Bleed the trolls: Five takeaways from WIN’s panel on online harassment at #DMAfrica22

The sixth edition of the World Association of News Publishers’ (WAN-IFRA) Digital Media Africa Conference is in session. The two-day event is dedicated to showcasing innovative editorial projects launched by publishers from across the continent, and facilitating insightful conversations on issues affecting the media industry.

WAN-IFRA Women in News (WIN) programme hosted a critical discussion on online harassment and digital safety during the conference. The panel featured WAN-IFRA Executive Director, Press Freedom, Andrew Heslop, journalists Joy Kiruki and Yvonne Mooka, and was moderated by WIN senior manager and gender expert Myra Abdallah.

Digital technologies have reproduced patterns of harassment and abuse against women journalists, making online harassment a growing challenge. The growth of online harassment, which has become more systematic and coordinated, is used to silence and intimidate women journalists, keeping them away from public online spaces. This is not only a violation of their rights, but also of the freedom of expression.

Covid-19 increased incidences of online harassment as the pandemic catalysed an operational shift of business and personal interactions online. The WIN session focused on the challenges women journalists face, and offered tips and tools for managing and countering online abuse and harassment.

Online harassment includes the posting of insults online, making threatening or demeaning comments on social media, and using fake personas to bully or make false allegations. It can also turn into sexual harassment through sexual advances and jokes, and sharing pornography and manipulated images.

“I have been a victim of online harassment. I know how perpetrators use online space to humiliate and take power away from victims, how they focus on demeaning the individual,” Mooka shared during the session. “My experience hurt my mental health and my family, and I ended up quitting my job. But I consider myself a survivor. I now advocate for newsrooms to speak up and put in place policies that protect their employees.”

The online abuse that women journalists face tends to mirror and amplify real-life situations. 

“The online world is no longer abstract. It’s no longer apart from ourselves. It has converged with the real world,” said Heslop.

A study by the think tank Demos found that on Twitter, women journalists face roughly three times as much abuse as their male peers. And when women journalists are targeted, online harassment quickly descends into sexualised hate or threats more often than with men.

Yet, only one in four women report the abuse they face to online platform owners, while just 14% make reports at an offline security agency, according to a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). This creates a feeling of isolation in the face of digital attacks. And as the EIU found, the result of this is that nearly nine in 10 women restrict their online activity, limiting their access to critical information and community.

“Online harassment is like a hooded thief – it is dark and hidden. However, social media platforms have a duty to protect users. They have a duty to implement their community standards,” said Kiruki.

Should you find yourself the target of an online attack, the panellists shared some useful ideas on how to respond.

1. Block

Don’t feed the troll by engaging or getting into a personal confrontation with people who attack you – this is like oxygen for abusers. Block such accounts to prevent them from communicating with or following you. Responding confirms that your account is valid and active. However, if you think it is safe and would be empowering, you can practice counterspeech, where you respond to your accuser directly to reclaim control of the narrative. 

2. Mute

Mute accounts, specific posts or words that are being used to attack you. You can also turn off notifications to avoid being dragged into a negative spiral.

3. Report

Report abuse that violates the terms of service of online platforms to get a post taken down or an account suspended. You can also report abuse to the authorities in your country. It is, however, important to first document the abuse before reporting it. Take screenshots, copy direct links and save emails or texts if possible.

4. Enlist allies

Develop a peer support network within the newsroom and outside it to deal with online abuse. Trusted friends, family or colleagues can keep track of your mentions, inform you of any escalation or threats, and report with and for you. This is particularly useful if dealing with the abuse is mentally draining.

While online abuse can feel particularly isolating, it is important to maintain social connections. If you need it, get counselling. 

Additionally, check in with your newsroom. Does it have clear social media policies? Is there a culture of creating safety around online abuse and establishing clear channels to report it? Does management understand what types of attacks staff/contributors face online?  Are there digital security, legal or psychological support systems in place?

5. Protect your devices

Create strong passwords for your online accounts and change them frequently. Know and adjust your privacy settings and restrict what you can be tagged on. Set up two-factor authentication for key accounts. Read the terms and conditions on social media sites to know abuse-reporting guidelines. Discuss your digital privacy and safety with your organisation

Finally, keep your personal details private, including your address, date of birth and phone number. And be aware of what you’re revealing in photos – if you can, avoid broadcasting your location, where you live or where you work.

Useful links on digital safety:

WAN-IFRA Women in News

The Backstory Media Freedom Podcast

Safe Sisters Guide

PEN Online Harassment Manual 

Rory Peck Trust: Social media trolling and doxxing

CPJ Digital Safety Kit

Speak Up Stay Safe

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