Hungarian journalist Attila Varga was waiting on a sidewalk one day when a car suddenly pulled up beside him.
It did not contain a friend.
“A person leaned out and shouted, ‘How dare you ban me, you motherfucker!’,” Varga recounted in a recent interview with the International Press Institute (IPI).
Varga is one of three journalists working for Index.hu, Hungary’s biggest online news site, who sat down with IPI in Budapest to discuss the online harassment of journalists in their country and ways of coping with its various dimensions.
“The first comment under my very first blog post went something like: ‘You are not an expert in that field, so why would you write about it, bitch?’,” Varga recalled. “I literally stared at the monitor for half an hour, rereading my post over and over again, examining, double-checking all the statements and claims I made in the post, trying to see what I possibly could have gotten wrong.”
Widely known by the nickname Sixx, Varga has been around since the advent of the Hungarian blogosphere and has a long track record of fighting trolls.
“It was hard in the beginning,” he said, adding that it took “a lot of time and nerves” to adjust to the “permanent” online harassment that came with the job.
Threats, trolling on multiple channels
Varga said he had received a number of threats through various channels since he began his journalistic work online, including death threats against his child and threats of sexual assault aimed at his wife.
Being exceptionally – and infamously – active in engaging in conversations with commenters and trolls, he encounters a significant amount of online harassment each day. The harassment, he noted, can emerge from almost anything: even a slight quarrel or a simple typo – not uncommon in online journalism – might lead to a flame war or a verbal fight ending in serious threats.
Szabolcs Dull, an investigative journalist at Index.hu who focuses on politics, has adopted a different manner of dealing with online harassment: he intentionally avoids social media channels and ignores offensive messages sent to him.
For this reason, Dull, who previously worked for Hungarian public radio and the news site Origo.hu, told IPI he rarely faces online harassment. Yet even he is unable to avoid it altogether.
According to Dull, the online abuse of journalists can arise from unexpected quarters. As an example, he recalled an article he wrote in 2014 about a company that operated a narrow-gauge train service in a hilly area near Budapest that served as a popular children’s attraction.
Due to heavy rains that year in December, the area around the train was deemed to be hazardous. The company, however, decided to continue the train service but reversed course after Dull reported on it. In the days that followed he received a wave of online aggression and bullying from parents, who claimed he had “stolen Christmas from the children”. The most serious instances of abuse were sent to him directly via email.
Dull also highlighted the period following the first wave of migrant arrivals to Hungary in 2015 as being marked by unusually personal attacks. In that case, he noted, any article he published on the subject could trigger online abuse, regardless of whether the article was critical of the country’s migrant policy or not.
Index.hu’s photo editor, Tímea Karip has different, but equally disturbing experiences.
According to Karip, the amount of harassment aimed at women is “probably” similar as that aimed at men. The difference, she said, is that online bullying aimed at women is frequently of a sexual nature. She recalled a time when she would receive hardcore porn images via email along with comments describing her participation in forced sexual intercourse.
Karip said that the risk of being sexually harassed online partly explained why some female journalists intentionally left their bylines off particularly sensitive articles and disguised their Facebook identities.
“Politics and being a woman are both risk factors” for harassment, she commented.
The journalists we interviewed highlighted the fact that Index.hu includes a list of the site’s contributors along with their photos and email addresses, which they say makes it easier for harassers to contact them.
They also indicated that the most serious threats always come via email; they say they believe that using this private channel already presupposes some grim determination. Comments under Facebook posts or under some articles – not all articles on Index.hu allow reader comments – are perceived as being less harsh.
Sometimes it really hurts
How do the journalists feel about the online harassment?
“Honestly we don’t give a shit,” Karip said.
But she added that often she feels she has had enough.
“If I accidentally open a piece of hate mail or see something that I wanted to avoid, I get frustrated and hurt for about a half an hour,” she admitted.
Varga responds to even the most dedicated trolls with no hesitation. But he, too, has his limits.
A few years ago, he launched a blog on the birth and parenting of his child, but he decided to shut it down after brutal comments aimed at his child became too much to bear.
He said he can not explain his propensity to engage with the attackers.
“I don’t know, I’m an idiot,” he said ruefully, before adding: “I can’t help it. I feel like I have to enter the conversation.”