The objective of the International Press Institute’s (IPI) Ontheline project is to establish a series of protocols for newsrooms on measures to prevent online attacks on journalists and reduce the personal and professional consequences these attacks can have on their targets.
These protocols will be developed from an analysis of the different strategies that European media currently implement in their newsrooms. In addition to Spain, IPI is carrying out this study in Finland, Poland, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Each of these countries has a characteristic social and political context in which a number of contested issues exist. These include the rise of the extreme right, state control of the media, the recent massive influx of refugees, the new push by social movements for gender equality and the political earthquakes caused by Brexit.
IPI chose Spain for the pilot study because the independence debate in Catalonia, the proliferation of cases of political corruption in the last decade and the renewed impetus of the struggle for gender equality have shaped a new social reality that reflects many of the issues in other countries.
Between April 23 and 27, 2018, IPI, together with the Platform for the Defence of Free Expression (PDLI), met in Madrid and Barcelona with representatives of various media, journalists and press unions to conduct a survey of the scope of the phenomenon known as online harassment and of the impact it has on both staff and freelance journalists.
Before going into further detail, it should be noted that this study does not intend to demonize or suggest the criminalization of social media, which, from our point of view, play an essential role in the consolidation and development of democracy in many countries, including Spain.
(*) Photo: Virginia Pérez Alonso, deputy editor, Público, and president of PDLI. April 25, 2018.
This last decade has been one of the most convulsive periods experienced in Spain, both at the political and at the social level, since democracy was established. Broadly speaking, the deep economic crisis that hit the middle and lower classes especially hard and the constant trickle of political corruption stories eroded the confidence of Spanish society in its institutions. The discontent of a large part of the population gave rise, on the one hand, to the social protests of the 11M, which led to new political formations and, on the other, to the strengthening of social movements that had been around for years, such as the independence process in Catalonia.
The restructuring of the political space throughout this period has generated tensions that have also been reflected on social media. In a polarized context, in which if “you’re not with me you’re against me”, journalists have become the subject of avalanches of intimidating messages on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments section of websites. The patterns of these messages and comments sometimes seem to suggest coordinated action.
“Sometimes that is the impression you get”, Pepa Bueno, the presenter of the radio programme Hoy por Hoy at Cadena SER, said of online attacks. “When you have finished a tough interview with a political leader who is in a special moment or where many contradictions emerge, and you bring up their contradictions, sometimes there is an impression that the answer (on social networks) is very coordinated and instantaneous and that, in addition, influencers of that party or from that politician’s environment support these messages or validate the insults. It happened during the electoral campaign and it happened around October 1 (the 2017 referendum in Catalonia), when public opinion was more polarized than ever.”
Similarly, Mònica Terribas, one of the most influential journalists in Catalonia and the presenter of El Matí de Catalunya Radio on public radio in Catalonia, described how the constant self-interested or partisan interpretation of her words results in a feeling of psychological exhaustion.
“Since I started at Matí de Catalunya Radio five years ago, I have the feeling that all my words are decoded and translated by many people in many more ways than the meaning you want to give them”, she said. “It is very tiring because it takes away spontaneity, it takes away freshness, it takes away the ability to share joy, especially when many people are facing very difficult times”.
Moreover, in her case the threats crossed the border of the virtual world and resulted in physical attacks against the building in which she worked and in demonstrations organized by far-right groups demanding her resignation.
“I don’t care that a more or less right-wing extremist group comes to throw stones at the windows of the radio station”, Terribas said. “What worries me is that the police have not identified them even though there are pictures, or that the public prosecutor for hate crimes has not opened an ex officio investigation despite taking up other, less serious cases.”
This loss of confidence in the authorities is a key concern for Ana Pastor, host of the news programme El Objetivo on the broadcaster La Sexta.
“I believe that networks sometimes are a bubble, sometimes a place for self-glorification and sometimes a place where crimes are committed but are not prosecuted in the same way”, Pastor said.
In this context of polarization, Pastor argued that we must distinguish between threats from anonymous individuals and messages that come from political leaders in powerful positions. “For example, when I worked for the Spanish public broadcaster, a senior politician openly said on social media that I should be fired. And well, what a surprise, I was let go. When you are in a powerful position and you exercise your power like that, this is clearly an attack on freedom of expression, and we have witnessed this in this country on many occasions”.
“The goal of these campaigns is to make journalists think twice before asking a question or publishing information”, David Alandete, deputy director of El País said. “Thanks to campaigns on Twitter by groups such as Wikileaks, the Russian media, certain political parties or the independence movement in Catalonia, we are seeing a worrying trend of self-censorship, with people starting to think twice before reporting anything. This is really worrying”.
“There are no good or bad journalists”, Terribas said. “There are just journalists who are right in the middle of events, be it in Catalonia or Madrid. We have been talking about this (the independence movement in Catalonia) for many years. This conflict began in 2003 with the adoption of the new statute (of Catalonia). Today, it is 2018, so we have spent 15 long years dealing with this conflict. Everyone simply does their work from their perspective, with their knowledge and in good faith.”
(*) Photo: Meeting of the editorial team of “Els Matins de Catalunya Radio” after the broadcast of the programme. April 26, 2018
Since the beginning of 2014, IPI has systematically studied different aspects of the phenomenon of digital harassment against journalists in countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Austria, Hungary and Serbia. In all of them, the same pattern is observed in terms of the nature of the attacks: Although harassment on social media against journalists is a transversal phenomenon in terms of gender and age (i.e., it affects both men and women), attacks targeting women have distinctive features: cruelty and virulence, disdain for their physical appearance and intellectual capacity, threats of sexual violence and threats against relatives and friends.
The same elements can also be found in attacks against women journalists in Spain. These are the most common types of digital harassed observed:
These are messages aimed at belittling the journalistic work of women just because they are women. The messages are often condescending and, in some cases, use the name of the journalists in the diminutive. “Never have any of the (male) colleagues who preceded me (in Hoy por Hoy on Cadena SER) had their work criticized by using the diminutive of their name”, Pepa Bueno noted. “With me, when they want to belittle an opinion that I have expressed in the morning editorial, I’m called ‘Pepita’. This is very frequent. Let’s say this is what they call ‘light’ harassment”.
Another type of attack specifically aimed at disparaging the work of female journalist is to link her job success to her love life. Many of the journalists who took part in this study stated that they had received many comments on social networks relating to the alleged “sexual favours” that they must have given to reach the positions they currently hold.
These are messages aimed at humiliating journalists for their physical appearance. They make no reference to their journalistic work but are exclusively related to their appearance.
Lorena G. Maldonado, a journalist with El Español, explained how she is insulted as “fat” and “ugly” by people who seek to undermine her morale after she publishes articles on political or social issues. “I’ve never seen a ‘hater’ mess with the physique of a male journalist. I’ve never seen a ‘hater’ refer to the sexual life of a male journalist, but they do it with women journalists”, Maldonado said.
Explicit and veiled threats of sexual violence or death
Explicit threats are intimidating messages that express an open desire for the death of or physical violence against the journalist or that are direct warnings of death or physical harm.
Veiled or indirect threats tend to be apparently innocuous messages, but which the receiver interprets as threatening. The intimidating nature of these messages is usually deduced from the context that surrounds them. For example, an anonymous user wrote to a journalist who was receiving lots of criticism and insults on Twitter at the time: “By the way, you recently gave birth, how is your son?”
Threats and insults to family and relatives
These types of attacks tend to take two forms. On the one hand, there are threats or humiliating messages addressed directly to the children or relatives of the journalist. “In the case of mothers, when violence reaches your children, you no longer just feel vulnerable yourself”, ”, journalist Cristina Fallarás said. “When you receive a message at 7 in the morning saying, ‘let’s kill your children who are five and 10 years old’, of course… that changes your life.”
She added: “Besides, you get the feeling that someone has spent some time searching through your networks or Google to find out the age of your children. That person has spent some time on you that they will recover in some way”.
The second type is attacks directed at the journalist, but they arrive through family members, acquaintances or editorial colleagues. Lara Siscar, presenter and director of Public Affairs, an interview and news analysis programme on Canal 24h of the Spanish public broadcaster, recounted how her colleagues received harsh messages about her: “Sometimes my colleagues supported me, they came to tell me that they were receiving insulting messages about me.”.
Campaigns to discredit journalists professionally
These are messages whose objective is to question the content that the journalist has published, either by referring to her intellectual capacity or by alluding to the fact that said content reflects the personal or partisan interest of the author. This type of attack is also observed against male journalists, but in the case of women the attacks are usually accompanied by messages of a macho nature, belittlement and humiliation.
The online harassment of journalists is a phenomenon that should concern all of society. An environment in which (both male and female) journalists do not feel safe when carrying out their work directly affects the quality and quantity of information that citizens receive. Online harassment therefore becomes an issue that limits two fundamental human rights included in international treaties, the right to freely hold opinions and the right to freely receive a diversity of information.
The keyword here is “diversity”. Virginia Pérez Alonso, co-director of the newspaper Público and president of the PDLI noted: “If we talk about women, (online harassment) affects them much more. We are in a society in which female voices are less heard than male voices because men are predominant in the structures of power, structures that women find hard to join and to be heard by. If at that point women refrain from making certain comments or publishing information, we are depriving citizens of access to other voices”.
Insults and threats have two types of impact on the journalists themselves: work-related and emotional/psychological.
The media that participated in this study do not usually question the work of journalists who are subject to indiscriminate attacks on social media, and are accustomed to making available the necessary legal or psychological services. However, one of the most common effects of online harassment is, in extreme cases, diminishing the confidence of the affected journalists.
“Journalists fear we will be ‘punished’ by our employer when there is an avalanche of bad criticism because in many cases what they (the harassers) ask for is our dismissal”, Maldonado explained. The El Español journalist expressed aloud a fear that was shared by most of the interviewees, and especially by freelance journalists, even though it is not supported by the facts. Most of the media, including El Español, have stood by their journalists in the face of waves of insults and external threats.
Maldonado’s statement exemplifies, on the one hand, the emotional impact of these types of attacks on journalists – and especially women journalists because of the virulence of the messages – and, on the other hand, the impact on their work, the fear that their reputation as journalists will be damaged, and with it their professional career.
As part of the mission that IPI and PDLI carried out, three focus groups were organized: two with freelance journalists (one in Madrid and another in Barcelona), and one focused on women journalists. These meetings were held according to Chatham House rules, according to which the contents of the meetings can be published but cannot be attributed. The idea is that protecting the identity of the participants favours dialogue.
“There is a fear that they will not assign me other tasks because in their opinion I could be a problematic, conflictive or radical person”, one freelance journalist said. “And I do not consider myself that way, but it is the way others perceive you.”
Online harassment is especially damaging to freelance journalists because social media are a tool intimately linked to their professional success. “Freelance journalists cannot live without the networks”, another journalist said. “That’s where the universities that later hire me for their summer courses, the publishers that order books, etc., see me.”
Social media pages also often constitute a journalist’s letter of presentation. One of the journalists pointed out that the image that media managers and editors have of them depends to a large extent on the image that others construct of them on social media.
“Online harassment is serious because you need to stand out on the Internet to get more work”, another freelancer explained. ‘When I suffered it, the Internet and social media were still the platforms on which I worked. I could not close my Twitter account because I lived from that.”
“In this sense, online harassment creates poverty”, another freelance journalist who has witnessed how the avalanche of attacks has been a determining factor in reducing the number of her collaborations said. “It is radical economic aggression since we are left out on the street, without a salary.”
The personal cost
In the insults and threats that occur in the virtual world, unlike abuse in the real world, the person subjected to intimidation is dehumanized. As the object of aggression is a by-line, a face on television or a voice on the radio, it seems that there is no real person behind the personal account of a journalist. As Maldonado pointed out: “(The digital harassers) forget that we also wake up in the morning, that we have families, that things hurt us.”
Therefore, a threat stays with the person, beyond the medium (online or offline) through which it has been issued. Pepa Bueno provided a detailed explanation of this phenomenon, comparing the emotional impact of these threat campaigns to the phases of a fight: “First you ignore; then you have a moment of strong indignation in which you are tempted to respond, or just to block the person; then, you learn to detect a threat that goes beyond words and bring it to the attention of the police; finally, you learn to distance yourself. You tell yourself that ‘that’ exists, and you learn to live with it.”
Despite everything, Bueno argued that learning to distance oneself is not a simple process: “To seal ourselves off from this we need a muscle that we have not trained. There are days when you say, ‘I will not look at the notifications’. If you have a difficult day, you do not feel like facing it.”
The fact that harassment on social media is conceived by journalists as a further toll they must pay for practising their profession means that the process from the start of the harassment until the journalist is aware of the emotional fallout takes time. “It took me a lot to recognize myself as a victim and that the threats on social media have an effect on your physical life”, Lara Siscar said.
Siscar suffered harassment on social media for more than two years before she dared to report her case to the police in 2015. The police arrested two harassers who had created over thirty profiles on different networks to threaten and intimidate her. In January of this year, Siscar reported a new case of online harassment. This time, a user had usurped her identity on Twitter.
In the same vein, another journalist said that “you end up thinking that my visibility was bad and that I was asking for it”. In her case, the continued harassment led to her not even being able to turn on the computer to write. “They gave me anxiety attacks”, she explained.
Given this psychological pressure, some of the journalists who took part in the focus groups said that they were often pushed to ponder each of the words they write or to limit their interactions on social media. In extreme cases, that pressure can lead to self-censorship.
“Yes, I think that self-censorship is the order of the day”, one journalist said. “Even though I try to say what I want to say with the greatest possible elegance because you know that it is unbearable to spend three days reading insults.”
(*) Photo: Lara Siscar, journalist and news anchor at TVE, was a victim of digital harassment for more than two years until she filed a complaint in 2015. She recently reported a similar case. 24 April 2018.
One factor that helps limit the emotional and occupational impact of online harassment on journalists is their level of exposure to the threats. Some of the preventive measures that media organizations can adopt are, for instance, an efficient comment management system on their own website. These measures involve two factors: who can comment and what can be commented.
Who can comment? Subscription and registration of users
The fact that a user cannot comment on the articles of online media without registering reduces the number of aggressive comments against journalists. During the registration process to allow users to comment, users usually have to provide information such as their first and last names, their ID, email, place of residence and age.
As explained by Izaskun Pérez, social media manager of the broadcaster Cadena SER: “Years ago users also had to choose a ’nickname’, but we realized that, if people used a pseudonym instead of their first and last names, they were more likely to leave insulting comments against journalists. Obviously, we do not double-check the data they send us, but the need to register has significantly reduced the number of ’trolls’ we have on our platforms.”
ARA, a newspaper published in Catalonia, has had a similar experience. In its case, users must have a monthly subscription (after the first 30 days of free trial) to be able to comment on the articles. As it turned out, the subscribers started making more moderate comments since they introduced this system.
What can be commented on? Management of comments on the website
There are two main strategies for managing comments. On the one hand, media organizations can outsource this function to specialized companies. This is the case, among others, of PRISA Radio. According to Pérez, the company that manages the comments uses a double filter to approve and publish a comment: The message first goes through automatic filtering before a manual decision is made about which comments to publish.
There are two cases in which the company contacts the editing team of the website:
1. If there are comments containing harassment or threats
2. If there are questionable comments, i.e. comments that could be published but that require an editorial decision. In this case, those responsible for the web edition make the decision.
The company to which Cadena SER outsources the management of comments uses the “karma factor” within its automatic moderation system. This system rewards users who write constructive comments. When a user sends a new comment, the system analyses his or her history. If previous comments have been previously blocked because of insults, threats or similar, the filters are much stricter than for those users who have had good behaviour so far.
The second option is to centralize the management of the comments in the editorial office itself. This is the case with ARA. Although to speed up the process they first use software that scans each comment to detect keywords, whether insults or others, management is done manually to a large extent. I.e., even when the software has detected a keyword, the comment is supervised by a member of the ARA web team, and he or she decides whether to publish it or not. The newspaper usually approves 75 percent of the comments it receives, and the editorial office only receives the filtered messages.
El País also has a company with a large team that manages the comments. Beyond approving or rejecting the comments, the editors decide to close the comments for some articles so as not to encourage campaigns to intimidate and discredit their journalists. As noted by deputy editor David Alandete, there are some articles, such as opinion pieces, which they automatically close to comments, “because we do not want to have on our website pieces that house attacks orchestrated against a member of El País”.
Management of comments on social media
As a result of efforts to block insults and threats in web forums, campaigns to harass and discredit journalists are frequently transferred to social media.
In these cases, El Español, which has a strong Facebook community, hides all insulting or violent comments, whether directed at journalists or other readers. According to Ana Delgado, the community manager, the news site adopted this measure because it wanted “to be a website that has a quality dialogue. We do not censor; any criticism is accepted as long as it is respectful.”
Delgado also said that sometimes the users themselves corner and expel the haters: “We have a very loyal community that helps us keep the haters at bay. They argue against them (aggressors) themselves. We limit ourselves to supervising the conversation, and when there are insults, they are hidden”.
However, Twitter is more complicated to manage, Delgado said. El Español has adopted the position of “not feeding the trolls or haters”. “We do not interact with users (on Twitter)”, Delgado explained. “The journalists themselves, if they want, can interact with them on their own personal accounts. We do not have a clear policy on personal accounts”.
ARA follows a similar strategy. At first, they considered interacting with users on Twitter but dropped the idea. They only speak out against very aggressive campaigns and usually respond in a very neutral way.
Management of emotional and work impact
Colleagues are usually the first resource to which journalists turns in search of advice. Pepa Bueno told IPI: “Lately, we started to share strategies when we tell each other in the newsroom: What do you do? How do you react? How are you doing?”
In this regard, Lara Siscar has become a contact person among her fellow editors: “More and more colleagues come to me for advice because I am one of the pioneers in reporting this type of harassment.”
While peer support is essential to minimize the emotional impact of these attacks, the unequivocal support of the news company for which they work is essential.
Media organizations such as the newspapers El País and La Vanguardia or Catalunya Ràdio have social media teams that provide initial support journalist so that he or she knows how to act when attacked. Sometimes, these teams even react to attacks on social media directly. The action protocols used by these three media organizations in case of harassment have several points in common:
1. The journalist should approach the social media team.
2. The social media team determines the seriousness of the case and in case of doubt seeks legal advice.
3. If the case is serious, social media platforms are asked to withdraw the comment through the protocols they have enabled for this.
4. The messages are then saved and the case is sent to legal counsel and human resources to begin the legal procedure to lodge a complaint.
At El País and La Vanguardia, these actions are coordinated with the newsroom council (the body representing the interests of journalists in front of the management), as well as with management.
In media organizations whose structure is smaller, reporting and action mechanisms are more informal. They often use WhatsApp or Slack groups to report cases of harassment and discuss how to react to them.
The prevention and analysis mechanisms for online attacks are important to reduce the emotional and professional impact on journalists. One of the measures that Público developed to find out if the digital harassment influences the journalists themselves was to send an anonymous questionnaire to members of the newsroom. In the questionnaire the journalists were asked the following points:
1. If they had been harassed online. If yes, what type of harassment they suffered;
2. If they felt supported by the company;
3. If they felt supported by their colleagues; and
4. If they reported the abuse, and what role they believed the media organization should play in these cases.
“We are still analysing these responses and are encouraging a conversation in our newsroom to ensure that all journalists, and especially women, feel that we support them”, Co-Deputy Editor Virginia Pérez Alonso.
The training of journalists and other team members in these types of online attacks is essential. Catalunya Ràdio explained to IPI how it uses training courses in social media, although these are not so much focused on how to act in cases of threats, but on their personal management at a professional level.
(*) Photo: Ana Pastor in the offices of El Objetivo. April 25, 2018