Online mobs are now coming for student journalists

Young reporters are forced to contend with waves of abuse and harassment, driving some out of the industry before they even get started

Olivia Krupp, 19, a sophomore at the University of Arizona and a student journalist, was the target of an online harassment campaign after writing a critical piece about a TikTok creator. (Kitra Cahana)
12 min

Olivia Krupp, a sophomore at the University of Arizona, knew she wanted to write for the student newspaper since she started college. She was hoping to build her reporting and interviewing skills and was thrilled when a spot on the paper opened up the second semester of her freshman year.

But since late September, after writing a critical profile of a TikTok star and fellow student, she has received an onslaught of harassment that has upended her life.

Krupp’s ordeal highlights the growing threat that online harassment poses to journalists, especially those just starting out. Targeted online harassment has become a pervasive threat to newsrooms across the country. A 2019 survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists found that 85 percent of respondents believed their career had become less safe in the past five years and more than 70 percent said they experienced safety issues or threats as part of doing their job.

The problem is particularly inescapable for student journalists. As the first generation of digital natives, Gen Z students’ lives are intertwined with the internet in a way that older journalists’ might not be. “So much of our lives are online and so much of how people perceive us and our identity is online,” Krupp said. “Part of me is my social media presence, it’s a big part of my life. And that’s true for all my friends and all other young people I know.”

Growing a public image is also crucial to getting hired out of school, but maintaining that image online also gives harassers more places to target their attacks. “You have to brand yourself,” said Alec Sturm, a 17-year-old freshman at Syracuse University. “You have to build your own brand and have an image, or else people aren’t going to find you to hire you, that’s the pressure we get. Whether it’s your own newsletter, or website, you have to be able to market yourself and create a brand for yourself.”

And as university publications build their reach online, student journalists’ work is accessible in a way it wasn’t before. Stories can go viral and spread beyond just students. The Wildcat, the university’s student newspaper, prints only three times a semester, but its digital edition is available every day, reaching an audience of nearly 40,000 students and readers across the web.

Death threats and doxing

Lukas Pakter, a senior and former fraternity president, has amassed more than 129,000 followers on TikTok by posting about his workouts, advice on how to balance partying and school, and how to handle relationships. His videos are candid and self-effacing. He takes questions primarily from young men about things like dating and professional networking.

In August, Krupp contacted Pakter and said she was interested in profiling him for the student paper. Pakter obliged, and granted her an interview.

Krupp’s profile of him, published in the online version of the Daily Wildcat under the Opinion section, critiqued Pakter and his fans, comparing him to Andrew Tate, an influencer whose misogynistic posts have gotten him banned from YouTube and TikTok. She called Pakter’s TikTok commentary “troublesome” and questioned whether he was a good role model for his thousands of followers.

Krupp found out her story had gone live when she began receiving text messages. Her phone was suddenly barraged from numbers she’d never seen before. “I hope when our society wakes again you are lined up and shot,” read one text viewed by The Post. Dozens of others viewed by The Post berated her appearance, threatened her, and called her misogynistic slurs.

Pakter had posted a TikTok about Krupp’s article, she discovered, which included her phone number. Krupp messaged Pakter and begged him to take the video down. He did not respond. (The video was later removed for violating TikTok’s community guidelines.)

“There’s no person I hate and have less respect for,” Pakter said in the TikTok video, “than people who make a living and make their platform off of s----ing on others.” He proceeded to release text messages between himself and Krupp and recount their interview, calling her column a “hit piece.” In the video, Pakter displays Krupp’s Instagram account on the screen behind him, saying, “I have absolutely no respect for you. I think you’re a scumbag, and we’ll see what happens next.”

Pakter’s fans quickly mobilized. The messages and calls flooded Krupp’s phone for days. “The calls were coming in at such a rapid pace that I couldn’t even get into my phone to call my mom,” she said. Her Instagram account was overrun with hateful comments. On TikTok, Pakter’s fans bragged in his comment section about the harassment they carried out against Krupp. “They were, like, I just called her 65 times. She’ll pick up eventually,” she said. They critiqued her photos and body, calling her fat and calling for her to be fired from The Daily Wildcat.

“Hope you get rap3d,” read one comment. “Fat clown,” read another. Others read, “Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it sweetie,” “Defaming people for clout isn’t journalism,” and “Y’all let this piece of meat have an opinion, her mouth should be tied shut the rest of her life.” A number she didn’t know texted her, “you journalists are f---ing scum.”

When Krupp temporarily set her Instagram account to private, her attackers celebrated, so she opened it back up. In TikTok comments, they plotted to continue to harass her, and were able to temporarily get her Instagram account disabled by reporting it as spam.

“I have never promoted nor do I condone harassment, threats of violence, or any form of intimidation against a journalist — or anyone else,” Pakter said in a statement he emailed in response to a Post request for comment. After The Post contacted him for comment he also posted a TikTok condemning the harassment campaign against Krupp.

Both Krupp and her mother contacted the school, asking them to take action to curb the abuse. She also contacted the Tucson police, who sent her to the campus police, who sent her back to the Tucson police, who eventually declined to press charges against Pakter for “knowingly terrifying, intimidating, threatening or harassing” her, which is illegal in Arizona.

The Daily Wildcat wrote a letter to the school on Krupp’s behalf. “At a minimum,” the letter read, “we ask that the Dean of Students Office release a joint statement with UA Student Media condemning these disgusting, inappropriate comments.”

The school promised to investigate, but when Krupp’s mother followed up, asking them to take action after weeks of abuse, the administration still declined to issue any public support for Krupp.

Pakter moved on, removing his videos about Krupp and resuming posting his regular content. But the campaign by his followers against her continued.

Students on campus posted sightings of her on the anonymous social platform YikYak. Whereas Krupp once felt relaxed on campus, the abuse has caused her to second-guess interactions and relationships.

“Walking to class, it’s humiliating to have things like this said about me,” she said. “My friend and I were walking and these boys were like, ‘Oh there’s the journalist,’ being mean. I’ve had people come up to me when I’m out. I’ve been getting stares in my classes. It’s affected my ability to concentrate and be relaxed in any public setting.”

On Nov. 8, 2022, after The Post sought comment, the University of Arizona’s office of the provost sent a letter to students. “Our student journalists should not be subjected to intimidation, harassment, or threats of violence for exercising their constitutional rights and pursuing educational opportunities that advance their career goals,” it read.

Krupp said it was too little, too late. “It’s ungenuine,” she said, “we had to ask them a million times for a statement. We’ve been chasing after them the whole time trying to get answers and action. A statement like that should have been released a month ago.”

A shifting media landscape

As the local news industry has been gutted, student journalists have increasingly become the primary reporters covering many local issues. Recently, a candidate for the board of trustees of the Mountain View Los Altos High School District in Northern California allegedly threatened a high school reporter after the Los Altos High School student newspaper published an article reporting on the candidate’s position against students being required to wear masks to stop the spread of covid-19.

Several student journalists who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity because they feared further harassment said they shied away from big stories because of the backlash they knew they’d receive simply for reporting on something controversial.

“I hear from advisers that students are reluctant to put themselves out there or cover news in ways we used to before,” said Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization that aims to protect press freedom rights for journalists at high school and university student newspapers. “I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years, and it’s a climate I’ve never really seen before, the way people are going after students.”

Even the students who avoid big, controversial stories can still be targeted over their identity or perceived political views.

Sturm, the Syracuse freshman, said that the abuse many student journalists receive online is totally decoupled from the stories they write. For instance, though he covers sports, after Sturm updated his Twitter avatar to a photo of himself wearing a mask, he was met with vitriol. “I have my pronouns in my bio, and it snowballed into a lot of threats,” he added.

Lily Doton, a senior at Castleton University in Vermont, said that her identity has made her a target. “I’m an Asian student at a predominantly White school in a predominantly White state,” she said. “When my first column started being published I was scared. I’m pretty easily recognizable walking around campus and town. I was worried someone I had made angry would want to confront me in person. I spent awhile constantly looking over my shoulder.”

Because young people are more likely to have a larger online footprint, it’s easier for bad actors to gather information about them to generate controversy. All experts The Post spoke to were adamant that reputational harm is a primary goal of online harassment campaigns.

“Harassers and bad actors are trying to muddy the waters and make it very difficult for young, diverse voices to enter the media ecosystem,” said Katherine Jacobsen, the U.S. and Canada program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “What we’ve seen is that women and people of color are much more likely to get harassed than straight White male counterparts, and that really has a silencing effect for those voices.”

Bad actors use online harassment to generate the perception of controversy around certain young journalists. That stigma of being a “controversial” reporter then cuts the young journalists off from meaningful career opportunities. “To have that kind of reputational damage, especially that early in your career when you’re trying to get hired for the first time and you have nothing to lean on,” Jacobsen said, “is incredibly damaging.”

“Even if the reporter was in the right, it doesn’t matter,” said Alex Tey, a student at New York University and former editor in chief of the Washington Square News, the university’s independent, student-run newspaper. “Being a trans woman of color and writing things about this stuff online, you know you’re vulnerable. I’m just waiting for lightning to strike, and then I’ll forever be associated with this backlash.”

The Student Press Law Center’s Hiestand said that schools need to recognize that without strong counteraction, harassers become emboldened. An institution’s silence in the wake of attacks is viewed by the instigators as tacit approval. “Schools need to understand that this will create real problems in these students’ lives,” he said. “Not putting their heads in the sand is the most important thing.”

Targets of online harassment have little to no legal recourse if the online threats haven’t manifested physically and defamation lawsuits are costly and require extensive proof.

Krupp said that while the whole experience has been traumatic, it’s also been a powerful learning experience. She has no plans to quit journalism, but she is more careful about privacy. When she does begin to apply for full-time jobs, Krupp said that the number one thing she will look for is a newsroom that can properly navigate these types of campaigns.

“It’s something I’d look for when I’m older and actually trying to work for a real news outlet,” she said. “If you’re going to want to work in media, you have to take on this public platform. You can’t be private, even if there’s all this backlash. I’d want to make sure they’d stand behind me.”