As a blogger you spend about 80% of your time online reading, writing, for inspiration, interacting with others, and looking for money-making opportunities. While online, bloggers do encounter attacks and it has emerged that female media practitioners encounter the attacks on a wider scale as compared to their male counterparts.

One of the reasons why vicious online violence exists is to silence women and discredit their reporting and commentary on various issues. According to  research, discrediting women is often tied to orchestrated disinformation campaigns targeting their race, sexual orientation and religion, some women face even more frequent and vitriolic attacks.

These are among the key findings of a discussion paper based on a major UNESCO study carried out by the International Centre for Journalists. Additionally, while 64% of all white women journalists who took part in a global UNESCO-ICFJ survey said they had experienced online violence, the rates were higher for those identifying as Black (81%), Indigenous (86%), and Jewish (88%). The data also shows that Arab women are substantially more at risk of experiencing offline attacks connected to online violence (53% compared to 20% overall).

The above study drew on interviews with 173 international journalists and experts, over 900 survey responses, and a big data analysis of over 2.5 million social media posts directed at prominent journalists Maria Ressa of Rappler in the Philippines and Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative journalist and columnist in the United Kingdom.

“Most of the women interviewed for the research experienced disinformation-based attacks designed to smear their personal and professional reputations, from accusations that they peddle “fake news” to the spread of false narratives about their personal lives and the use of ‘deepfakes.’

“I’m not in a war zone, I’m behind a computer,” said investigative journalist Brandy Zadrozny, who covers disinformation for NBC News and MSNBC in the U.S. “But the effect of online harassment and bad faith journalism from disinformation agents…is meant to silence us, meant to stop our reporting, meant to scare us. I think it does all of those things… And that takes a real toll on you.”

Consequently, these attacks have a chilling effect on women’s reporting and their freedom of expression: Nearly one-third (30%) of survey respondents who reported experiencing online violence said they self-censored on social media in response, while one in five (20%) described how they withdrew from all interaction online.

The report, “The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists,” is the largest study of its kind to date. Led by ICFJ Global Director of Research Julie Posetti, it presents an eye-opening look at the breadth, nature, and consequences of this deeply disturbing trend, one that has worsened in the context of the pandemic.

Alarming key findings in summary:

  • Over half (53%) of women respondents identifying as Arab said they had experienced offline attacks they think were seeded online, compared to 11% for white women and 20% overall.
  • The rates of online violence experienced by lesbian and bisexual respondents were 88% and 85%, respectively, compared to 72% of heterosexual women.
  • Of all women journalists surveyed, 41% said they had been targeted in online attacks that appeared to be linked to orchestrated disinformation campaigns. Many of the journalists interviewed who were targeted in this way report on far-right extremism and conspiracy networks.
  • 13% of survey respondents and many interviewees said they had received threats of violence against those close to them, including children and infants.
  • Among women survey respondents, 37% said political actors – politicians, government officials or political party representatives – were the most frequent source of attacks and abuse.
  • Facebook was rated the most dangerous of the top five platforms/apps used, with nearly double the number of respondents rating Facebook “very unsafe” compared to Twitter.
  • Partisan news outlets, media operating at the fringes of the political spectrum, and misogynistic journalists amplify and fuel attacks. This pattern is documented in the case of Cadwalladr, who has been subjected to four years of deeply sexist and misogynistic abuse online following her coverage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

As online violence against women journalists escalates, social media companies, news organizations, and governments are struggling to respond effectively, highlighting the urgent need for policy reform.

The report’s authors recommend that tech platforms develop better reporting systems for women journalists and their employers, that news organizations ensure their staff have access to meaningful support for online safety, and that political parties punish members who engage in online attacks against women journalists. There are 28 recommendations in the report.

“For too long, the emphasis has been on making women journalists responsible for their own defense and protection, rather than making the perpetrators and instigators, the platform enablers, and law enforcement and employers accountable,” the researchers conclude