Trolls, bots and keyboard warriors: How journalists can navigate mob censorship

Tips for #women #journalists on what they can do to protect their #emotional and #psychological #wellbeing in this interview with Morongwa Phala-Goodwill. @womeninnews

Morongwa Phala-Goodwill. Photo by Kgosi Goodwill Photography

The psychological harms of online harassment can be as severe as harassment endured in the physical world – and sometimes even more so. Victims who are attacked, threatened or abused online can feel like there is no escape. It can lead to women, who are more often the target of these threats than men, quitting their jobs or staying away from industries that put them in the line of fire (such as journalism).

We spoke to Morongwa Phala-Goodwill, an alumna of the Women in News Leadership Accelerator programme (2020 Cohort), a trainer on online harassment and a sub-editor at Dikgang Publishing Company in Botswana, on what journalists can do to protect their emotional and psychological wellbeing.

Trolls, bots and ‘keyboard warriors’ are increasingly turning online platforms into difficult spaces to navigate for journalists. In many cases, however, the nature of the job means these platforms are impossible to avoid. What are some of the ways journalists can protect themselves from online harassment?

The internet has given unscrupulous characters a cloak of invisibility; they lose all inhibition and scruples given that in most cases, they don’t even use their real identities.

At the moment there is no single approach social media platforms and governments have in place to protect journalists from online harassment and abuse, so we have to take the necessary steps ourselves.

Firstly, during an online onslaught, it is best to be slow to react, but quick to use good judgement. Reacting without thought to posts can provide oxygen for the trolling, so not reacting can be one way to starve these characters.

Secondly, instead of going with the phrase common in newsrooms that “online harassment and abuse come with the job”, managers and fellow journalists need to recognise it as a real problem. The experience can be isolating, especially if a journalist does not open up about it, so you need to share what you’re going through with your editor immediately.

Part of having good judgement means analysing the level of threat experienced during online harassment. Once a threat scenario is established, then a mitigation strategy can be put in place. Seek support and lean on allies.   

In a recent training you conducted during a Women in News Leadership Accelerator Hub in Kenya and Botswana, you spoke about journalists’ psychological and emotional wellbeing before and after facing online harassment. Why do you think this is something that is often ignored in the industry?

As newshounds, journalists are expected to have ‘nerves of steel’ in the pursuit of truth and justice. They are not expected to show vulnerability; they are supposed to ‘tough things out’.

Yet, journalists come across subjects or stories of trauma and tragedy, which on top of online harassment and abuse, can have serious psychological impacts. Journalists often tell the stories around them rather than about them, which means they tend to overlook the need for self check-ins.

And because issues of psychological and emotional wellbeing are not usually addressed in the newsroom, journalists tend to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder more acutely than other professionals, and in some cases may lack the awareness that their mental wellbeing is at risk.

What are some of the tactics and habits that would help a journalist in the middle of an online onslaught cope with abuse and threats?

  • Block, Mute, Report. You can block and/or mute your harassers, change notifications settings to limit the messages you see and report any abuse that violates social media platforms’ terms of service to get offensive posts taken down or accounts suspended. You can also report abuse to local authorities.
  • Maintain social connections, particularly outside of the virtual space, as these help keep you grounded in reality. These connections will ensure your wellbeing offline.
  • This may come as a surprise for some but you’d be amazed at the wonders that can come from seeking individual counselling. Soliciting counselling does not mean one has gone mad or is losing their mind. It is important to check in on your mental wellbeing, and this is something that is not said often enough or loud enough in some communities.
  • Do you struggle with feelings of competence? Do you have the capacity to grow? These are some of the questions you have to confront to develop a positive view of yourself and build confidence in your strengths and abilities. Take a personality test to get a better sense of who you are. It also does not hurt to check on your wheel of life to see if you’re doing enough to feed into the different aspects of a balanced life.
  • Enhance your skills. There are personal qualities that you can enhance or develop. This could mean working on your communication and problem-solving skills, or developing your negotiation and critical thinking abilities. You are your own project. While the online harassment is going on, you can focus your energies on more fulfilling experiences.
  • Shake off FOMO (fear of missing out) and embrace JOMO (the joy of missing out). Avoid going online to see what is being said about you or your work. Instead, enlist allies, such as your colleagues and close friends, to review and store content for you that you can later use to file formal complaints.
  • Consider a social media diet. You may want to log off for a period of time, which would help with clearing any mental clutter and creating personal space.
  • Share your experiences. It is worth remembering that you are not alone. Let your colleagues and supervisors know what you are going through and the kind of support you need. Join industry associations or networks that can help you navigate instances of harassment. Allow your loved ones to be part of your support system.
  • Leave the journalist at the door when you get home. Shedding the journalist role when you are not working on assignments is helpful for your sanity and bringing down your walls. Pursue passion projects or personal hobbies.

What would you like to see newsrooms do to ensure the wellbeing of journalists who have faced, or are facing, online harassment?

While African media organisations had been gradually growing their presence online, Covid-19 accelerated the migration to digital. This space has become vital to many media outlets’ survival, which means it has become critical for journalists to maintain an online presence.

With these emerging realities, newsrooms must help their staff navigate the pitfalls of the online space. They must equip journalists with the tools and training they need to secure their digital safety and deal with online harassment. This, in addition to keeping journalists safe, will help retain newsroom talent and ensure diversity.

The state of online harassment

A global survey by Unesco and the International Centre for Journalists found:

  • 73% of female journalists experienced online violence in the course of their work
  • 25% had received threats of physical violence
  • 20% reported being attacked offline in connection with the online violence they had experienced
  • 18% had been threatened with sexual violence

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