Around the globe, female journalists are attacked online more frequently and severely than their male colleagues. A recent global survey of journalists found that three out of four female respondents had experienced online violence. Now, to mark World Press Freedom Day, UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists have released a new report showing the alarming scale and impacts of these attacks, which have increased exponentially over the past decade.
This violence is sometimes called “virtual,” but the damage from this global scourge is very real. Digital misogyny and networked gaslighting intersect with racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination to threaten female journalists brutally and disproportionately. Threats of sexual violence and murder are frequent and sometimes extend to the families of reporters, including their children. These trends are bound up with the rise of viral disinformation, digital conspiracy networks and political extremism.
We are writing from personal experience. We are based on opposite sides of the world — Maria in Manila and Julie in Oxford, England. But we have waded through the swamp of digital hate thrown at Maria on an hourly basis since 2016.
These attacks have included threats to repeatedly rape Maria “to death” and demands that she be arrested and tried. She has been doxxed. Trolls have come to her newsroom in Manila. She has been subjected to racism and vilification, accused of being a “fake news”-peddling “presstitute,” and subjected to viral memes that superimpose her head on male genitalia. The threats are not just designed to undermine her dignity and erode trust in her journalism; they also escalate the daily risks she faces leading a news organization in the Philippines, one of the world’s deadliest countries to practice journalism.
This onslaught of online violence against Maria created an enabling environment for her persecution, prosecution and conviction — last June — of a criminal “cyber-libel” charge, fueled by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his supporters. Issued with 10 arrest warrants in less than two years, and detained twice in the span of six weeks, Maria is fighting nine separate cases. If she is convicted on all charges, she could spend the rest of her life in a Manila jail.
Maria has just been named the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize laureate for 2021. But her story is part of a broader pattern. The new UNESCO report features an analysis of 2.5 million social media posts, a survey of 900 journalists across 125 countries, and more than 170 interviews. More than 40 percent of the women journalists surveyed said they had been targeted online in the context of orchestrated disinformation campaigns, as Maria has.
It also found that 1 in 5 of the women surveyed had been attacked offline in connection with online violence, while more than a quarter have suffered significant mental health impacts. The research also concluded that Arab, Jewish, Black, Indigenous and other women of color, along with queer female journalists and those exposed to religious bigotry and sectarianism, disproportionately experienced online violence and its impacts.
Silence and retreat are not effective responses to attacks. Neither is the “block, report, mute, delete” mantra of the social media companies that have so far failed to adequately address the crisis. And the increasing habit of news organizations policing the speech of women journalists or disciplining them when they call out their attackers parallels the sort of victim-blaming associated with sexual and domestic violence.
These journalists are both the primary targets of online violence and the first responders to it, and until that is reversed — until tech companies, political instigators and media employers are more accountable — effective solutions will remain elusive.
When Maria first wrote about the impact of Facebook’s algorithms on democracy in 2016, she demanded accountability. Five years later, things have gotten worse. We had hoped for enlightened self-interest from the social media platforms — that they would see and fix the scorched-earth policy that is destroying the public sphere. But that would require transforming a profitable business model that brings in tens of billions of dollars annually.
It’s time for legislative responses that balance the right to freedom of expression — most pertinently, for women under attack for their journalism — with accountability and transparency measures to ensure that the international legal protections designed to keep journalists safe while they do their work apply online as well as offline, as the United Nations mandates. For a start, this would mean requiring that social media platforms delete or restrict content that incites violence and assaults dignity, and suspend the users behind such attacks accordingly.
U.S.-based tech companies that hide behind a defense of “free speech” to avoid taking more meaningful action to protect women journalists are enabling the erosion of press freedom — and democracy — around the world. We need to stop the impunity.