A Year of Armoring Up for Journalists

Annual Report: June 2020-July 2021

By Michelle Ferrier, Ph.D.

Journalists and other media workers face a range of digital and physical threats that chill freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Both online and off, the world has become much more dangerous for journalists in the past five years. Violence continues to plague journalists around the globe, including murder and assault, legal challenges and seizures, online harassment in the form of rape and death threats and other forms of intimidation, increased surveillance, impersonation and other digital threats. As cultural producers and cultural amplifiers, journalists are part of a larger power struggle over hateful ideologies, violent misogyny, and false narratives. 

Social media use has also become much more integral to journalistic practices. Journalists are using social media and other digital tools for social sourcing, creating and distributing content, engaging with users, broadcasting live and other journalistic uses. With the increased use of social media for distribution and community engagement, individual journalists are put at risk on a daily basis physically and online. Not only are they being required to use social channels as part of their work, they are also using social channels that blend personal and professional identities, exposing them to threats 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Journalists themselves say that online abuse represents their highest professional concern and that online violence has increased over the past five years. Their fears are not unfounded, as U.S. journalists experienced a year of unprecedented physical attacks, legal threats, Twitter “death to journalist” memes and “Murder the Journalists” on the U.S. Capitol doors.

In the past year, TrollBusters created monitoring and response systems to examine journalists and media organizations targeted by misinformation, smear campaigns, targeted threats and an increase in physical violence. Journalists around the globe were challenged to deal with multiple threats — from a global pandemic, from a targeted, coordinated campaign against the media, from reporting on issues like police violence and immigration. Dr. Michelle Ferrier worked with social media listening platforms to monitor threats against journalists in real time, using machine learning and artificial intelligence tools to monitor social streams and bad actors in real time.

Global Monitoring and Collaboration

TrollBusters worked internationally to support journalists and conduct research. We collaborated with nongovernmental civil society and professional organizations like UNESCO, Article 19, the Journalism and Women Symposium, 100Reporters, PEN America, and the International Association of Women in Radio and Television, to provide expert counsel and design educational workshops and presentations for their members, policymakers and technology platforms. 

With support from Democracy Fund Voice, TrollBusters designed and deployed a digital safety curriculum to journalists around the globe in 2020 and 2021. Dr. Michelle Ferrier developed the curriculum based on research with women journalists to discuss digital resilience, risk management, and journalism practices in a hostile, digital work environment. These topics in personal safety, mental health, reporting at protests and polls, and new technologies were delivered to professional, student and general audiences through a series of programming offered through 2020:

  • Weekly Shine & Dime Coaching Sessions: Held from Spring 2020 through November 2020, the weekly calls provided training to drop-in registrants and focused on specific skills and practices as a journalist in digital spaces.
  • Election SOS/Hearken Online Abuse Series: In Fall 2019, TrollBusters partnered with Hearken/Election SOS to develop strategies for addressing what was already a challenging election season. TrollBusters provided training to journalists and election coaching and support to students and journalists navigating the triple pandemics of COVID, Black Lives Matter, and the election season here in the United States. 
  • Listening/Monitoring Tools: We provided critical monitoring of political coverage and the reporters using artificial intelligence, machine learning and social listening tools to monitor and track attacks against journalists online. TrollBusters deflected and amplified attacks on journalists and journalists of color, particularly those here in the United States. 
  • Educational Lessons and Courses: TrollBusters developed a series of self-paced, instructor-led video lessons, based on our digital hygiene tips, to help journalists get the just-in-time training they need. We deployed those both on Vimeo, our learning management system and through our Shopify platform store for our courses and training: Modules on Defense Against Digital Dark Arts, Physical Security for Journalists, Online Security for Journalists, and Workflow Security for Journalists. Self-Paced Video Instruction on Threat Modeling, Monitoring Digital Footprints, Secure Browsing Tools, End-to-End Encryption and Communication, Securing Data and Passwords, Third Party Apps and Permissions, Tracking and Link Risks, Encryption and Securing Your Devices and Physical Safety at Polls and Protests.
  • Digital Hygiene Card Deck: Research based, resilience and mindfulness practices were designed into a card deck, putting action and response back into journalists hands. 
  • Love + Hugs Safety Box: TrollBusters threat infographic cards, digital hygiene cards and physical and digital safety tools were packaged for delivering instruction and safety via the mail and to newsrooms in a box.
  • New York University Graduate Module: TrollBusters developed and deployed a new curriculum module around online safety as a journalist, designed to educate new and emerging journalists about digital safety and contextualize the January 6 physical attacks on journalists and democracy. 
  • Student Handbook and Other Training Tools: The 40-page student edition of “Staying Safe” includes practical and ethical choices about newsgathering, online threats, and staying safe. Any student or educator with an .edu address can request a beta copy of the handbook. Recently published February 2021 and available for free, the handbook was distributed to more than 10 educators in the U.S. in conjunction with video links to educator/student panels.
  • Research and Development/Expert Consultation: Dr. Michelle Ferrier participated with the Social Science Research Council to monitor and research political journalists in the U.S. during the presidential election year. She has three draft research papers for publication. Dr. Ferrier conducted election research around online attacks and judged critical global grants on COVID-19 and surveillance technologies, information and technology. Dr. Ferrier was also part of the doctoral committee for Dr. Autumn Slaughter of the University of Oklahoma in psychology. Dr. Slaughter’s dissertation research examined the psychosocial effects of online threats on female journalists, with recommendations for clinical treatment of the associated traumas of online threats. Dr. Michelle Ferrier consulted with PEN America as an expert reviewer on their recent report “No Excuse for Abuse” for management and media workers on dealing with a hostile online environment and platform response and remedies. Dr. Ferrier also worked as a consultant to West Virginia University documentary filmmakers to create “Raised by Wolves,” about the rise of Internet grooming and recruitment of the children of Appalachia and how radicalization happens in plain sight. 

From the United Nations policy making bodies to media industries like photography and documentary filmmakers, founder Dr. Michelle Ferrier and the TrollBusters team helped coach journalists, filmmakers, photographers and writers on staying safe online:

Dr. Michelle Ferrier, founder of TrollBusters

Girding Our Mental Health

Online threats and the hostility of the digital work environment comes with stressors, risks, fears and trauma. TrollBusters was able to grow its team and deepen its psychosocial supports to journalists experiencing online threats. Through our weekly Shine & Dime programs, we introduced journalists to mindfulness and trauma-informed therapies by partnering with psychotherapists. TrollBusters also partnered with UCF Restores, a first-responder therapy center. UCF Restores now offers free mental health treatment to Florida journalists through this acclaimed program. 

TrollBusters also grew its social media presence, through new uses of Instagram, social stories and demonstration video to penetrate with just-in-time education and training. And we built out our curriculum on digital safety with partners in human rights and digital rights defender community, building our technical and video capabilities using remote technologies like Zoom and other video conferencing tools. Much of our work is now deployed on multiple platforms to spread the attack surface for our own work. We use and test these technologies for vulnerabilities and for ways to amplify journalists and their work.

We will continue our targeted training to professional journalists, particularly focusing on changing practices and expert consultation to newsrooms on safety practices, resilience and engaging in online spaces. We will build on our work to develop research-informed skills and services to keep journalists online and able to do their work.

Imagine Better,

Dr. Michelle Ferrier

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