No Escape: The neverending online threats to female journalists

Illustration by Franziska Barczyk

It was 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, October 24, 2017. Jane Lytvynenko was at her desk monitoring the news and flipping through her online feeds when a notification popped up on her screen alerting her to a personalized tweet.

When she clicked on it, a photograph jumped up at her. Lytvynenko flinched. The image on her screen was children, all of them dead and laid out on hard asphalt, their clothes soaked in blood from open wounds. Below the photo was a message for Lytvynenko: “Ukrainians kill children,” it read. “You are stupid hooker, whore. Your hands in blood!” Lytvynenko flinched again, feeling the blood drain from her face, her heartbeat accelerating.

She knew why she had been targeted. Lytvynenko, a Toronto-based news reporter at BuzzFeed News, had penned a piece taking apart and questioning the veracity of a Twitter thread going viral online. The thread, posted by user LauraSession10, speculated the reason behind the killing of four American soldiers in Niger and called attention to the unpreparedness of the entire operation. But Lytvynenko’s journalistic instincts kicked in and she focused on the problematic source who published the viral Twitter thread that was shared across the internet by thousands of people, including celebrities, even though the Twitter user had no credentials to be claiming the story as truth. Lytvynenko’s piece was published on Friday, debunking the story by going through the thread piece by piece and pointing out inaccuracies. LauraSession10 then spent the entire weekend harassing her on Twitter, shifting the attention off Lytvynenko’s story and onto the journalist herself. With much of the global media focus on the murky Russian influence on the U.S. election process, LauraSession10 began a focused effort to discredit Lytvynenko, claiming she was Russian and could not be trusted. In fact, Lytvynenko is of Ukrainian descent. But as the political tension and coverage of Russian influence grew, Lytvynenko became a target.

The Tuesday morning message—in particular, the image of the murdered children from a different Twitter user—threw Lytvynenko so off balance that she left her desk and took a walk around the block to refocus. Afterwards, she reported it to Twitter, which took it down quickly, but the damage had been done. She couldn’t get it out of her mind. “It wasn’t a good feeling,” she says.

Stories of online harassment—like Lytvynenko’s—are more commonly the norm than the exception today. Journalists—especially those who are women and members of marginalized communities—increasingly find themselves targets of online rage. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) surveyed 400 female journalists across the globe, including Canada, and its report published in November 2017 found that 44 percent of respondents had experienced online abuse. Michelle Shephard, the Toronto Star’s national security reporter, has been working on the Omar Khadr story, writing about the young Canadian who spent 10 years  detained at Guantanamo Bay. In the summer of 2017, when Khadr received a $10.5-million settlement from the Canadian federal government, Shephard received an anonymous envelope in the mail that was addressed directly to her. When she opened the envelope she discovered a print copy of her article, “Ottawa to offer Khadr an apology.” The article was slightly crumpled with a streak of what appeared to be feces on it. Shephard responded to the personalized note with humour. She tweeted out a photo of the letter with the following caption: “1. Subscriber! 2. Environmental. 3. Glad they spelled my name correctly.”

Online harassment isn’t exclusive to women in the media industry. Gender-based online harassment is common in the public sphere, from threats of violence to demeaning comments. Last year, employees from far-right website The Rebel took to calling Canada’s environment minister, Catherine McKenna, “Climate Barbie,” and Conservative politicians and social media users followed suit. The internet has become an increasingly threatening place to be—even more so for female reporters and people of colour who could be deterred from pursuing important stories because of personal attacks or physical threats. A 2017 Pew Research Center study on online harassment found that 21 percent of women aged 18 to 29 reported being sexually harassed online, as opposed to only nine percent of men. Paired with the recent trend of false information going viral and the lack of real change from the companies hosting social media platforms, online harassment poses a threat to how journalism is conducted, and to the lives and mental health of the journalists coming into work each day.

Veteran female journalists have a long lens on modern-day harassment, having lived through several eras of technological change before the advent of social media platforms, even the internet. Kim Bolan, a crime reporter for the Vancouver Sun, recalls receiving her first death threat in 1997, around the time when Sun reporters were given personal email addresses. Bolan’s death threat arrived in the form of an anonymous letter.

In the pre-internet era when readers had a bone to pick with a reporter, they had to ink a letter,
buy a stamp, locate a physical address, and mail it in a post box. The series of steps acted as a deterrent, says Elizabeth Renzetti of
The Globe and Mail, who has seen a spike in hate mail over the years, especially as social media platforms have replaced many other modes of traditional communication. By all accounts, online hate is different. It takes minutes—sometimes seconds—to find someone’s contact information and fire something off. The stages in the process of mailing a letter that would provide a cooling-off period no longer exist.

In the internet era, differences of opinion on individual stories moved to online comment sections. But with the large-scale adoption of platforms like Twitter and Facebook, journalists like Bolan and Renzetti feel a shift in both the nature and volume of responses. Today, Bolan marshals a staff blog called Real Scoop, sorting through threats to separate the serious from the toothless and reporting the former to police on occasion. “I leave the threats on the blog. It’s there for the whole world to see, and that person is going to have to live with that being up there,” Bolan says.

In Canada, comment sections have been changing with increased moderation or are sometimes completely shuttered, leaving journalists at the mercy of one-on-one communication with their haters through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The Toronto Star shut down its online comments sections, and others like The Huffington Post and CBC have added regulations to control content, like moderating or removing comment sections on stories about controversial issues. The Toronto Sun published a statement when it shut down comment sections in 2015 that read: “The increasing use of Sun comment boards for anonymous, negative, even malicious personal attacks, albeit by a minority, has led us to conclude our current commenting system is not serving the interests of the majority of our readers.” The Sun has since reopened its comment sections, which now use a posting forum through Facebook where commenters are identified by their personal profiles. Even though there is no option for a poster to be anonymous, there is still a loophole to get around being linked to an aggressive comment if a user is committed enough to create a false account.

Opinion writers are often at the receiving end of these personalized hate messages, and Renzetti, whose column often focuses on women’s issues, says she no longer reads comments. But as some comment sections have shuttered or tried to add moderation, she says the culture of the comment space has morphed into something ugly and more personal. She likens comment sections to live online theatre, where commenters perform for each other, while she says social media messaging is more uninhibited, public, and personal.

If there is a singular event that has heightened the intensity of online hate toward journalists, Renzetti says it’s the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. When Renzetti writes about him, she gets personally attacked; she’s either too old or ugly to be harassed by Trump, she’s told.

While Renzetti regularly receives insults of that kind, the Star’s Shree Paradkar often receives messages like, “Go back to your shitty country,” or “Hope your husband rapes you tonight.” She likens social media responses to columns to a chronic, unrelenting pain. And because she writes about gender, race, and identity, and is a person of colour, the barbs and attacks are particularly vicious. When a journalist is parachuted into a war-torn region for a couple weeks, or publishes a controversial story, the personal toll from the reporting and the public backlash might be severe, she says, but it’s still temporary. But opinion writers—especially those like Paradkar—are at the receiving end of hate all the time.

Just as Renzetti sees Trump’s election as a defining moment for targeting journalists online, Lytvynenko believes it was Gamergate that released the flood of online hate toward women. More than a century after women began to establish themselves in newsrooms around the world and venture beyond the women’s sections, they remain unwelcome in niche spaces, including the gaming world. In 2013, Zoë Quinn, an independent game developer, created a text-based game on mental health called Depression Quest. The game received a host of positive reviews and quickly gained popularity amongst new gamers. But just as things began to take off, Quinn’s ex-boyfriend published a series of blogs posts accusing her of cheating on him with five other men who worked in the video game industry or covered it as journalists. He accused her of gaining biased media and industry support. What ensued was a veritable witch hunt. Quinn was presumed guilty, and a deep and enduring anti-woman movement raged across the online gaming space, with support from then-Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos, who took up the cause after online haters started the hashtag #gamergate. All of that was accompanied by a months-long orchestrated online campaign against Quinn, wherein she ended up being “doxxed”—her personal phone number and her family’s address were released, resulting in an onslaught of phone calls and messages threatening her and her family. Exposed to an angry and misogynist public, Quinn was forced to leave her home and live with friends, often sleeping on couches until the fervour died down. The Gamergaters, also known simply as “trolls,” backed off when Quinn published messages from a private chat on Twitter between members of the group—“I think she tried killing herself before,” one poster wrote, and another responded, “She should try that again.” The Gamergaters retreated when Quinn published their chats exposing that they were not a movement for games journalism like they had posed themselves, but just sexist and misogynistic.

The perpetrators attacked and sent online death threats to other women such as Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic, and Brianna Wu, a software engineer and video game developer. The Gamergaters convinced other users not to trust the information coming from news outlets, and created posts with false information that went viral. Writing in The Guardian, Matt Lees identified striking similarities between Gamergate and the modern alt-right hate groups—especially in the ways they attack their critics and create false facts. “This hashtag was the canary in the coalmine, and we ignored it,” he wrote.

 

She just wanted to know if her children would be safe. She contacted the police, and an officer told her, “Just stay off the internet, love.”

 

Gamergaters also targeted other media personalities. In a 2014 talk, Sarkeesian revealed she received death threats from fake social media accounts because she used feminist perspectives and criticisms to talk about video games, and that her name and identity were hijacked to create content to intentionally stir angry internet trolls. Images of her wearing horns and looking like the devil were shared virally amongst the community online. Back then, she called it an “information cascade.” New information was coming in at such a pace, she says, and was shared so quickly, it was difficult to verify if it was real.

“In terms of coordinated campaigns, I think that Gamergate is what started all of this in a way,” Lytvynenko says. “It’s shown people that you can do these coordinated harassment campaigns and sometimes they work.”

In 2010, when Ginger Gorman was a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), she worked on a series of stories about LGBTQ+ issues around Queensland. One story profiled Mark Newton and Peter Truong, a gay couple struggling through paperwork to get their son from Russia. Gorman reported on the couple’s story: Newton was the boy’s biological father, but his son was born through a surrogate. After the interview was over and she clicked a “happy snap” of the couple with their son, Gorman and the child chased chickens around the couple’s property. The photograph and the story were published shortly after.

But two years later, a joint investigation by the United States Postal Inspection Service and Queensland Police revealed Newton and Truong weren’t really the boy’s adoptive parents but pedophiles who purchased him for $8,000 (U.S.) while in Russia. The child had been abused by the two men since he was weeks old and Newton and Truong would bring the boy with them to be sexually exploited as they travelled. Newton, an American, was sentenced to 40 years in a U.S. prison, and Truong, an Australian, was sentenced to 30. “I spent a lot of time with that little boy,” Gorman says. “They duped me like they had duped everyone else.” The photo she took was used in just about every story about the men’s arrests, with the child’s face blurred out. But the photo’s credit was rightly assigned to Gorman.

What followed was a troll bombardment. Gorman’s 2010 piece was shared online, depicting her as part of the problem. On personal blogs and on Twitter, people started calling her a “pedophile lover.” Things got more personal when the now-defunct Nazi website Iron March published a photograph of her family, a brutal blow for Gorman, whose maternal grandparents had survived the Holocaust.

Gorman and Quinn’s experiences illustrate the shift in audience engagement with women online. As the “orchestrated online hate campaign” against Gorman grew she realized just how vulnerable she was. “It came at me like a tsunami,” she says.

Location services were activated on her phone, making it possible to track her movements, including when she was at her Queensland home. One day she received this tweet, “Your life is over.” She then began to fear for the safety of her children, especially since a family photograph had been widely shared online. “Is someone really coming for us?” she remembers thinking. “Is someone really going to harm my children? It was terrifying.”

Gorman’s specific challenge was that the threat followed her everywhere. It hadn’t happened in a supermarket or another public space she could have exit and leave behind. Wherever she went, wherever her kids went, fear from the digital threats followed. “The threat is omnipresent.”

At one point she reached out to ABC, but her employer wasn’t sure what to do and offered her psychological counselling. Gorman declined, saying she just wanted to know if her children would be safe. She contacted the police, and an officer told her, “Just stay off the internet, love.”

For young journalists entering the field receiving abusive emails and online messages can be rattling. Toronto Star reporter Fatima Syed says she receives weekly abuse. When she entered the media industry through the Star, Syed heard other journalists of colour talk about harassment as a regular feature of their work experiences.

Even though she knew it could happen, Syed was not prepared for the personalized hate mail she receives. A recent message from a reader came via email, calling her a “Burmese slut” after she wrote about human rights crimes committed against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma.

 

One day she received this tweet, “Your life is over.” She then began to fear for the safety of her children, especially since a family photograph had been widely shared online. “Is someone really coming for us?”

 

“Theoretically, you know you’re going to get it, and you know how bad it’s going to be,” Syed says. “But you’re not prepared with the emotional whammy that comes with receiving it.”

There’s also the added pressure that comes from her own community. The coverage of minority groups from mainstream media organizations can be spotty, and reporters can make a lot of mistakes that could paint a community in the wrong light. As a Muslim, Syed knows her reporting of issues pertaining to Muslims will be held to a higher standard by the community. But community responses aren’t always constructive.

After covering a court case involving a Muslim defendant, a man—Syed says she can’t recall an attack coming from a woman—called her and told her she was worthless, and that he hated that she was a Muslim journalist “because [she was] giving Muslims a bad name.” Considering the work she puts in making sure her stories are fair and accurate, this type of feedback rattles her.

Experienced journalists provide support, though. “Sometimes all you need is someone else saying, ‘Man, what an idiot.’”

Journalists have responded to the troll problem in different ways. When she was hit with a wave of hate, Gorman tried to understand the mindset. She interviewed as many online trolls as she could. “I don’t know if that was brave or stupid. I’m not quite sure,” Gorman says. “It just seemed like an online emergency.” All of them were men. She also found they had developed orchestrated strategies, often working together in groups to perform coordinated attacks. They were overwhelmingly white and middle class, and some had girlfriends. The men told Gorman they felt discriminated against, their identities threatened by women and minority groups. Lashing out was a response.

In 2014, researchers from the University of Manitoba, the University of Winnipeg, and the University of British Columbia published a joint study titled, “Trolls Just Want to Have

Fun,” defining “trolling” as “the practice of behaving in a deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the internet with no apparent instrumental purpose.” Researchers interviewed over 1,200 Americans online and found trolling was strongly related to personality traits that correlated with sadism, psychopathy and narcissism. The study found these people spent between one and two hours a day commenting on posts online. “Our research suggests that, for those with sadistic personalities, that ideal self may be a villain of chaos and mayhem,” the authors stated in the report.

One man told Gorman that women, those women in positions of power, are easy to attack—trolls threaten these women with sexual violence or violence against their children and families. “That’s why they choose female journalists as targets,” Gorman says. “It’s a great threat to them. It’s so incredibly sad. [Trolls] are not able to accept a more inclusive society.”

A pressing concern is the impact online attacks have on female journalists’ ability to do their jobs. Duncan Pike, co-director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, a group that monitors issues of free expression and access to information, says social media platforms—especially Twitter—are an integral part of a journalist’s career. They can connect with potential sources, share their stories and even start their own publications. For readers, it’s a way to make their voices heard in an unprecedented way. But harassment and doxxing are an always-present concern for reporters looking to tell important stories. It doesn’t matter how tough you are, he says, it will always have an impact on you. That strain on their lives can cause journalists to think twice about reporting on unpopular topics, and it has a ripple effect on their coworkers and sources as well.

“Their colleagues will look at that and think, ‘Oh God, they had to leave social media for a month or a year and just never came back. Do I want to speak out on this issue and get the same thing?’” Pike asks. “It does have a real silencing effect.”

When Gorman reached out to her media company for help, they offered emotional support but couldn’t offer physical protection. She set out to do something about it by understanding troll culture. In March 2017, Renzetti and some coworkers heard Globe reporter Janet McFarland, Star columnist Heather Mallick and Vice Canada senior writer Manisha Krishnan discuss the hazards of being a female journalist online at a Canadian Journalism Foundation J-Talk panel. After the talk, Renzetti realized how little of her experience with harassment she had shared with her colleagues, and vice versa. “You just end up internalizing this stuff,” Renzetti says. “But it’s not your fault that someone is calling you a bitch on Twitter.”

The event was a catalyst for a new support group at the Globe. The meetings started small, but in time, grew to include up to 12 women at a time, including members of management. The group conducted research on other newsrooms’ policies but has yet to come up with a conclusive plan of action.

Beyond the policies they hope to produce, Renzetti says discussing and speaking about the attacks they face in a public space helps take the power back from anonymous trolls.

Paradkar, who has been at the Star for a over decade, says the key—for her—is to motor on. Even though the threats and abuse is ever present, being at the receiving end has only emboldened her’s resolve. “I feel like it’s allowing them to win if I take a day off and lick my wounds, so to speak. The best revenge is if I keep going.” 

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