Study finds link between online and offline violence against women journalists
The report is the result of a three-year study covering 15 countries and is the most geographically, linguistically, and ethnically diverse scoping of online violence against women journalists to date
Published: 07th November 2022 10:16 PM | Last Updated: 07th November 2022 10:16 PM | A+A A-
LONDON: A groundbreaking report into online violence against women journalists is calling for urgent action by UK policymakers to protect lives, livelihoods and press freedom.
The report is the result of a three-year study covering 15 countries and is the most geographically, linguistically, and ethnically diverse scoping of online violence against women journalists to date.
The study, commissioned by UNESCO, found that online violence against women journalists in the UK is frequently associated with populist politics, and polarising political debates and that the pandemic has worsened the situation.
The report also found a strong link between online violence and offline attacks in the UK, especially with regard to stalking.
The study draws on the experiences of nearly 1,100 journalists, two big data case studies examining 2.5 million social media posts directed at Nobel Laureate and Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa and multi-award-winning investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr (UK), along with detailed individual country case studies, a release by the University of Sheffield said on Monday.
The study was led by Dr Julie Posetti, ICFJ's Global Director of Research and a senior researcher at the Centre for the Freedom of the Media (CFOM) at the University of Sheffield.
"Online violence towards women journalists aids and abets impunity for crimes against journalists, and it must be tackled urgently. This requires political actors who instigate and amplify online violence to be restrained and penalized," said Posetti.
"It also demands that the platforms be held accountable for their role as vectors for online violence, through freedom of expression-respecting regulation by the states which claim that they want to tackle the issue of impunity and protect journalists, including the UK. This is even more urgent in the context of Twitter's recent takeover by a billionaire who has not signalled that he understands that protecting users from hate speech enables freedom of expression," Posetti said.
The book-length study is calling for governments, Big Tech, the news industry, legal and judicial actors and civil society to do more to tackle what is described as a crisis of online violence towards women journalists.
The study found that online violence against women journalists in the UK is frequently associated with populist politics and polarising political debates - such as Brexit.
The pandemic has worsened the situation for women journalists with digital conspiracy networks targeting reporters, and one member of the Conservative government at the time attacking two journalists for their critical reporting of responses to COVID-19.
One interviewee for the report, BBC disinformation reporter Marianna Spring, documented her own experience of online violence in a documentary broadcast in 2021.
The correlation between online violence and offline attacks against women journalists is significant, especially with regard to stalking.
"Our report has found that we are now at a crisis point in the level of violence being directed towards women journalists," said Professor Kalina Bontcheva.
"The vast majority who took part in the study had suffered from online violence, so UK policymakers need to take urgent action now in order to protect the lives of those who are doing such an important job in society," Bontcheva said.
Nearly three-quarters of the women journalists surveyed said they had experienced online violence in the course of their work.
Threats of physical violence, including death threats, were identified by 25 per cent of the women survey respondents, and sexual violence was identified by 18 per cent, the study said.
Thirteen per cent described threats of violence against those close to them, including children and infants, as features of attacks.
Almost half - 48 per cent - of the women journalists surveyed reported being harassed with unwanted private social media messages, highlighting that much online violence targeting women journalists occurs in the shadows of the internet, away from public view.
Several of the interviewees also experienced offline stalking which had begun online via direct messaging.
As part of the study, the University of Sheffield's research team undertook two big data case studies using Natural Language Processing (NLP) and network mapping techniques to assess over 2.5 million social media posts directed at two prominent journalists - Maria Ressa, co-founder of Rappler, and Carole Cadwalladr, investigative journalist and columnist at the Observer.
The team's analysis found that Cadwalladr, whose investigative work exposed the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, was the target of 10,400 separate instances of obvious abuse between December 2019 - January 2021.
Cadwalladr described the abuse as feeling like the digital equivalent of a mob attack.
"A few hundred years ago I would have been burned at the stake," she said as part of the research.
The discrimination that Black and minority women journalists experience offline is amplified and exacerbated online, where they face a triple burden of intersectional abuse, according to the study.
The research found they are attacked on the basis of their sex, their status as journalists, and because of the colour of their skin.
In some cases, they are simultaneously abused because of their religion and their sexual orientation.
The study puts forward a series of recommendations for governments and policymakers, including the establishment or reinforcement of independent national bodies/ regulators to ensure compliance with the relevant national and international laws designed to protect the safety of women journalists.