Trolling the News: How Algorithms, Bots and Smart Mobs Target Journalists

WASHINGTON, DC — Canary in a coal mine. That’s how one Ohio University journalism professor describes herself when she began to talk about the online abuse she received more than 15 years ago as a newspaper columnist. However, today’s brand of social media intimidation, she says, can be swift and painful. And the techniques used today have been refined over the years to specifically target journalists.

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Suzanne Nossel, of PEN America, moderates a panel on Trolling the News with panelists Dr. Michelle Ferrier of TrollBusters, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, Soraya Chemaly of the Women’s Media Center, Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times, and Julia Ioffe of The Atlantic at the National Press Club on March 27, 2018.

She knows. Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters, a rescue service for journalists against online abuse. On April 27, she spoke about the changing digital attacks on journalists at the National Press Club where she was joined by Ohio University alum Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, Soraya Chemaly of the Women’s Media Center, Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times, and Julia Ioffe of The Atlantic . The four convened for a panel,“ Trolling the News: Protecting Journalists from Online Harassment,” hosted by PEN America and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, moderated the session. She offered sobering news:

“We see so many attacks on the press …their work is to report and to expose and to hold accountable which could not be more critical at this moment. But they need allies,” said Nossel. At the event, PEN America released its Online Harassment Field Guide, a new tool to help writers and journalists protect themselves from online abuse.

Ferrier says what we are now seeing online is a visible tip of what has been underground for years. When she searched for the origins from her own attacks, she found that hate mail was a tactic used by white supremacist groups to instill fear. Ferrier described the recent example of a Florida journalist who used social sourcing to reach out to victims in the Parkland high school shooting. Her tweets were altered to look as if she was racially biased in her reporting.

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Ferrier said the fake tweets, smart mobs and bot attacks are designed to create fear and intimidation and to discredit the work of journalists. “If they can sow mistrust, if they can isolate and separate people and have them fighting among each other…they’ve done their job because then we don’t get the deep reporting that we need. We don’t have those diverse voices in the media.”

Ferrier started TrollBusters three years ago as she observed a rise in targeted activity against journalists. She provides just-in-time coaching and tools to journalists under attack.

“Unless it’s happened to you before, you don’t really understand the consistent, persistent nature of what’s happening. Fifty tweets an hour… 100 tweets an hour coming at you. There’s a chilling effect that happens both on the individual journalist and on their ability to gather and report news,” she said.

Lowery described the types of online attacks he endured during reports on Ferguson, Missouri for the Washington Post:

“What we saw were especially from these kind of online, far-right figures. There were these sustained harassment campaigns. Every time you would open your phone, the would be thousands upon thousands of new interactions – bad faith interactions, fabricated interactions.”

Fifty tweets an hour… 100 tweets an hour coming at you. There’s a chilling effect that happens both on the individual journalist and on their ability to gather and report news.

The panelists discussed potential solutions, but found that the technology solutions are limited, while the attackers and their methods keep evolving. Chemaly described the shift from text to pictures that makes it difficult for machine-learning algorithms to discern hate speech and threats.

“If you are a woman or a person of color, the harassment that you get is often in images, not words,” said Chemaly. “So memes, pornographic videos and deep fakes – all of those are not captured in the current attempts to solve the problem by looking at text,” Chemaly said.

Ferrier said even the blocking and content reporting functions can be compromised.

“They are weaponizing the very tools designed to help us. And so whether it’s blocking tools, organized smart mobs on 4Chan and 8Chan or Reddit are using different dark web channels to go after people who haven’t done anything and report them.”

The attackers flag content or block en masse, triggering an automatic account suspension. The target must challenge these reports to the platforms, which are oftentimes slow to respond, Ferrier said.

“Women and women journalists of color have experienced this silencing tactic,” Ferrier said. “When social media is your avenue for engaging with your readers or viewers and you no longer have an account, that affects your work and it affects your ability to earn a living.”

Reporters Without Borders recently downgraded U.S. on its press freedoms from 43 place to 45 out of 180 countries because of the high-profile media bashing in the past year. Unfortunately, Ferrier says, it’s working. “Whether it is through content that’s manipulated in a way to paint the journalist in a bad light or through explicit sexualized video or death threats, the whole purpose of all this activity is to discredit the media and its ability to be effective in speaking truth to power.”

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