May 21, 2021: Disinformation Fuels Online Violence Against Women Journalists

By Janet Coats, CTMT Managing Director

When women journalists talk about their experiences on social media, many of them describe being “attacked.”

That word is an important one. We’ve long described the ways women are treated on social media as “harassment.” But the reality is often much more frightening and is better understood as online violence. That’s the starting point for “The Chilling: Global Trends in Online Violence Against Women Journalists,” a research paper recently released by UNESCO. As the report makes clear, disinformation is a major component in the ways women journalists are threatened online – threats that too often extend beyond the virtual world to put their physical safety at risk.

The report, based on research by the International Center for Journalists, raises many issues, including the responsibilities of the platforms, government and journalism organizations themselves to combat the problem. Its two case studies – of Rappler’s Maria Ressa and investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr – demonstrate in vivid detail the impact of the online violence against them in their personal and professional lives.

Ressa has been constantly harassed and arrested at the instigation of the Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines. Cadwalladr’s reporting uncovered the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the personal data of millions of Facebook users was used without their consent to provide assistance to the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Cadwalladr immediately became subject to what the report calls “a malign, misogynistic, disinformation-laced campaign of online violence which has grown increasingly threatening over time.”

Terrifying is the only word I can think of to describe the threats Ressa and Cadwalladr have faced – and terror is, of course, the goal for many of those who attack them. This isn’t attention women journalists seek out. Cadwalladr tweeted when the report was issued “it’s extremely weird to end up as a case study in a UNESCO report…. This is a huge study involving 901 journalists from 125 countries. With deeply depressing conclusions.”

The part of the report that I’ve been mulling most explores the role of disinformation and misinformation in online violence against women journalists.

The research describes three ways that disinformation plays a part in the threat:

  • “Disinformation tactics are routinely deployed in targeted multiplatform online attacks against women journalists.”
  • “Reporting on disinformation and intertwined issues, such as digital conspiracy networks and far-right extremism, is a trigger for heightened attacks.
  • “Disinformation purveyors operationalize misogynistic abuse, harassment and threats against women journalists to undercut public trust in critical journalism and facts in general.”

All of that makes complete sense, but I have to say I didn’t see the issue through that lens until I read the research. Disinformation is a potent weapon in silencing and threatening women journalists. Its use has broad implications for trust in journalism generally. It marginalizes not only the women journalists, but their sources and the communities they cover. It is no less than “an attack on democratic deliberation and media freedom, encompassing the public’s right to access information….”

The platforms claim that they can’t respond to the crisis without inhibiting free speech – a specious claim at best. But we shouldn’t spare the media organizations that employ these women from their share of blame. Too many have shifted blame to the women they employ – and particularly women of color – making them responsible for blocking and reporting the violence against them and creating policies intended to police their speech on “controversial topics,” as if they are responsible for the attacks upon them. At the Washington Post, in a report analyzing the paper’s social media policy, staffers cited a desire for management to recognize “obligations to employees’ security and equitable enforcement of the rules.”

News organizations need to understand that failing to respond to the threats against the women they employ is an act of self-sabotage. The weaponized disinformation against women journalists erodes not only their individual credibility but damages trust in the news organizations they work for.

I’ll be thinking about the findings in this research for a long time to come, and I know they will influence how I’ll approach my work as managing director of CTMT. And I’ll continue to applaud the bravery of women like Ressa and Cadwalladr, from my own quiet little corner of Twitter.











Posted: May 20, 2021