Online harassment of journalists as a consequence of populism, mis/disinformation, and impunity
Jeannine E. Relly
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte dismissed news from the globally recognised investigative journalism site Kappler as ‘fake news’ (Reporters without Borders 2018a, para. 7). In Ecuador, former president Rafael Correa referred to journalists as ‘liars’, ‘corrupt’, and ‘cowards’ (Wais-bord & Amado 2017,1338). Albanian prime minister Edvin ‘Edi’ Rama often likens journalists to ‘rubbish bins’ (Selva 2020, 11). US president Donald J. Trump tweeted one month into office, ‘The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!’ and then about three years later on 20 March 2020, ‘So much FAKE NEWS!’ Though the US likely is an exception to the extent to which mis/disinformation has been absorbed into the national political scene (Bennett & Livingston 2018), all these cases are glimpses of the verbal and social media assaults on journalists as a wave of populist leaders have been elected around the world, harnessing the energy of disenfranchised voters disgusted with the political establishment (Wahl-Jorgensen 2018) in the midst of various crises.
Though the relationship between digital communication and populism has been analysed since the late 1990s (Bimber 1998; Blassnig et al. 2019), this chapter aims to examine additional factors associated with populism, disinformation and online harassment ofjournalists in an environment of impunity. Though populism has been referenced as a way to bring people together, recent literature largely has linked it to ‘demagogy and propaganda’ (Kavada 2018, 742), ideology, strategy, discourse, political expression, and political logic that often advances the ideal of a political community fighting a common enemy, including the status quo or political elites, often through provocation and breaking taboos (Bulut & Yoriik 2017, 4095; De Vrees et al. 2019; Gerbaudo 2018; Kramer 2018). This popular discourse often constructs various publics as a collective, essentialising and associating the opposition with anti-intellectualism, at times, or conspiracy theories that focus on power structures of privilege and long-held institutional values (Kramer 2014, 44). This onslaught of collective blame and furor has often targeted journalism and other institutions, leading to decreases in trust in the credibility of news media over time (Bennett & Livingston 2018).
Since early in the new millennium, populism largely has been characterised as antagonistic communication, often against journalists based on their coverage (Waisbord & Amado 2017). In fact, populism rejects the public interest model of professional journalism and its core values of independence, and accountability reporting, instead linking it to elite interests and opposition politics (Waisbord 2013, 511), often circumventing mainstream news media and appealing directly to the public. In these fractionalised and polarised political environments around the world where audiences are fragmented and gatekeeping has been stretched (Waisbord 2013), populism has fostered environments of disinformation and misinformation,1 online and offline. In fact, with populism, institutions and elites are devalued and are bypassed to speak directly to the people using ‘an emotional and moralistic style, plainspoken, sometimes aggressive, but appealing to the commonsense’ (Kramer 2014, 46). Moreover, the very nature of social media makes it in many ways an ideal vehicle for populist politicians to have maximum visibility, harness a ‘mobocratic tendency’, and amplify online crowds through the ‘network effect’, reifying and strengthening nodes in the network to expand the range of connections (Gerbaudo 2018, 750-751).
Though social media has not just been in the province of populists in recent years (Bulut & Yörük 2017), the unmediated format of many social media platforms and the ‘gateless’ opportunity to offer commentary, announce events, and lob caustic language at political adversaries and others has been at the heart of populist movements gaining momentum (Waisbord & Amado 2017, 1342). Social media allows direct access to various publics, providing unfettered platforms to connect to large networks and develop communities with wide reach, all without journalistic interference’ (De Vreese et al. 2018, 428). Twitter, specifically, has been strategic in energising publics (Bulut & Yörük 2017). In recent years, political actors messaging on social media, with largely unregulated ecosystems and growth, have galvanised cycles of mis/disinformation production and reproduction, unencumbered by professional ethics or editorial accountability (Crilley & Gillespie 2019). Countries with high social media use are most at risk for disinformation rapidly spreading. It is there, according to Humprecht et al. (2020, 9), that ‘it is easier for rumor spreaders to build partisan follower networks’. In democracies in Canada and Western Europe, political systems with consensus orientations marked by low levels of political polarisation have tended to have high resilience to online disinformation and hold high levels of media trust, compared with nations with high political polarisation (Humprecht et al. 2020, 15).
The following sections examine how populist rhetoric has moved towards delegitimising journalism through tactics including disinformation and denigration. The chapter then examines literature on how this environment has led to online harassment of journalists around the world. Studies and media advocacy resources are then analysed to examine how this ecosystem of populism and online harassment has impacted journalists in an environment of impunity. Finally, the chapter considers strategies that have been utilised or suggested to combat online harassment of journalists on the path forward.