists, who got cyberbullied for their work. Our male colleagues equally got targeted on social media when they wrote critical articles on politics but I would describe the abuse to be tamer (without mention of rape) compared to what women journalists received.
The research pointed to how online violence is “inextricably bound up with disinformation, intersectional discrimination and populist politics.” One of its key findings was that online attacks have real-life impacts. Not only do they affect mental health and productivity, but physical attacks and legal harassment are increasingly seeded online.
Cyber abuse was also found to intersect with disinformation. The research said that while “orchestrated disinformation campaigns weaponize misogyny to chill critical reporting, reporting on disinformation can be a trigger for heightened attacks.” Almost half or 41 percent of those surveyed said the online attacks appeared to be linked to orchestrated disinformation campaigns.
In addition, the paper found that social media platforms and news organizations are still struggling to respond effectively. Facebook was rated the most dangerous of the top five platforms/apps used, with nearly double the number of respondents rating Facebook “very unsafe” compared to Twitter. Of the 25 percent of respondents who reported the online abuse to their employers, 10 percent of them received no response, while nine percent were told to “grow a thicker skin” or “toughen up.”
The impact of this online violence is real. Some 30 percent of those who experienced cyber abuse said they resorted to self-censorship on social media as a result of being targeted.
In highlighting such online violence, the study emphasizes that the safety of women journalists is a press freedom issue to ensure that the press continue to report the truth and hold those in power to account.