Today
Fri 17 September 2021

A report into online violence against women journalists finds political actors and right-wing media play a significant role in spreading disinformation and inciting harassment. Sian Norris reports

UNESCO has published a wide-ranging report examining threats against female journalists, including the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr’s treatment by leading Brexit supporters. 

The report, titled The Chilling, exposes how tweets directed at Cadwalladr by Leave.EU founder Arron Banks are “menacing” and “highly gendered”. It identified Banks as “a prime instigator of the online harassment she experiences.”

Banks, who tweeted that Cadwalladr “wouldn’t be so lippy in Russia”, has filed defamation claims against the journalist for her investigative reporting on Brexit. Reporters Without Borders described the suits as “vexatious in nature and intended to silence Cadwalladr’s courageous investigative journalism.”

The online violence directed at Cadwalladr is cited as enabling the environment for her “offline legal harassment.”

The report authors write how “pro-Brexit political actors and donors” fuel the “gendered abuse, threats and harassment” Cadwalladr endures. This abuse was then “amplified by right-wing media.” Analysis of millions of posts found that 55% of the abuse was “highly gendered and designed to hold her up to ridicule, humiliate, belittle and discredit.”

Cadwalladr said the misogynistic abuse, including being called a “mad cat lady” by GB News’ Andrew Neil, is “humiliating.” There have been 2,921 mentions of “cat lady” directed at Cadwalladr. 


Targets of Disinformation 

The UNESCO report surveyed 901 journalists from 125 countries and analysed over 2.5 million social media posts directed at both Cadwalladr and Philippines journalist Maria Ressa to identify the threats made against women journalists around the world. 

Of the women surveyed, 41% said they had been targeted in online attacks that appeared to be linked to orchestrated disinformation campaigns. This was especially true of women reporting on far-right extremism and conspiracy networks.

The report found that “disinformation purveyors” use misogynistic language and attacks against women journalists to try and weaken trust in facts and journalism in general. 

They attempt to smear women journalists and hold them up for ridicule in what are often orchestrated and cross-platform attacks. Some journalists, particularly from socially-conservative countries, also reported on “slut-shaming” being used as a tactic to discredit their work and undermine trust in their reporting. 

The report authors revealed how, far from online abuse against women journalists being solely the work of anonymous “trolls”, political actors and leaders often assisted in orchestrating attacks. 

This was the case for Cadwalladr, who saw well-known political voices and commentators indulge in and whip up harassment against her. 

The BBC’s Rianna Croxford and the Independent’s Nadine White – who was targeted by Conservative minister Kemi Badenoch while working at the Huffington Post – were also named in the report as being “prime targets of attack” by mainstream politicians and media.  

37% of survey respondents identified political actors as “top sources of online abuse against them.” They include Maria Ressa, the Filipino-American journalist who has received daily death and rape threats since the Philippines 2016 election.

Following her investigations into State-linked disinformation, Ressa received more than 90 hate messages an hour on Facebook – many of them gendered. 

“First, I’m attacked for being a journalist,” Ressa said. “Then I am attacked for being a woman.”

The report claims the attacks against Ressa online, many of which appear orchestrated, “are enabled by a climate in which President Rodrigo Duterte has publicly condemned Ressa while also once musing that journalists are not exempt from assassination.”


A Global Increase in Abuse

UNESCO’s survey found that online violence against women 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 in public debate.”

It reports how nearly 73% of respondents identifying as women had experienced online violence, including death threats and threats of sexual violence. One-fifth said they had been attacked offline in connection with the online abuse. 

Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Arab women were more likely to experience online violence, as were lesbian women. The impact of the abuse ranged from needing to increase physical security, PTSD, and women feeling the need to make themselves “less visible.”

UNESCO also expressed concern that abuse is increasing, with more women journalists exposed to online violence “than ever.” This was, in part, because during the pandemic women have been working from home and were more dependent on digital channels to do their job. 

The report makes a number of recommendations on how to tackle online violence. They include ensuring political parties and organisations “desist from mounting attacks against women journalists and desist from instigating pile-ons”. Political parties are urged to “punish members and officials who partake in acts of online violence.”

UNESCO also wants media organisations to “make it clear that it is not appropriate for staff to participate in acts of targeted online violence (including trolling) against women colleagues or those working for competing news outlets.”

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