Female journalists are the worst affected by cyberbullying

“There is significant potential for online violence to escalate into offline harm,” said Julie Posetti, research director at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

“Women tend to face greater threats online,” she told delegates at the Perugia International Journalism Festival on Saturday. And, she added, “the types of threats they face are increasing.”

That toxic environment was “facilitated by Big Tech companies,” she added, accusing them of “an inability to take responsibility.”

In a 2022 joint UNESCO-ICFJ survey, almost three-quarters of female journalists interviewed said they had experienced online violence or abuse in connection with their work. They interviewed 900 journalists from 125 countries.

Online attacks include insults, sexist and sexual comments, and physical threats, including death threats against journalists and their families, the conference heard.

Increasingly sophisticated attacks include blocking accounts, hacking, publishing private photos and creating “deep fakes” – false sexual images of people without their consent.

Violent threats tend to increase in combination with discrimination based on skin color, religion or sexual orientation.

– Physical violence –

Posetti and two other researchers, together with the Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe (OSCE), have developed a guide and toolbox on this topic, aimed at journalists.

Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, was a victim of online abuse, as she explained in the ICFJ-UNESCO report.

“I was a war correspondent at CNN for 20 years, but nothing on the ground prepared me for the orchestrated, misogynistic attacks on me and our female-led news channel, Rappler,” she said.

BBC disinformation specialist Marianna Spring received an avalanche of abusive tweets last year, threatening to kidnap her or slit her throat.

Much of the abuse followed her investigation into the takeover of social media network X, then known as Twitter.

In some cases, online threats can translate into physical violence.

A fifth of women surveyed said they had suffered attacks or insults in real life related to online abuse.

The consequences could be far-reaching, with some journalists potentially deterred from covering sensitive topics and some choosing to withdraw from the industry altogether.

Paris-based media rights activists Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have warned that this type of intimidation poses a new threat to press freedom.


– Developing countermeasures –

French journalist Nadia Daam told AFP she received a flood of hateful messages in 2017 after a column criticizing an online forum.

She has since moved twice and tends to stay away from social media, but says she still gets cyberbullying messages and “doesn’t work the same anymore”.

However, she thinks there is now more awareness of the problem and says she believes the wider industry is “talking more about cyber harassment”, with tougher legal penalties.

Freelancer Melina Huet has covered the war in Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and said she regularly receives online threats related to her reporting.

“I received threats of beheading and rape on Instagram,” she said. “The perpetrators can easily recreate accounts, there is impunity.”

Some media outlets have established protocols to tackle cyberbullying.

Jessica Ziegerer is an investigative journalist for the daily newspaper HD Sydsvenskan and regularly receives hostile messages.

“Before publishing a sensitive article, we meet with security specialists and review all aspects” both online and offline, she said.