Addressing disinformation and online harassment: a way forward

The rise of populist movements that batter ‘the messenger’ through the onslaught of online harassment via disinformation has led to an erosion in public trust in the institution of the press and a crisis of legitimacy in some journalism communities around the world. Harassment of journalists and news organisations online is not radically different from offline harassment over the years; however, the distances that messages can travel and the capacity of the online multiplier effect is different, as is the veil of protection offered to anonymous perpetrators driven by internet disinhibition; such behaviors often are more radical online than for the same person offline (McCully 2019, 2).

Initiatives are surfacing, albeit slowly, to work towards restoring public legitimacy of the profession when needed and to address the issue of disinformation on social media that has put lives at risk. Some have called on global and national institutions to provide guidance or to regulate social media corporations and to require transparency with political advertisements; others suggest changes that include adjusting algorithms to pull back racist, sexist and other extremist content, calling out disinformation and misinformation in an identifiable way (Crilley & Cillespie 2019, 175). Some social media platforms have tightened rules of engagement in their terms of service, and some jurisdictions have amped up their cyberstalking laws with different interpretations and levels public sector training on protections (Vilk 2020).

There have been some studies that indicate that news outlets’ and other entities’ corrections to disinformation can reduce the impact of it (Chan et al. 2017; Walter & Murphy 2018). However, other research suggests that initial impressions are most enduring (Karlsson et al. 2017). Among the big-picture strategies: when setting the record straight, journalists should always check the claims, avoid the false equivalency of‘de facto’ minority views, and make corrections of disinformation ‘in a mater-of-fact way, ideally providing substantial explanations, and using sources that are close to populist positions ideologically’ (de Vrees et al. 2019, 244).

Combatting false accusations is another line of defence. One study examined the New York Times strategies in their editorial work to address US president Donald Trump’s onslaught of accusations of ‘take news’ against the organisation. To defend its legitimacy, the Times used four delegitimising strategies: moral evaluation, ‘negative sarcastic narratives’ that challenge President Trump’s capacity to govern, quoting authorities (such as academics, experts in politics, journalism thought leaders, the public, and autocratic regimes) to show that accusations about ‘fake news’ are methods employed by authoritarian regimes to suppress criticism and defend legitimacy (Lischka 2019, 299). Less frequently, the Times debunked ‘fake news’ accusations by demonstrating that the allegations were factually incorrect and describing the president’s tactic as ‘one of inciting the public against the press’ (Lischka 2019, 299).

Globally, most of the responses to online assaults and disinformation to date have been defensive. One study showed that the ways that journalists dealt with being harassed included installing home alarms, finding other forms of protection, limiting social media work, reporting the abuse or threats to law enforcement, blocking email accounts, restricting comments on online content, and closing down accounts (Lofgren Nilsson & Ornebring 2016, 887). Chen et al. (2018, 2) have noted that journalists have developed a variety of strategies for dealing with the abuse, including limiting online posts, changing what is reported, and using technological tools to prevent people from posting offensive words on journalists’ public social media pages. Other proactive responses focus on prevention of attacks. Others respond directly to online harassment through investigating. In the Philippines, for example, after the online editor at the Kappler was harassed online, an investigative team of journalists tracked and then exposed the intimidation (UNESCO 2019). In response to hate speech, disinformation, and other forms of harassment, some social media platforms are partnering with journalism organisations and journalists to work on addressing these issues and to launch new safety tools (UNESCO 2019, 48). For example, innovative applications have been designed to document online incidents through uploading attackers’ email addresses and social media handles; screenshots of dates, messages, and links; and photos, videos, and any other evidence of the threat for authorities (Nelson 2020). Journalism advocacy and support groups also have provided trainings and materials on digital safety.

There also have been calls for media outlets and journalists to reimagine their relationships with the public related to disinformation campaigns. It has been noted that journalists, by training, tend to be hesitant to advocate for themselves yet those days, many suggest, need to be over as the crisis of delegitimisation and online assault have reached critical levels. Selva (2020, 7) recommends that journalists must ‘be prepared [to] talk about the value they provide in society, to convince the public not only to pay for good journalism but to support it when it comes under fire’. Research suggests that going forward, journalists should work to publicly distinguish their role from purveyors of disinformation and combat allegations of disseminating disinformation (Balod & Hameleers 2019, 12). Some news organisation initiatives have included what is now called ‘legitimacy management’, ways for outlets to ‘defend themselves from such accusations’ (Lischka 2019, 288). Moreover, there are times when correcting the record through reporting on disinformation is not enough. Selva (2020, 25) offers that journalists should ‘talk directly to the public, not just about the stories they cover, but about how and why they do the jobs they do’.

A number of initiatives have been moving on national and transnational levels. Survey research with journalists from Central and Eastern Europe also is instructive for considering ways forward. Intervention measures advocated for include changes in laws to ensure that journalists are protected and receive support from transnational press freedom advocacy organisations, that governments from other nations condemn the attacks and urge countries to act on attacks to reduce impunity, and that assistance be provided to defray legal costs for journalists (Selva 2020, 22). Other goals among those in the region include forming peer-to-peer professional networks to take on the online harassers and disinformation abuse campaigns and developing in-house mental health programmes and tools for newsroom staffs, including ‘emotional literacy’ programming about trauma and how to deal with it.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recommends that countries consider prosecuting the online harassment of journalists through existing harassment laws. This could be accomplished through creating measures that penalise sexual harassment and sexist online harassment, examine laws that address online harassment and amend them when possible to ‘capture the phenomenon of online harassment campaigns/“pile on” harassment’, and adopt tiered approaches to handling online harassment while ensuring that these legal remedies are compatible with freedom of expression guided by international law (McCully 2019, 38). Moreover, law enforcement and prosecutors should investigate online harassment and abuse of journalists when harm is likely and seek other remedies that would not be as costly to journalists as legal procedures may be (McCully 2019). The United Nations has prescribed a number of actions that governments must take to end these online violations, including training law enforcement, judiciaries, journalists, civil society, and other entities on safety standards for freedom of expression (Article 19 2018). Other recommendations include early-warning programmes and rapid interventions for online harassment cases and developing best-practice approaches to address online harassment coupled with reportage on this major public policy issue of abuse (Reporters without Borders 2018b, 25—27). International organisations as well have been encouraged to urge governments to uphold the same protections of rights online as offline and to monitor, investigate, prosecute, and research abuses against journalists online (Article 19 2018).

In conclusion, rising populism, the growth of mis/disinformation on social media, and impunity around online abuse are growing issues for journalists and the legitimacy of the institution of the press. Journalists, advocacy institutions, civil society organisations, governments, and other entities must take an active role in addressing the issue as it evolves over time. Defensive approaches have their place. However, proactive measures such as developing strategies to directly communicate the value of journalism to the public, as well as ways to filter out the rising and competing white noise of disinformation, are critical to the future of democracies.

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