TALLAHASSEE, Fla., March 24, 2021–Expanding training for students and young professionals on navigating digital spaces is part of the plan for Dr. Michelle Ferrier and TrollBusters, the project she began in 2015 to fight online harassment against journalists. Ferrier, a full professor in the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, was recently awarded an additional $100,000 grant from Democracy Fund Voice to do just that.
Democracy Fund Voice, Craig Newmark Philanthropies and the Knight Foundation have previously funded Ferrier’s research with more than $200,000 in support for work on online attacks against journalists. This new grant, building on last fall’s support of $100,000 for professional training, will allow TrollBusters to build more digital safety and online response strategies for students.
Ferrier, a former columnist and journalist in Florida, received hate mail years ago on the job. The letters contained death threats against Ferrier and her family. Ferrier began to build an organization to fight the rising troll armies and white nationalist groups in the United States and abroad. Her work and her research evolved into TrollBusters, just-in-time rescue services for journalists under attack online.
“Online threats have culminated in physical violence against journalists. I want journalists to be prepared, be safe, and to continue telling the stories that hold power to account,“ Ferrier said.
Ferrier is especially interested in preparing the next generation of journalists. Ferrier’s research into threats against journalists shows a concerted effort to discredit the work of journalists, particularly students and early-career journalists.
“The goal of these attacks is to dissuade students from pursuing a career in journalism,” Ferrier said. “Our data shows that younger journalists are targeted because they don’t have a professional history to lend credibility to their work,” she said.
In January 2021, Ferrier produced the student handbook Staying Safe Online and Off for Media Workers, to prepare students to cover state capitols and campus activities in this digital age. The handbook provides historical context to the January 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol and the rise of attacks against the media, with strategies students can use now to navigate online spaces.
Student journalists are also under attack through educational technologies being deployed during the COVID-19 pandemic for instruction and communication. In her research on online education and online attacks, Ferrier has documented criminal use of GroupMe, ZOOM and protected student data being used to groom, stalk and sexually exploit students and to sell and trade misinformation and fake documents.
“Student and professional journalists—especially women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and people living at these intersections—are under increasing threat by malicious actors online. It is so crucial that they have the tools, resources, and support they need to protect themselves from these attacks,” said Lea Trusty, program associate for the Public Square program at Democracy Fund Voice.
“Democracy Fund Voice is proud to support Dr. Michelle Ferrier and her work as a longtime leader in this space.”