TrollBusters Offers Counsel on Election Protections for Journalists

TrollBusters Founder Dr. Michelle Ferrier presents at West Virginia University on election protections for journalists and staying safe at protests and polls.

News reports after the presidential debate are warning of an increase in violence during and even after the November 3 election here in the United States. Journalists, reporting on racial unrest in the United States and this election season have already been targets of this violence online and off. Professor Michelle Ferrier, Ph.D., has been sounding the alarm for more than 15 years of the rising violence from white supremacist online and off and spoke Wednesday night of staying safe with journalists, students and educators of West Virginia University.

Ferrier and journalism colleagues from the Associated Press and the James Foley Foundation joined West Virginia University Reed College of Media on September 30 for a virtual panel discussion and workshop on staying safe online and off. Host Jim Iovino, a visiting professor at WVU, led the hour-long conversation with the WVU community about the rising attacks of white supremacist groups and the increasing dangers to journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists tracks the ways in which journalists are harmed in the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. So far in 2020, there have been 203 journalists attacked, 67 journalists arrested, and 70 reports of equipment damage and seizure. 

Ferrier, founded TrollBusters in 2015 to support journalists against online attacks. She cautions students to begin crafting their digital footprint very carefully.

“Our research and the reports we receive show that students are targets of these attacks. They are vulnerable because they don’t have the online presence, or reputation, to help thwart off attacks,” Ferrier said.

She suggested that students consider pen names and other aliases to create a separation between their personal and professional identities.

Ferrier was a target of hate mail and attacks as a journalist and columnist at a Florida newspaper. She received a death threat this year as a result of her investigative work into sexting and cyberstalking at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. In the workshop, she shared the strategies she has used to keep herself and her family safe including creating aliases, using a post office box and learning to shoot and carry a gun.

“You have to examine your whole workflow – from how you are getting the interviews and access to sources, how you are collecting your information, and how you are disseminating information online,” she said. “You also must create that buffer so that you can protect yourself in physical space. You want your attackers to know ‘Don’t come for me, because I’ve got something for you.’ “

Ferrier also presented a workshop on Tuesday titled “Trollbusting: Staying Safe (and Sane) Online and Off” at RTNDA September Sweeps, a 90-minute hands-on risk assessment of work and private vulnerabilities and helped participants think through their personalized safety plan.

Ferrier has also partnered with Hearken/Election SOS to provide training to help journalists navigate a hostile work environment. Ferrier is part of the American Press Institute Trusted Election Expert Network and will be providing weekly workshops on digital and physical safety to student journalists and professionals through October 2020.

RSVP for Election SOS Training: https://electionsos.com/

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