Asia: Lessons in Resilience from Rana Ayyub

I felt like I was naked for the world. I was throwing up, I was in the hospital, I had palpitations for two days and my blood pressure shot up. I just couldn’t stop crying.”

Rana Ayuub

By Ruby Winter, Team TrollBusters

Indian reporter Rana Ayyub has been under threat for over a decade. Here is what women journalists can learn from the continued harassment she has experienced on digital platforms.

Picture courtesy: Avani Rai

Update: Just as we were going to press on August 8, 2021 Rana Ayyub announced on her Instagram that she will be taking a break due to work-related stress and anxiety.

The journalist shared this on her Instagram account.

Washington Post columnist and author of the book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, Rana Ayyub was included in TIME magazine’s list of the top 10 journalists facing the ‘Most Urgent’ threats in 2019. What brings Ayyub to the notice of the international media community is that during several points in her career, she has been a target of dangerous online attacks. 

The most vicious of these social media campaigns was organized in 2018. Ayyub herself describes the experience in her blog article for HuffPost titled, ‘I was the victim of a deepfake porn plot intended to silence me.’ In April of 2018, fake tweets which read “I hate India,” “I hate Indians,” etc. were falsely attributed to Ayyub and widely circulated. The content was edited to look like it came from Ayyub’s verified Twitter handle. 

“I was inundated with abuse,” she writes. Even after making a clarification on her real account that the tweets were fake, the misinformation campaign escalated. The blog post mentions that some of the abuse Ayyub has received online included sharing of pornographic videos with her face photoshopped in them and publicly sharing her private information such as address and personal phone number, known as doxxing. This is a common form of harassment that bad actors use to terrorize targets in physical spaces.

In her HuffPost blog, Ayyub says,“I was sent to the hospital with heart palpitations and anxiety, the doctor gave me medicine. But I was vomiting, my blood pressure shot up, my body had reacted so violently to the stress.” She also mentions that during this time, a concerted fake news campaign against her was run online to discredit her reputation as a journalist. The attacks have had an effect on her health and her work. She mentions, “I used to be very opinionated, now I’m much more cautious about what I post online. I’ve self-censored quite a bit out of necessity. ”

What Ayyub did right

She took online abuse seriously. In the blog post Ayyub mentions that before this malicious attack she always tried to ignore social media hate, telling herself that it would never transfer to offline abuse. But due to dangerous trolling methods such as doxxing, the physical safety of women journalists can also be jeopardized.

She took a break. In her HuffPost article she writes, “I deleted my Facebook, I just couldn’t take it” after the sustained attacks in 2018. Some journalists have this belief that online harassment is just part and parcel of working in the media industry. But continuous exposure to such treatment online can severely affect the mental health of women journalists. So it is perfectly alright to step away from the fire. 

She got a lawyer when necessary. After the fake videos of Ayyub went viral in 2018 she sought help from a lawyer. Police procedures, especially cyber crimes and related matters can be difficult to navigate for journalists because they do not formally receive such necessary training. The help from a professional can be useful.

She remained in touch with the journalism community. According to Ayyub’s blog post, after the above measures seemed to not be enough to ensure her safety, eventually 16 special rapporteurs from the United Nations wrote to the Indian government asking them to protect Ayyub. 

Now it has been years since these events took place, but Ayyub continues to be a target for online harassment. In her opinion piece for The Washington Post published in June this year, she writes that she has been the target of a fresh fake news campaign to discredit her reputation as a journalist. 

Navigating this organized online violence can be challenging especially when publications force their journalists to remain professional even while facing personal attacks. Related to social media, the Washington Post’s policy suggests, “Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything — including photographs or video — that could objectively be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism.” This puts reporters in a difficult spot as even defending themselves or responding to trolls might reflect badly on the publication’s reputation.

After the recent attacks, Ayyub had to keep a low profile, hide and switch off her phone to escape. For women journalists who cannot report the trolls or take legal steps due to limitations, this can be the only option. But Ayyub is unstoppable in her dedication to speak her mind. She is now moving to a new platform where she can share her views without censorship. 

Long-term solutions for online abuse of women journalists can only be devised with the cooperation of the media industry, governments and technology companies. Until those measures are put in place, women journalists under attack must make self-care a priority.

Ruby Winter is a writer and researcher with Team TrollBusters. She can be reached at report (at)troll-busters(dot)com.

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