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UN catalogues ‘chilling tide of abuse’ against female journalists

Misogyny, bigotry and threats ‘cut public trust in critical media’, warns report after major investigation.

An epidemic of online violence against female journalists worldwide is undermining their reporting, spilling over into real-life attacks and harassment, and puts their health and professional prospects in jeopardy, the UN has warned.

The avalanche of misogynistic abuse and threats is not only damaging women working in media, it is also weaponised “to undercut public trust in critical journalism and facts in general”, a report commissioned by the UN’s cultural agency Unesco has found.

‘The Chilling: Global Trends in Online Violence Against Women Journalists” draws on a survey of 901 journalists from 125 countries. Journalists from diverse backgrounds faced particularly intense attacks, as misogyny mixed with racism, homophobia, religious bigotry and other forms of discrimination, the report found. “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,” the report found, adding that it also aimed to freeze women out of public debate.

“This amounts to an attack on democratic deliberation and media freedom… and it cannot afford to be normalised or tolerated as an inevitable aspect of online discourse.”

In-depth case studies analyse more than 2.5 million posts on Facebook and Twitter directed at two prominent women journalists. The first is Maria Ressa who heads the news outlet Rappler in the Philippines, and was recently awarded the Unesco annual press freedom prize. Her reporting has made her a target of her country’s judiciary and online hate campaigns, and at one point she was receiving 90 hate messages an hour on Facebook, the report found.

The second is the award-winning Carole Cadwalladr who writes for the Observer and the Guardian in the UK. The report found more than 10,000 instances of obvious abuse on Twitter alone, nearly half laced with sexist and misogynistic language.

There was also a significant element of “anti-journalism” rhetoric in attacks on Cadwalladr, “reflecting the demonisation of the press… and the weaponisation of terms like ‘fake news’ to chill critical reporting”.

Online threats and attacks are highly damaging to women’s careers and health. One in 10 had sought medical or psychological help after being targeted, and one in three had started self-censoring.

A large portion reported a professional impact from the attacks, with 2% of those affected leaving journalism entirely. “There is nothing virtual about online violence. It has become the new frontline in journalism safety – and women journalists sit at the epicentre of risk,” the report said.

“Networked misogyny and gaslighting intersect with racism, religious bigotry, homophobia and other forms of discrimination to threaten women journalists, severely and disproportionately.

It also detailed how online violence is increasingly spilling offline. Case studies included the vandalising of an academy run by Sri Lankan journalist Sharmila Seyyid, and people coming to the home and workplace of April Ryan, White House correspondent for the Grio, specifically to abuse her.

The report analysed multiple forms of online violence, including threats of sexual and physical violence, harassing private messages, coordinated “dog-pile” attacks from large groups, hacking and “doxxing” – publishing personal information online.

As a result of the exposure of personal details, a number of journalists had to move home or even country, with cases in the US, Sri Lanka, the UK and South Africa.

The report also covered less well known forms of attack, including misrepresentation through spoof accounts and manipulated or fake content, and flooding search results on sites like Google with false and hateful content to drown out professional journalistic work.

Social media platforms are the main forum for online violence against women, and have “so far failed to respond quickly or effectively to the crisis”, the report found.

“Central to this failure is an attempt to use “free speech” as a shield against accountability, and a continuing reluctance to assume responsibility for the content on their sites.”

Their policies mean that women are left to be first responders to the growing levels of violence against them. “They are the ones required to ‘report’, ‘block’, ‘mute’, ‘delete’, and ‘restrict’ their attackers, potentially compounding the effects of the abuse, and creating unbearable pressures when the attacks come at scale.”

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