Troll Farms and Threats: One Journalist’s Resilience in the Face of an Online Smear Campaign

Troll Farms and Threats: One Journalist’s Resilience in the Face of an Online Smear Campaign

Warning: Contains descriptions of gender based violence and harassment.

Troll Farms and Threats

After posting a Twitter (now X) response that was taken out of context and widely circulated by far-right groups as anti-Hindu, S*, a journalist in India, was suddenly inundated with thousands of violent threats online, targeting her and her family. Different news sites published articles about the tweet, all featuring her picture, fuelling a wave of opposition and hatred against her.

S became the target of a coordinated online smear campaign. Extreme right-wing groups flagged her tweet, circulated a screenshot, and claimed it was blasphemous and Hindu-phobic. According to S, far-right groups like these, espousing Hindutva—the ideology behind Hindu nationalism—aim to purge all forms of “anti-national” thought from the national debate. These coordinated hate campaigns often call for journalists to be murdered or assaulted, becoming particularly virulent when the targets are women, with highly sexualised and misogynistic content.

“The intensity of the trolling was definitely gender-related,” S stated. “In India, a woman’s ‘honour’ is often still seen as her most valuable trait, making it distressingly simple to tarnish her reputation.” Reflecting on her own case, S explained, “When they attacked my character, honour, or made violent sexual threats, it was a deliberate targeting of my gender, exploiting societal norms to undermine and intimidate me.”

These Hindu nationalist campaigns have exacerbated self-censorship in India, with some media observers suggesting that reporting has become more guarded in recent years out of fear. “When the might of the far right started trolling me, it was too much to bear—I collapsed. It took a great deal of time to come back on social media, and even then, I self-censored a lot,” S told us.

The impact of the online harassment was profound, reverberating well beyond the digital world. S was forced to deactivate her social media for over six months, lost her job at a renowned media house, and her wellbeing suffered significantly. More than 25 complaints were filed against her with the police. These included one under the non-bailable offence of “insulting religious feelings,” which meant she could have been arrested upon showing up at the police station. To avoid arrest, S went into hiding for three months.

Since 2021, Media Defence has been financially supporting S’s legal cases, leading to her securing anticipatory bail that enabled her to come out of hiding. “We had not expected to get this,” S tells us. “The situation in India is so severe that many other journalists have not received this and have been jailed. So, this was a big relief.”

The legal case against S was eventually dropped. This was not due to police acknowledgement of its baselessness, but because the complainants withdrew their complaint after forcing S into an apology. S was called into the police station under false pretences. When she arrived, two men from the far-right groups who had filed complaints against her were there too. “These men were incredibly dangerous, with a history of violence,” S told us. The police informed S that if she apologised to the complainants, the case against her would disappear. Throughout the meeting, the men made highly sexualised comments and threats towards her. “I was very uncomfortable,” she recalls, “and was crying and shaking when these conversations were happening. I was a woman in a room full of men who could do anything to me. So, for safety, I apologised.”

Though the case was dropped, the ordeal was traumatic. While S wishes she had fought the case further, she noted that its closure allowed her to progress her journalism career. S has become an award-winning independent journalist, writing for world-renowned publications. Additionally, she is in the process of writing a book after launching an investigation into the troll farms that targeted her. The book will shed light on how these farms recruit and engage in abusive behaviour towards potential targets.

“My crime was nothing other than the expression of critical thoughts,” S noted. Despite the circumstances of the case closure, S emphasised the importance of Media Defence’s support throughout. “I did not have money to pay for legal fees and might not be a journalist today, if not for Media Defence. Honestly, I would have left journalism.”

Online Violence Against Women Journalists

Online violence against journalists is increasing exponentially. Women journalists are particularly likely to become targets. Findings of a recent global study highlight that 73% of women journalist respondents reported experiencing online violence. This included threats of physical and sexual violence, along with digital security attacks.

Online violence comes in many forms. It can result in significant psychological harm and spill offline, yet most perpetrators go unpunished. A climate of impunity emboldens perpetrators and perpetuates a cycle of violence against the media.

Media Defence combats impunity for online violence. We help journalists fight back with grants to cover legal fees and pro bono legal assistance to their lawyers.

This article formed part of our 2023 annual report. To read more first-hand stories from journalists we defend, take a look at the report here.

*S has remained anonymous for security reasons. 

Interested in This Topic?

Media Defence has developed a series of free online resources on freedom of expression available on our Resource Hub. Read more about Hate Speech, online violence and digital rights.

Read more about our work challenging impunity for violence against women journalists.

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