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The Chilling Effect of Online Abuse

The online abuse of women journalists is a scourge on the publishing industry.

By James Evelegh

The Chilling Effect of Online Abuse

How you perceive the online abuse of journalists is likely determined by your gender.

Male journalists see it as a serious problem but because they are rarely the object of the abuse, it probably doesn’t keep them awake at night.

It’s very different for women, who in extreme cases, find themselves permanently looking over their shoulders and varying the routes they take home, such is the fear engendered by their abusers.

A recent research project looking at the online abuse of female journalists, conducted by Reach and Women in Journalism, found, writes Rebecca Whittington in an excellent article, that “a quarter of respondents said they had experienced some kind of sexual harassment or sexual violence online during the course of their work and half said they had been subjected to misogyny online.”

The prospect of online abuse is forcing female journalists to keep their head down, to limit their exposure online – in effect to self-censor: “online abuse had caused almost half to reduce promotion of themselves and their work online and 20 percent of respondents had considered leaving the industry altogether.”

The introduction to ‘The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists’, a 2021 UNESCO publication referenced in Rebecca’s article, concisely summarises the toxic approach of abusers and the impact it has: “Online violence against women journalists is designed to: belittle, humiliate, and shame; induce fear, silence, and retreat; discredit them professionally, undermining accountability journalism and trust in facts; and chill their active participation (along with that of their sources, colleagues and audiences) in public debate. This amounts to an attack on democratic deliberation and media freedom, encompassing the public’s right to access information, and it cannot afford to be normalised or tolerated as an inevitable aspect of online discourse, nor contemporary audience-engaged journalism.”

But, faced with this tsunami of hate, it’s all too easy to assume that nothing can be done, that abuse is just an unpleasant fact of our online life.

However, practical measures can be taken to help women journalists and to lessen the impact of the abuse and Rebecca highlights the positive work being done in the areas of training, support and knowledge sharing. Furthermore, publishers joining organisations like the Coalition Against Online Violence can help bring sustained cross-border pressure on the tech platforms to take the problem seriously.

In fact, there is lots that can be done. The final chapter in The Chilling is entitled ‘28 recommendations for action’. These include:

  • We should all, “recognise that the problem of online violence is transnational, and operates in the context of huge and profitable technology companies.”
  • Individual states should “make social media companies more clearly accountable for combating online violence against women journalists.”
  • Media organisations could “introduce or update protocols and guidelines pertaining to online violence to ensure they are gender-sensitive and gender-responsive, and develop appropriate responses in the context of weaponised social media platforms, viral disinformation, far-right extremism and conspiracy networks.”

There are 25 others, all well worth reading and acting upon. There is hope.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.