Cyberattacks on Funder Creates Secondary Harms for Grantees

By Michelle Ferrier, Ph.D.

Recent hacks and threats of the website of Borealis Philanthropy has forced the U.S.-based organization to scrub the website of all identifying data, including staff names, grantees and project information. Borealis manages a portfolio of funds focused on LGBTQIA, people of color and solutions for diverse communities.

“When you go to the site now, there’s no information,” said Tracie Powell, program officer for the racial equity and journalism fund. “We had to pull it down and take everything off the website.” The Fund for Black Lives Movement was also targeted in the attacks.

Borealis experienced phishing schemes against their staff and DDos attacks on the website through July and August 2020, believed to originate from right-wing extremists. Grantee data was scraped from the site and grantees were also targeted in the cyberattacks, a secondary target of the cyberattacks.

Powell described the frustrations of trying to manage the funds this fall without the website.

“It’s hurting our ability to get the word out about the funds and the work that our grantees are doing,” Powell said. Powell said other funders look to Borealis to identify potential grantees.

“People want to know who our grantees are,” she said. “The White funders don’t know who the news organizations of color are and they see who we are funding.”

Journalists and organizations that do work or reporting in and with communities of color have been the repeated target of attacks thorough the election season in the United States. Nonprofits and other organizations should armor their communications in a few ways:

  1. Minimize the exposure of staff and grantees by limiting identifying data of individuals. Replace staff communications with generic business emails for incoming inquiries.
  2. Mirror your website on a different platform. Use Tumblr, WordPress or another content site as a front door so that hackers cannot take down both sites.
  3. Create alternative communication channels for grantees and other stakeholders.
  4. Be discerning about the type of information that you disclose about grantees, sources, and other potential secondary targets of your work.

Borealis Philanthropy is now rebuilding their communications strategies with the assistance of digital security personnel, Powell said. “We are working on security now and ways to communicate, but yeah.”

TrollBusters Receives $100,000 Grant to Fight Online Harassment

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 professor in the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University recently received a $100,000 grant from Democracy Fund Voice to do just that.

Ferrier, a former columnist and journalist in Florida, received hate mail years ago on the job. These death threats continued for years and 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.

Ferrier presented at Newsgeist in Phoenix in 2015, pointing to the increase in white supremacists operating coordinated online harassment campaigns against journalists.

The grant from Democracy Fund Voice will allow TrollBusters to continue offering digital safety and online response training to students and expand mental health counseling services for journalists in crisis –and especially during this critical time in the U.S. politics and racial unrest.

“Online threats have culminated in physical violence against journalists. I want journalists to be prepared, be safe, and get the story,“ 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 and history to their work,” she said.

Blogs have blurred the distinctions between news and propaganda.

“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, and Democracy Fund Voice is proud to support TrollBusters as a longtime leader in this space,” said Lea Trusty, program associate for the Public Square program at Democracy Fund Voice.

In March 2020, Ferrier provided online misinformation and verification tools to the Tallahassee media community. Ferrier presented on online harassment and the use of “fake news” to discredit and injure the reputation of journalists and media organizations.

“Journalists need to be prepared for the November elections and beyond,” Ferrier said. “Democracy is being decided on the interwebs and journalists are a key target and tool.”

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:

Secure Your Video Conferencing Tool for Interviews

Choosing the right tool for your video meetings does not have to be difficult. If you are working on sensitive matters, however, it is important to consider the tool’s security features as you critically assess the right tool for you and your team. 

Encryption and Security: What to Consider?

There are very few video conference tools available that offer end-to-end encryption. When a call is end-to-end encrypted, no uninvited party (not even the platform or company) can eavesdrop or have the ability to monitor it. 

Apple’s FaceTime, Google’s Duo, WhatsApp video and voice calls, and Wire calls are just the few that allow for end-to-end encrypted group calls, and even those are limited by number. FaceTime allows for up to 32 people. WhatsApp now allows for up to 8 people on a video or voice call — but only for mobile devices. Wire can only handle 4 people on a voice and video call. 

Even Jitsi Meet, a popular free and open video conferencing service, is not end-to-end encrypted. What these and other tools does provide is transit encryption — wherein messages that travel to and from your device to the app’s servers are protected. In the middle, your application can see unencrypted copies of your messages. This is why choosing a company that you can trust to handle your data is important. For many of those tools, you have to essentially trust the company with how they handle your data and privacy.

Zoom, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans, Skype Meetings, Google Meeting, Jitsi Meet all offer transport encryption. Jitsi Meet is offering end-to-end encryption, but only in an experimental phase. 

If you need to have a very private or sensitive meeting, maybe one of the popular tools is not for you. If you have to use a tool like Jitsi or even Zoom, make sure you have the highest form of security enabled: locking the room, adding a password, do not allow for dial-in calls.

Remember: dial-in features in GoToMeeting, Zoom, BlueJeans, Google Meet are not encrypted. When you allow for a phone caller to enter a meeting, you’re potentially allowing a telco or others to listen in.

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Journalist’s Flame Shines Light on Press Repression

By Jen E. Adams

It’s almost impossible to imagine the level of desperation one must reach in order to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire. Self-immolation is largely considered one of the most extreme methods of protest known to humanity, and has been used as a tool of political dissent to bring attention to some of the most flagrant abuses of human rights – religious oppression, authoritarianism and, now, repression of independent media.

Irina Slavina, editor-in-chief, Koza.Press, Russia.

On October 2, Irina Slavina, editor-in-chief of the independent news website Koza.Press, wrote a final Facebook post – “For my death I ask you to blame the Russian Federation”, then, in front of the Russian Interior Ministry, sitting beside a monument dedicated to law enforcement, she set herself on fire.

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Her death marked the final blow in a long battle between Slavina and Russian authorities — highlighting the ongoing war of suppression on independent media by the Russian State. But the most recent acts of intimidation — the search of her apartment and seizure of her family’s electronic devices — were only the latest in a years-long campaign to try and silence Slavina. According to her lawyer, friends and colleagues, Slavina had been subjected to smear campaigns, harassment and threats, and excessive fines for a host of trumped up charges.

Although Russian authorities have already refused to take any responsibility for the journalist’s death, stating that the most recent search and seizure had nothing to do with her suicide, it fits the pattern of systematic suppression of independent media, journalists and civil society generally that has been a hallmark of the increasingly totalitarian government since President Putin’s return to office in 2012.

While the Russian Federation isn’t the only country that uses the court system and law enforcement as tools to harass and suppress independent media, it is one of the most flagrant in its war on the free press, in direct contradiction with its own constitution that guarantees freedom of expression and prohibits censorship. Since 2012, Russia has increasingly targeted media with draconian laws and administrative fees that have resulted in the shuttering of all but a handful of independent outlets.

For independent journalists in the country, these tactics of suppression can result in severe anxiety and trauma, as well as a climate of fear for media as a whole. When it comes to Irina Slavina, it’s clear that the harassment hit its mark. The moment Slavina lit herself on fire, another independent voice was lost in Russia.

That she picked such an extreme method of protest, however, was truly an act of self-sacrifice and a call to action for all of us in the media freedom community to take up the work she left behind and demand accountability from and change in the Russian Federation.

Jen E. Adams is the former program officer for the Safety of Female Journalists Online campaign of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Staying Safe When Covering or Attending a Protest

By Team TrollBusters

Adapted from EFF’s Attending a Protest guide

The murder of George Floyd in the United States sparked protests around the world. "Am I Next? Acrylic. by Michelle Ferrier, July 2020.

When working in the field to cover or attend a protest, make sure to be mentally, physically, and digitally prepared for any situation. You have to build up situational awareness and be prepared for any fast-changing scenario. 

Protests can be an overwhelming experience when you are alone, so make sure – when possible – to go with a friend or with a small group. You are safer when you stay together.

Checklist to consider, before the protest

  • Determining whether it is safe to attend a protest. Physically attending a protest introduces many risks from physical safety to increased surveillance of you and your community. 
  • (Digital safety) Turn on full-disk encryption on your device
  • (Digital safety) Remove fingerprint unlock and/or FaceID
    • In protest situations—or in any other situation in which you may be more likely to encounter a government demand to search your phone (such as at a border crossing)—we suggest you turn this functionality off. Enabling these means an officer could physically force you to unlock your device with your fingerprint or face. 
  • (Digital safety) Backup your data. Consider using a disposable phone instead of using your personal device.
  • (Digital safety) Install and use WhatsApp or Signal for secure communications. 
  • (Physical safety) Pack your bag appropriately. Make sure to have water, protective gear, first aid kit, portable battery for your devices. 
  • (Legal tip) If arrest is highly probable, make sure to have a lawyer’s name written on your arm. 

For considerations for how you should act during a protest, please read From Beirut To Minneapolis. This is a guide written by digital security experts from other regions of the world.

Protect Florida’s Journalists From Physical Harm

[Submitted for op-ed column, Tallahassee Democrat, April 3, 2019]

By Michelle Ferrier

I used to think that only foreign correspondents had to worry about violence as they reported from elsewhere on the front lines of war. Now, I know. Journalists are at risk in their own back yard.

This month, news of a database of U.S. journalists solicited by and created for the U.S. government circulated on Twitter. The tweets were barely noticed by users, amidst the tweets from the president of the United States calling journalists “enemies of the people” and “fake news.” The article barely registered in the Twittersphere as it streamed alongside of renewed calls for justice for Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist brutally murdered in Saudi Arabia last year. Or journalists inexplicably selected for extra scrutiny entering into or leaving the country. Because violence against journalists has become routine and attacks on journalists on social media and in real life have intensified because of the violent rhetoric coming from the White House.

Databases, such as the one the U.S. government has created, are tools of surveillance, designed to monitor the actions and work of journalists. But these databases can also be used to facilitate the movement of online threats into offline spaces.  It’s time to add journalists to the group of protected professions in state statutes around the country and remove personal, identifying information of journalists from public records.

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For journalists that have been doxed, where personally identifying information and addresses have been leaked on the web, these online threats take on a more horrific tone, as their lives and those of their family, are put at risk. I left Florida and the newsroom nearly 10 years ago because my life and my journalism work was being threatened through hate mail and digital channels.

Florida Statute 119.071 protects certain professionals from public scrutiny. It allows state residents who work in protected professions to opt-in to the removal of private information from property and voting records that show home address and other personal, identifying information. Police officers and judges are on the list. Social workers and bankers are on the list. When Florida legislators created the statute, journalists were considered…and voted off the final list.

Against a global backdrop that has changed significantly in the past five years both politically and digitally, social media threats and violent actions have created a hostile work environment for journalists here and abroad. They mirror the attacks on journalists in other far-right regimes as a tactic for intimidating and silencing journalists critical of the government. And it’s working. Not only has trust in the media hit new lows (PEW/Gallop Poll), but these threats affect the work of the journalist and the news-gathering enterprise.

In recent research I released in October 2018 with the International Women’s Media Foundation, more than 90 percent of women journalists indicate that online and physical threats have increased over the past five years. Eighty-two (82%) percent indicate that digital attacks are on the rise, including such activities as having social accounts hacked or data stolen or compromised. Many self-censor and seek to protect themselves and their families by staying away from issues that may inflame social networks. More than one-third of the women I surveyed indicated they had considered leaving the profession.

Cover of October 2018 report, Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting
Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting, Fall 2018.

As a journalism educator, I’m coaching my young students to use a pseudonym or pen name as they grow their professional careers. They don’t have a reputation yet, and they can create a fire break between the always on, professional persona they cultivate online, and their lives as private individuals. Journalists who have been using their real names online are much more exposed through these public records that often are easily accessible through government websites and third-party aggregators who scoop up such data for sale.

Before Khashoggi was murdered, his online profile was monitored. He was threatened. He was doxed. Before the Capital Gazette shootings, where five media workers were murdered in their newsrooms, there were letter, email and social media threats. The violence moved from online into physical space.

Journalists everywhere are under attack. But here in Florida and across the United States, we can help protect journalists from online and physical attacks by amending Florida Statute 119.071, F.S. that provides confidentiality to public records.

Michelle Ferrier, Ph.D., is the dean of the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida. She is also the founder of, online pest control for journalists.



Women Journalists Suffer Online Abuse in Silence for Fear of Retribution

A new research report, written by TrollBusters founder Dr. Michelle Ferrier, shows significant short- and long-term effects for women journalists facing online abuse, including changes to their reporting routines and censoring of topics covered. In most cases, this abuse goes unreported to management, as women journalists fear retribution, including removal from assignments and their jobs.


Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting, Fall 2018.

The Fall 2018 report, Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and their Reporting, released in conjunction with the International Women’s Media Foundation and with funding from the Craig Newmark Philanthropies, provides a sobering view of female journalists and the digital culture in which they do their work. These new findings, which detail the short- and long-term impact of online harassment on more than 600 individual journalists, freelancers, media workers and others, also illuminates the changing nature of the attacks. The survey was distributed to women journalists around the globe during January 2018- March 2018.

The survey examines both online and physical threats against journalists and was distributed in a year when journalists around the globe, and especially in the United States, saw the violence against journalists come to public attention and outcry. President Donald Trump of the United States has called the press “the enemy of the state,” creating a hostile work environment for journalists the world over. Recent attacks on the press in the United States, resulted in the June 28 killings of journalists at the Capital Gazette newspaper and the vicious murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A December 2, 2018 CNN news report points to intercepted WhatsApp messages that doomed Khashoggi as the Saudi government cracked down on dissenters:

Khashoggi_text-capture_god help us.

It is against this global backdrop that these 600 women journalists shared the myriad ways they are threatened and attacked online and off and the impact on their work. In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in the United States, female journalists the world over feel the constant pain of a hostile work environment. Women journalists receive daily threats via social media, email, and other digital forms. However, female journalists also fear surveillance of their online activities, with 37 percent citing surveillance as a concern. Another 26 percent have received unsolicited invitations of a sexual nature. Nearly a quarter of the respondents (21%) indicated that their family and friends had been threatened too. Nearly a quarter (24 percent), indicated that the online threats and harassment had interfered with or negatively impacted their career development.

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Key findings from the report:

  • Sixty-seven percent (67%) say that in the last five years, online threats or harassment are occurring much more often. The same number also say that physical attacks are on the rise as well, with attacks occurring more often in the past five years.
  • Women journalists report a variety of ways in which they are attacked and stalked online, in gendered, sexist ways. Sixty-five percent (65%)  indicate they have experienced sexist comments within the past year; 29 percent say they’ve received racist comments; 28 percent say someone has verbally attacked them to their face. Eighteen percent (18%) say they have been stalked in the past year.
  • Thirty-six percent (36%) cite concerns of psychological stress, while nearly half (48 percent) fear a loss of job or income.
  • More than 50 percent (52%) fear the loss of future employment opportunities.
  • More than a third (37%) say they avoided certain stories after online attacks.
  • Nearly a third (29%)  indicated they they thought about getting out of the field/profession.

For the full report, Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and their Reporting, download our PDF file: Attacks-and-Harassment_Fall-2018



Online News Association Workshop to Tackle Online Abuse

In conjunction with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the International Women’s Media Foundation, TrollBusters Founder Dr. Michelle Ferrier will be co-leading a workshop to develop strategic initiatives for female journalists under attack online. “Online Harassment of Female Journalists: From Impact to Action,” will be hosted on Thursday, September 13, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the J.W. Marriott Austin Hotel in Austin, Texas.

Building on the gap analysis Ferrier led at the Internet Freedom Forum, the invitation-only workshop will share a new report funded by the Craig Newmark Philanthropies on the impact of online and physical abuse on journalists. We will discuss policies, strategies, tactics and management best practices for addressing this persistent and dangerous issue.

Contact if you will be attending the Online News Association and have a contribution to bring to the dialogue.

Press Push Back Against President Trump


  • In an unusual move of coordinated action, newspapers across the United States shared editorials and commentary this week on the values of a free press, pushing back against President Donald Trump‘s attacks on the press as “enemies of the people.”
  • This is NOT a drill. White House correspondent April Ryan says she pays for a bodyguard, after repeated death threats. 
  • Many police departments post mugshots online to name and shame those arrested. Recently the online posts of Berkeley Police Department were used by websites coordinating White Lives Matter rallies to target protestors. The doxing of those who have been placed in public view causes their continued harassment. Read about our client and the continued fights over, the company using off-shore servers to continue to operate.
  • While alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars is in the center of a public debate about Internet platforms censoring content, these websites control public discourse  using algorithms that protect some offensive content while deleting other content.

  • Parents of children who were targeted at the Sandy Hook Elementary School are still trying to prove that the shooting wasn’t a hoax. Conspiracy theorists have been rampantly using the internet to spread misinformation about the incident but some websites are protecting these conspiracy attacks more than others.

  • When Orange is the New Black star Ruby Rose, an openly lesbian actress, was cast to play the lesbian Batwoman, it was a historic moment for queer representation in the media. That is until trolls harassed Rose so much, she quit Twitter.

  • In our men behaving very, very badly file, a pilot from United Airlines shared explicit photos of a flight attendant. The U.S. government is now suing United for creating a hostile work environment but United told Insider that it “will vigorously defend against this case.”