Online Violence, such as Abuse, Trolling and Smear Campaigns
Module 10: Violence Against Journalists
Online violence can sometimes be seen as less serious than offline violence. However, online violence and harassment can be linked to offline threats, and may serve as a predictor of a real-world threat or accelerate into offline attacks. In one survey of female journalists, for example, 20% of respondents reported offline attacks or abuse linked to online violence they had experienced.(1) Further, given that most modern communication occurs online, online harassment can have a dramatic impact on the exercise of freedom of expression, especially if the targets of such harassment self-censor in response.
Journalists may now experience forms of violence and harassment that are uniquely enabled by digital communications.(2) Some examples include:
- Doxing, or sharing via the Internet of private identifying information such as name, location and address, can be particularly dangerous for journalists because it may allow would-be attackers to locate and harm them.
- Trolling, or posting or sending insulting or inflammatory messages about a specific person, can be harmful to a journalist’s sense of safety and well-being. In the offline context, such harassment would typically be limited in scale but in the digital age trolling can occur at a mass scale or a high rate of frequency, inundating the target with harmful messages.
- Smear campaigns can similarly attempt to damage a journalist’s reputation. While not unique to the digital era, such campaigns can again be mobilised on a much larger scale and be conducted more visibly and effectively than offline.
- On social media platforms, bots can mimic human activity, such as posting comments. Bot activity can be used to coordinate smear or trolling campaigns, particularly when well-funded or criminal elements have an interest in promoting a certain message or targeting a particular person.
- Cyberattacks can be directed at journalists or media institutions. Such cyberattacks may aim to install spyware on a journalist’s phone, for example, or take down a news website.
A major concern with these kinds of attacks on journalists is the extent to which they are coordinated or planned by malicious actors with the intent of discrediting or harming the journalist.(3) The origin of such coordinated attacks can be difficult to trace, but they sometimes originate in powerful State or non-State actors who have in interest in silencing a journalist.
As in the offline context, State actors should refrain from engaging in online violence against journalists, either directly or indirectly. For example, public officials should avoid making threats against journalists online. Politicians should ensure that their campaign staff or supporters are not engaged in disinformation-based smear campaigns about journalists.
States positive obligations include taking steps to address online violence by private actors. However, two main caveats arise here. First, State regulation of online content should be in strict compliance with international standards, noting that most of the online attacks described above involve expressive behaviour. As already described in earlier modules, regulation of online content is frequently overbroad or inappropriately tailored to the harm in question. In such cases, laws regulating online speech are often weaponised against journalists instead of offering them protection. Second, challenging questions arise around the extent to which State action against online harassment of journalists can be fully effective. The policies of private sector actors, such as large social media companies that operate globally, may have a more direct impact on the experience of journalists.
Notwithstanding these caveats, States can still play a key role in responding to online violence against journalism by private actors. For example:
- States should ensure to create an enabling environment for journalists online, including by eliminating laws which inappropriately criminalise online speech.(4)
- Surveillance regimes and data protection laws should be reviewed to ensure that journalist identity and confidentiality of sources is protected. Targeted surveillance of journalists, in particular, can lead to self-censorship. Surveillance of journalists on account of their legitimate exercise of freedom of expression is never appropriate.(5)
- States should engage in a range of awareness-raising and educational campaigns and initiatives specific to online violence against journalists.
- States should strengthen the ability of law enforcement officials and others to respond properly to online violence, for example by training them properly on how to respond to such attacks or improving their capacity to investigate and prosecute crimes in the digital space.(6)
- States should also take steps to protect journalists against cyberattacks which may put them at risk, such as by taking steps to protect digital communications systems from such attack or supporting cybersecurity measures for at-risk journalists.(7)
In addition, States should adopt “effective laws and measures” to prevent online attacks on journalists, but only where they respect principles related to freedom of expression.(8) This includes principles on intermediary liability and Internet freedom discussed in earlier modules. However, within these bounds, States could explore laws which compel private actors, and particularly social media companies, to take greater responsibility for online violence against journalists occurring on their platforms. Examples could potentially include asking major platforms to monitor and report on violence against journalists or imposing transparency requirements regarding measures taken in response to online violence. The question of regulating major social media platforms is a complex and rapidly evolving one, however, and better practices in the specific area of journalist safety have yet to emerge.