Populism, the delegitimisation of journalism, and online mis/ disinformation issues
It is not uncommon for sycophant echo chambers or so-called ‘populist journalism’ to fill a need, like ‘necessary journalism’ in Venezuela, Nicaragua’s ‘Sandinista journalism’, and other top-down approaches in which state media is re-engineered or advertising is provided based on ‘media patrimonialism’ (Waisbord & Amado 2017, 1333). Media ecologies that foster populism often have fragmented audiences and political polarisation, which often puts publics at risk for mistaking disinformation for valid information (Waisbord 2018, 21). In addition to politicians and populist media, citizens may engage in populist rhetoric, which often stresses moral divides, in-groups and out-groups, negative stereotypes, uncivil discourse, political tribalism, and points of no compromise (Hameleers et al. 2018; De Vreese et al. 2018). The ideals of truth, fact-producing public-interest journalism run counter to the populist dictum of truth being dismissed as ideological illusion, and as Waisbord (2018, 29—30), noted, populists often advocate that ‘the people’ do not need mediation or institutional representation from journalists, scientists, universities, or other elites.
The populist perspective on news media is that ‘liberal journalism betrays the people and conspires with, or is instrumentalised by, the ruling elite to manipulate the people’ (Kramer 2018, 454). On the rise in the last five years have been discreet online methods of drowning out and silencing journalists. Initiatives to distract from journalistic content aim to manipulate information, as well as the flow or dissemination of it, and to bury news content with white noise or other distractions (UNESCO 2019). Many nations, including longtime democracies, are witnessing a rise in the amount of disinformation on social media sites, which masks itself in the format of news (Bennett & Livingston 2018). Scholars have noted that this online spread of mis/disinformation has presented a major issue for democracies, and journalism specifically, as inaccurate information lives alongside journalism and often drowns it out with parallel attacks on journalists as producers of ‘fake news’, eroding and slowly delegitimising the profession (Balod & Hameleers 2019).
Scholarship has suggested that some public narratives about social media changed after the election of US president Donald J. Trump in 2016. At this critical juncture, concerns were brought forward about ‘widespread malfeasance on social media — from “fake news”, propaganda, and coordinated disinformation to bot-based media manipulation’ (Lewis & Molyneux 2018, 12). A key concern for various publics across democracies as well has been the apparent difficulty in ascertaining the difference between legitimate news and mis/disinformation masked as news (Crilley & Gillespie 2019). Meantime, some political figures harness the rhetoric of xenophobia, racism, and other ‘isms’ on social media platforms, undermining the trust in and credibility of autonomous news media seeking the truth (Crilley & Gillespie 2019, 174), which has led to a drop in public confidence in the institution of journalism and a crisis of credibility (Lischka 2019). In this environment, online disinformation often is transmitted to pursue political agendas or advance malicious deception (Humprecht et al. 2020).
Online harassment of journalists: the impact and impunity
Attacks on journalists in countries around the world have a long offline history. Media ecosystems that are strong generally can absorb a limited number of official attacks (Bennett & Livingston 2018). However, it is indeed something entirely different when networks of social media spread disinformation continuously and carry out sustained attacks on journalists in longtime democracies (Bennett & Livingston 2018, 125). Thus, in recent times, social media is being re-evaluated for its true social impact, after years of being heralded for its capacity to bridge digital divides, advance digital activism, and provide platforms for democratic uprisings. Online disinformation campaigns have confused voters around the world and contributed to mob killings and myriad forms of online harassment and hate speech (Lewis & Molyneux 2018, 12). Though a majority of social media research has been conducted in just over ten years (Lewis & Molyneux 2018, 17), more recent studies have focused on the role of marginalised and opposition groups’ anger in collective actions in social movements online (Wahl-Jorgensen 2018). Social media platforms allow virtually anyone to self-publish and to attack journalists online, offering an ideal venue for populist leaders and their networks to attack, threaten, and denounce the ‘pro-establishment bias’ of traditional news media (Gerbaudo 2018, 746).
This online harassment has been defined as “the repeated or severe targeting of an individual or group in an online setting through harmful behaviors’ (Vilk 2020, 2). Settings for these acts may vary from email to messaging applications (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger) to comment sections of news sites to YouTube pages, book reviews, social media platforms (such as Twitter, Instagram, Keddit, and Facebook), and blogs (Pen America 2020). Online abuse tactics include hateful speech, threats, ‘dogpiling’2 ‘doxing’3 online impersonation,4 ‘message bombing’,’ ‘Zoom bombing’ (crashing a virtual meeting with harassing behavior or images), and distributing non-consensual intimate images, private or manufactured without consent (Vilk 2020). Twitter trolls are utilised to distract from legitimate discourse to provoke or deceive; these trolls are able to create topics that trend and influence the national agenda (Bulut & Yörük 2017). Social media’s reach makes it difficult to track or monitor deviant activity (Bennett & Livingston 2018). Thus, impunity — exemption from consequences or punishments for these actions — is the norm in cyberspace. In fact, until recently, the online environment enabled abuse (Article 19 2018).
In this environment, online harassment of journalists has manifest in numerous ways, with rape and death threats, cyberbullying, impersonating accounts, obscene video and images, sexist language, disinformation about news reports, and other antisocial behaviours (International Center for Journalists 2018, para. 3). In the Philippines, journalists have become accustomed to death threats (Balod & Hameleers 2019). There, the well-known online Kappler’s editor, Maria Ressa, has received an avalanche of online abuse and has been referred to as ‘ugly’, ‘a dog’, and ‘a snake’ and threatened with rape and murder (Reporters without Borders 2018b, 6).
In 2018, Italian journalist Marilti Mastrogiovanni received some 7,000 death threats through her news outlet email after reporting on organised crime (McCully 2019). A Finnish journalist who was investigating a troll factory and patterns of fake profiles on the social network of a propaganda project was harassed online for four years in a campaign that included tagging her in memes and messages on social media sites and blaming her for deaths in the Ukraine (McCully 2019, 7). Research has primarily focused on the intimidation and harassment of journalists in autocratic and authoritarian nations and emerging democracies (Lofgren Nilsson & Orne-bring 2016, 880). These studies show that the ways journalists are harassed online can vary and include name-calling, online trolling through constant internet stalking, threats, and shaming (Lofgren Nilsson & Örnebring 2016, 884).
Online harassment of women journalists has been documented more frequently than of male journalists, who often are attacked because of their coverage (McCully 2019). A study of 19 US on-air journalists found that unwanted sexual advances were the most common form of pervasive online harassment, often daily and frequently multiple times a day (Miller & Lewis 2020). Generally, for men, online harassment surfaced in Facebook comments or on Facebook Messenger while some women journalists received emails with ‘repeated requests for dates, solicitations for sex, compliments about the journalist’s body, and images of male genitalia’ (Miller & Lewis 2020, 11). Media advocacy organisations note that ‘female journalists carry the double burden of being attacked as journalists and attacked as women’ (McCully 2019, 7). In a study of 75 journalists in five countries,6 in which online harassment was similar despite geographic differences, researchers found that many women reported frequent sexist comments, criticism, marginalisation, stereotyping, and threats based on their gender or sexuality, with critiques of their work framed in misogynistic attacks and, at times, accompanied by suggestions of sexual violence (Chen et al. 2018, 2). Amnesty International (2017) found in a computational analysis of 778 journalists’tweets that female journalists receive hostile, abusive, or hurtful tweets in one out of fourteen tweets received. In Pakistan, according to one report, 68 percent of journalists have been harassed online (Reporters without Borders 2018b). Across Central and Eastern Europe, among 97 independent journalists responding to a survey about online and offline attacks, nearly two-thirds (64.5 percent) indicated they had been harassed or threatened for their journalistic work and over 8 out of 10 experienced it online (83.3 percent), with 16.7 percent indicating they had experienced being doxed related to their personal information (private life or home address), all posted online (Selva 2020, 13). Almost half indicated that the attacks had gotten worse in the last three years (Selva 2020).
Online harassment has risen in recent years via comment sections under online news articles barraging journalists’ emails and social media accounts with defamatory, threatening, demeaning, or even pornographic material. The reason comment sections are targeted by the ‘dark participation’ of trolls is they are a convenient
object of manipulation and hate because they basically offer an already established, large audience “for free”. . . . And due to the closure of the journalistic process to very limited walled gardens of user debate, the comment sections are often the only way in.
(Quandt 2018, 41)
Journalists who have been harassed online face severe consequences both professionally and personally, not to mention the threat to democratic exchange through disrupting the free flow of information (McCully 2019). This online intimidation also has the potential to place a journalist in physical danger and makes journalists more vulnerable to ‘mob’ action as well as further targeted attacks (UNESCO 2019). Journalists who are attacked or even murdered often were initially targeted by online abuse (UNESCO 2019, 47). The chilling effect of these online attacks of disinformation, threats, and other forms of harassment may impact news reporting and the role of news media in democracies and, in general, create an uncertain and often hostile media ecosystem (Balod & Hameleers 2019). Ultimately, these environments could impact press freedom (McCully 2019) as impunity, which results in enabling abuses and leaves victims without resolution or protection (Article 19 2018), has become a norm. Online anonymity exacerbates the issue, making it difficult to identify online predators and perpetrators of online violence or to redress it, allowing these cyberstalkers to continue trolling with impunity (International Foundation for Electoral Systems 2019). Online harassment is above all psychologically damaging and can affect journalists’ ability to concentrate on work as well as to resist pressures for self-censorship (UNESCO 2019). One cross-country study found that online harassment disrupts routine practices and the extent that women journalists can interact with audiences (Chen et al. 2018). Another study of harassment of journalists — online and offline — found that journalists ‘occasionally’, ‘sometimes’, or ‘often’avoid covering specific issues (26 percent of the time) or groups/people (30 percent of the time) because of the risk or because of being afraid of threats (49 percent of the time) (Lofgren Nilsson & Ornebring 2016, 888).
In the study of online harassment in the case of 19 US on-air journalists, online criticism in the form of harassment appeared aimed at causing emotional damage (Miller & Lewis 2020). Online harassment, including lobbing criticism at journalists’physical appearance and threatening journalists’ physical safety, has led researchers to conclude that while online threats don’t involve face-to-face contact, the hateful and sadistic level of the rhetoric can be just as harmful as attacks in person (Miller & Lewis 2020, 11). Unfortunately, harassment of journalists in online environments often is minimised as routine, harmless, or even ‘part of the job’ (UNESCO 2019, 52). In some contexts, journalists somehow do not support one another in this plight. The survey of journalists in Central and Eastern Europe found there was a lack of solidarity among news organisations and within the industry to ‘help journalists and news organizations prevail when their freedoms are under threat’ to help them improve the environment (Selva 2020, 21).