Extreme trolling leads journalist to fake death


The Oxygen of Amplification report cover

Last week, Data & Society released a new report by Whitney Phillips, The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators Online. The three-part guide looks at how the far-right leveraged trolling to disrupt the 2016 presidential election; the consequences of reporting on damaging information within the inherent limits of journalism; and best practices for newsrooms, when covering false information as well as online harassment and abusers. Read the report.


A Real-Life Horror Story of How a Toxic Girlfriend and Mugshots.com Destroyed This Photographer’s Life

Our own Barton Christner is no stranger to the offline consequences of being stalked and trolled in the digital space. In this blog post, he tells the story of his digital nightmare he experienced for years in the clutches of the internet injustice system of Mugshots.com and an internet vixen we call Darth Becky.

Mugshots.com Owners Arrested, Charged

Mugshots.com owners Sahar Sarid, Kishore Vidya Bhavnanie, Thomas Keesee, and David Usdan were arrested last week on charges of extortion, money laundering and identity theft. And we couldn’t be happier. Here’s why.


Learn Digital Self-Defense

Registration is now open for the first module in our upcoming series of webinars to help you defend and protect yourself online.

Orientation: Defense Against the Digital Dark Arts is a 1-1/2 hour guided tour through the dark web and digital security for journalists:

This 1 1/2-hour webinar, taught by Michelle Ferrier, provides an orientation to online abuse and digital security, the legal boundaries of online speech and ways in which journalists are exposed to online harassment. Participants will also generate their personal threat model and explore tools for protecting their digital reputation online and off. Register now.

Can’t wait to get started? Browse through our Digital Hygiene Course, 10-minute mini lessons on digital practices to keep online pests away.

Check out these and other lessons at Troll-Busters.org.

Tarred and Feathered for Life: Bart Christner and the Mugshot.com Effect

Your Honor, perhaps you can imagine how hard it was to begin to piece together my life without work and with websites like MugShot.com propagating my false arrest all over the internet…After paying to get my mugshot removed from these online sites, it simply crops up on another new site that extorts more money to remove my image. —Bart Christner

Dr. Michelle Ferrier, TrollBusters: The following statement was read into court records during one of the hearings of our client, Bart Christner. This story illustrates the long arm of Internet justice and the intended AND unintended consequences of Mugshots.com, as illustrated through this digital nightmare. We reported on the arrest of Mugshots.com owners here on charges of extortion and identity theft. Bart is now free from the stalking charges and gag orders of the court that prevented him from even sharing his story in his own defense. Here is his story of identity theft, revenge, and his stolen life.

January 2015 Statement to Judicial Court

DEFENDANT: Barton James Christner

CLAIMANT: Darth Beckyzilla of the Digital Underworld and Keeper of the Toxic White Tears, aka Becky [real name redacted by TrollBusters].

DEFENDANT: Your Honor, please allow me to read this statement into the court record. Because I have been unable to afford or get legal counsel, I am representing myself in court today to try to clear my name. This is an emotional issue for me because as I hope to demonstrate to you today, that I am the actual victim in this case.

I am here today because of a personal vendetta against me begun by [hereafter referred to as Becky] in 2010 that continues today. She has perpetrated this vendetta both online an off with a series of restraining orders against me, coupled with imposter social media profiles that have defamed my character by linking me to child pornography. Over the past three years, Becky has destroyed my identity, my reputation, and my ability to support my family. She has succeeded in persecuting me, beyond understanding and reason, to try to destroy my marriage and my life.

She stole images of my friend’s 9-year-old daughter, posted them to the fake site and typed “SEX” as the status, implicating me in child pornography.

Becky is a woman scorned. I believe I can demonstrate today that these malicious actions stem from an emotionally unstable woman who felt spurned when I left her to date another woman. Not just another woman, but an African-American woman who I married months after I left Becky. Becky has threatened my life and that of my wife. In Becky’s eyes, I added insult to injury when I left her by marrying as she writes in this letter “that black slave bitch.”

Your Honor, this letter was left on my car months after I left Becky. Becky and I had dated in 2010 for a period of six months. During that time, I taught as an assistant professor at a local college, traveling to other countries to do training in photography and digital media. But I also sensed something wasn’t right with Becky, and in August 2010, I broke up with her. Becky confronted me in public at a restaurant after our breakup where in a drunken tirade she berated me, beat me and destroyed my camera and computer equipment. She called the police, claiming it was I that attacked her. But eyewitnesses and restaurant videotape proved her to be a liar. I filed a criminal mischief [charge] against her. In exchange for dropping the charges, she agreed to replace my destroyed equipment and invited me to her home to pick it up. I had no idea this would be the beginning of her revenge plan. Nor did I have any idea of the web of lies Becky would use to destroy me.

When I picked up the replacement equipment at Becky’s home, Becky cornered me in the garage as I was packing up my things and threatened me that if I left, I would be sorry. She then refused to open the garage door and called the police. While safely standing on her garage steps, she proceeded to detail to police a hysterical story that I was attacking her. She emphasized her small size and that she felt threatened, but when questioned by the dispatcher, she became unclear as to why she did not leave the garage and seek safety. The police came to her home, questioned the both of us, then said that one of us had to go to the police station. The police believed that I was the aggressor and booked me on assault charges. She used this first arrest to perpetuate a series of stalking charges and extensions against me in criminal court that have been proven false after a 1 ½ year investigation. Her niece who was living with her at the time of this alleged assault, first told a story supporting her aunt. She later recanted and supported my version of the story. However, Becky has filed in family court with the same stalking charges, which is why we are here today.

The arrest from that day resulted in the police mug shot that Becky used in generating several fake social media profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn under variations of my name. She created eight total over a period of two years. The first appeared on Dec. 2013, with the mug shot from that 911 call in her garage as the profile picture. Becky began posting innocuous status updates, luring my friends to “refriend” her. Then her posts turn to a more sinister side. She solicited money from my friends under my name. She stole images of my friend’s 9-year-old daughter, posted them to the fake site and typed “SEX” as the status, implicating me in child pornography. She contacted my tenure committee chair at the university where I had received glowing support from top leaders. I was ultimately denied tenure and my contract was not renewed. I lost my job.

If you look closely at the profiles, you can see that they implicate me as a child sex molester. I think it’s crazy, as Becky claims, that I created these websites myself. Why would I, as a professional photographer, use an unflattering mugshot of myself? Why would I implicate myself in the serious charge of child pornography? If law enforcement really believed that I had created these sites, Your Honor, they would have already been at my door with a search warrant and had me behind bars.

Your Honor, perhaps you can imagine how hard it was to begin to piece together my life without work and with websites like MugShot.com propagating my false arrest all over the internet. I left the state and moved to Pennsylvania, where I started a job working for the Washington Arts Council and maintained a long-distance relationship with my girlfriend.

But Becky wasn’t through with me yet. She wrote letters to my employer and posted comments online, implicating me in child pornography. She wrote additional handwritten letters. Her activity both online and off escalated when I became engaged to my girlfriend on engaged in 2011 and again when I married her on January 1, 2014.

Becky left additional handwritten notes on my vehicles parked in my driveway in [redacted]. Here, she apologizes for what she has done and admits to her actions and asks that I come back to her, after my engagement. The earlier letter I showed was also delivered to my home. These letters match the handwriting of court statements she has written in my case. She even is consistent in her misspellings, a trademark she leaves in these documents as well as online comments that point to her as the creator of these imposter online sites.

Becky has perpetuated this web of lies for more than three years. She lied to the arresting officer at [redacted] Restaurant and was caught in that lie by eyewitnesses, the deputy himself and video from the restaurant. She lied in the 9-1-1 call to police from her home. She lied in subsequent court documents and in court, using these old unsustained charges to perpetuate a veneer of stalking she attributes to me. Your Honor, I don’t understand what stable person would persist in this type of activity, even after my marriage to my wife nearly two years after leaving the relationship with Becky.

Her vicious actions include the death threats to me and my wife and have extended over the past three years. I went from making more than $100,000 a year to the job I currently hold in County Schools making $20,000 a year. She has contacted my employers and my photography clients, destroying by ability to earn an income. I have spent time living out of my car because she has destroyed my reputation and my ability to hold a job.

Because of the continued extensions on the stalking charges, I was never able to file my own charges against her. While she has sought protection from the courts and received legal support for her supposed domestic violence, she has pursued me both online and off in a vendetta to destroy my life. As the actual victim of her stalking, I’ve been denied legal support and the ability to even clear my own name. After paying to get my mugshot removed from these online sites, it simply crops up on another new site that extorts more money to remove my image. I sought assistance from County Detectives on October 2014 to get a subpoena to reveal the origins of the computer that created the fake profiles. After a year in which these detectives indicated they were investigating my case, I have no subpoena, no support for helping clear my name, and am denied the legal assistance I might have been afforded by the courts because I am seen as the perpetrator here and not the victim.

Becky would have you believe that I am stalking her, both online and physically. However, it is Becky that has maintained a relationship with me, as the evidence presented has shown. Becky would claim that I’ve communicated with her via her friends and former associates. My only reason for contacting anyone associated with Becky is to have them step forward to help me clear my name. That includes current and former friends as well as media organizations that I have asked to help me with my counterclaims. Becky would claim that this contact is emotional distress to her. I can imagine how she would believe this as it exposes all her lies to her friends and family.

Becky has since gone on with her life in the past three years, dating other men both single and married. She has used the “domestic violence” ploy before, with her ex-husband and subsequent boyfriends. When Becky doesn’t get her way, she has played the police and the courts against those who have wronged her, both the innocent and those that went on to run afoul of the law. And some of these people are truly dangerous folks. They have been arrested for drug trafficking, assault and murder. They are associated with organized crime. Becky travels in very dark circles.

Our mutual friends are terrified of Becky, which is why it has been difficult to get anyone to court to testify on my behalf. Many of these people still live in [] and [] Counties. Many have had their own experiences with Becky and are afraid of the people with whom she is associated, including local law enforcement, former elected officials along with the string of unsavory people associated with Becky outlined in the document I presented. They are afraid of retaliation because of the way in which Becky has systematically and persistently sought to destroy my life. However, I have letters from friends and employers that demonstrate my professionalism and honesty in these proceedings.

Your Honor, my wife and my friends are terrified to come forward because of Becky and her associates. My wife and I have seven children between us and we are afraid for our family and our lives. My wife is not here today because she is paralyzed by the evil and racial hate that Becky represents. She just hopes that this will all go away. But three years later, here we are and I don’t believe Becky will stop until she destroys my marriage through her stalking actions or by death to my wife or me.

As I mentioned earlier, I sought assistance from County Police to help investigate my case. I’ve provided them with some of the evidence I’ve show here today. But when I showed up to understand why I was undergoing yet another hearing to extend Becky’s stalking charges, I was locked up in jail for 5 days, extradited to County where a judge finally looked at the paperwork and released me immediately. I lost my job yet again and it was only through external references that I was able to regain my job.

In the past three years, I have not had contact with Becky. All contact has been initiated by Becky, both online and off. I have just sought to build support for my case and try to regain my name, my reputation and my life.

Your honor, I have documents to support each of the events in the timeline I’ve presented here today. I have reached out to friends, law enforcement and the media to help me stop this harassment. And yet here I stand today, for the fourth time, still defending myself against these spurious charges by Becky and her attorney. Please your Honor. Take a look at the documents I’ve provided here to support my version of the story. All I am trying to do is clear my name. I ask that you give me that opportunity today by denying Becky any further manipulations of the law and the courts. Please deny her this extension of the restraining order on stalking.

—End of Statement—

Transcript of Final Two Minutes of Bart’s Final Hearing and Judge’s Apology

Audio transcript from Bart Christner’s (B) final hearing on stalking charges, with the state (S) and the judge (J) agreeing to a nolle prosse or “do not prosecute” or all charges dismissed. The judge apologizes to Christner for the stress of being dragged into court again saying “Unfortunately, the system is not perfect.”


UPDATE FROM BART CHRISTNER: “January 2018 I was contracted as a media expert in a court room to validate a video had not been edited or retouched. The father in the divorce and custody case was an attorney and he Googled my name, and found and printed my mugshot pulled from mugshots.com. In April 2018, the father submitted these mugshot images to the custody judge saying that, ‘Bart Christner is a man with a checkered past and should not be allowed near my son.’ The judge – despite nolle prosse [do not prosecute from prior charges]- upheld the father’s wish…

…Tarred and feathered for life — because my mugshot is posted on Mugshots.com.”

Bart Christner is a photographer living in Mugshots.com Land, barely making it by.

We’re Celebrating the Dragging of Mugshots.com’ Owners on Twitter

Mugshots.com owners Sahar Sarid, Kishore Vidya Bhavnanie, Thomas Keesee, and David Usdan were arrested last week on charges of extortion, money laundering and identity theft. Their online platform featured public record mug shots of those who encounter the U.S. justice system, whether on warrant or spurious charges. Those people featured in these mug shots are required to pay removal fees to get the images taken down, with some costs up to $400.

Mugshots-com home screenMugshots-dot-com_owners

While the Mugshots.com features a Federal Credit Reporting Act disclaimer saying the information on the site should not be used for credit, employment or other decisions, the website has in fact operated as such, ruining lives as its owners pocketed more than $2 million in removal fees from desperate people featured on the site.

TrollBusters worked with our client, a White male photographer who worked teaching at a Southeastern university and doing photography for a local newspaper, who briefly dated a White woman. She ruined our client’s life using Mugshots.com imagery, imposter sites and a combination of physical stalking charges to discredit, dishonor and destroy our client’s life. We’ll call this woman Becky for short. Her full name is Darth Beckyzilla of the Digital Underworld and Keeper of the Toxic White Tears. But Becky for our purposes.

Here is Bart Christner’s story as told to two of the judges that he’d been hauled in front of by Becky. TrollBusters worked with Bart to present his case to law enforcement, the courts, employers and others to regain his reputation. MugShots.com preyed on people like Bart Christner and exploited his reputation for their profit.

Today, Bart’s photo is still on Mugshots.com, right where the mug shots of Sahar Sarid, Kishore Vidya Bhavnanie, Thomas Keesee, and David Usdan should be. As of this post, Mugshots.com has stopped updating its website.

Bart’s Story: Tarred and Feathered for Life:
Bart Christner and the Mugshot.com Effect

BELOW: Witness Letter-TrollBusters, December 9, 2015.

Letter to the courts on behalf of TrollBusters’ client, Bart Christner.
Letter to the courts on behalf of TrollBusters’ client, Bart Christner.

Beware the Baby Data: How GDPR Privacy Changes Affect Users, Businesses

Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, chair of the CNIL (French Data Protection Authority), discusses the goals of the GDPR at “10 Days Before GDPR” at RightsCon Toronto on May 17, 2018.

“Alexa, turn off the lights. Read me a bedtime story…”

This innocuous command may someday be used to determine the insurance eligibility of the user. Research has shown that children who stay up late have behavioral and academic problems. User data, combined with other identifiable data about bedtimes and sleep habits could be used in scenario modeling or algorithms that determine health insurance or risk for other financial and employment-enabled uses.

The mash up of big data makes these scenarios highly possible.

It’s this secondary use of your private data that the new General Data Protection Regulation seeks to protect. In a nutshell, GDPR protects consumer data collected by the private sector and gives users authority to control further uses. The regulation emanates from the European Union to provide protections for its various member states’ citizens. However, the GDPR affects companies collecting data from international users – including media companies and social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

New general data protection regulations can enforce penalties on companies that do not secure user data against disclosure, loss or theft. Clear consent must be provided and a verified trail of proof of security.

Facebook and Twitter have recently released new privacy guidelines, in advance of the GDPR that takes effect on Friday, May 25. You may have noticed the updates to privacy terms on platforms like Hootsuite or MailChimp.

Twitter privacy update image with bullet points on what is protected.

Dr. Ann Cavoukian is a three-term privacy commissioner of Ontario and a distinguished expert-in-residence leading the Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence at Ryerson University. Cavoukian developed the privacy by design framework that is the basis of the GDPR regulations.

“Privacy is not about secrecy…it’s about control and the uses of data that the user has consented to. GDPR shifts from model of negative consent –to find the opt-out box for data collection,” Cavoukian said. “But it doesn’t mean people don’t want privacy. With GDPR, it’s privacy by default, it’s the exact opposite…companies cannot use your data except for the original intended purpose.”

On May 17, Cavoukian spoke at RightsCon in Toronto on the panel “10 Days Before GDPR” to discuss implications of the new EU policies. She was joined on the panel by Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, chair of the CNIL-French Data Protection Authority; Joe McNamee, executive director of European Digital Rights and Jeremy Rollison, vice chair of Microsoft’s digital economy committee. Estelle Masse, senior policy analyst with Access Now moderated the panel.

Rollison said in the digital age data is fertile. “It gets together with other data and makes babies. Beware the baby data,” he said.

Cavoukian said in the days of ubiquitous computing through the Internet of Things, the cases coming to her center were a fraction of what was actually happening…the majority were evading our detection.”

Recent examples of data breaches and data use that compromised users include Edward Snowden and the leak of classified government surveillance programs, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s use of user data, the breach of Equifax credit reporting and Anthem Insurance data.

“Privacy control has enormous societal value, “ said Cavoukian. “You cannot have freedom without it.”

Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin Chair, CNIL (French Data Protection Authority)

Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin Chair, CNIL (French Data Protection Authority)Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, chair of CNIL, the French Data Protection Authority, shared the three main objectives of the GDPR:

1) “Make sure citizens recognize their rights,” she said. “In European countries, we’ve provided resources to ensure new possibilities for action.”

2) “A private sector understanding of the provisions of GDPR to make sure the guidelines are understood by all;” and,

3) “New way of cooperation will work through the data protection authorities to enforce the guidelines.”

What is new in the process is the data protection authority network from which civil society may seek redress for violations of the GDPR. It is an operational network to receive complaints and make common decisions. Early rulings from the data protection authorities will clarify compliance and consequences spelled out, like interpretations of “legitimate interest,” the legal language in the regulation that defines the primary use of data.

The GDPR is a hybridization of EU concepts and privacy principles borrowed from other countries: privacy by design principles are adopted from Canada and accountability principles have been adopted from the U.S. Even though Canada and the United States have not signed on to the GDPR, efforts are being made to extend these principles globally. The campaign #GDPRFORALL is advocating for these privacy protections to be available all over the world.

Rollison asks whether the rest of the world is prepared to NOT have a GDPR-type policy in place.

“One half of U.S. households refrained from using certain apps or services for fear of privacy issues…there’s a chill on discourse because of privacy and security fears,” Rollison said. “Is the U.S. prepared NOT to have laws in place?” he asks.

Template: How to Write GDPR Privacy Notices

Twitter’s focusing on behavioral cues to tackle online abuse


  • Twitter is tweaking its algorithms to weed out more online abuse. Chief exec Jack Dorsey explains to The Guardian that “The spirit of the thing is that we want to take the burden off the person receiving abuse or mob-like behavior.
  • You can’t just ignore (all) the trolls, says this writer, who talks about women in sports and online harassment.
  • A new report suggests more governments are using trolls, bots and others to distribute propaganda, alter public opinion, distort the facts and crack down on opposition.
  • Is a university responsible for protecting its students from online harassment through a third-party app? A court weighs the issue.
  • Psychology Today looks at the psychological toll of cyberstalking.
  • The International Association of Women in Radio and Television summarizes two weeks of panels and workshops on #onlineharassment at the #CSW62 in New York this March.
  • BBC Woman’s Hour has started a series, Takeback ConTroll, covering stories of women who have experienced online abuse.

#RightsCon in Toronto

RightsCon is happening now in Toronto, a conference about human rights in a digital age. Follow the hashtag #RightsCon to see discussion about algorithms, bots, identity and human rights. On Thursday, May 17, Dr. Michelle Ferrier, founder of TrollBusters.com, will be speaking at “Take Back the Net: Innovations in Tackling Online Hate and Harassment.”
The conversation will focus on the global aspects of online harassment, particularly for journalists and other thought leaders. As the internet and social media become increasingly essential to our lives and careers, online hate speech and harassment remain rampant, with evidence that they’re having a chilling effect in our online communities. With tech companies unable to effectively meet the needs of each individual targeted by hate on the internet, innovative intermediary groups have risen up, employing a diverse array of effective tactics to combat hate, silence harassers, and give power back to internet users themselves. This panel discussion will feature the ingenious innovators who have stepped in to offer solutions to an endemic problem that tech companies are still struggling to solve, offering a ray of hope that our online communities might one day become safer and more inclusive for all.


Should Students Consider Pseudonyms?
Student journalists are under attack by trolls seeking to derail them from their journalism careers. Gershon Harrell of Kent State University, looks at the issue and talks with Dr. Michelle Ferrier about why she advocates pseudonyms for women journalists in the face of online hate.


LISTEN as WVXU’s Mark Heyne talks with TrollBusters founder Michelle Ferrier about her work in fighting online harassment. [May 2016]


Secure Your Digital Property

Our 16-lesson Digital Hygiene Course offers quick tips to help you protect your digital presence. This week, take these steps:

Check out these and other lessons at Troll-Busters.org.

If You Can’t #BeBest, #BeOriginal…Are We #Winning?


  • Freelancers need protection too, writes Elisabet Cantenys in Open Society Foundations. Freelancers are especially vulnerable as their next job depends on their reputation…EVERY…SINGLE…TIME.
  • Justin Trudeau and a host of Canadian leaders call out social media platforms to discuss the online harassment experiences of women leaders, particularly’s Alberta Premier @RachelNotley who has received death threats via social media.

  • U.S. First Lady Melania Trump officially launched her Be Best cyberbullying campaign on Monday, saying “Together, I believe we should strive to provide kids with the tools they need to cultivate their social and emotional health.” She quickly got dragged on Twitter for plagiarism for having cannibalized an Obama-era online safety campaign booklet as the New York Times reports. #Sad.
  • Groundviews is running a long-form series on online harassment and its chilling effect on women in politics.
  • The student government president at American University is suing Andrew Anglin of neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer for coordinating a troll storm against her on social media, The Washington Post reports.

  • Instagram has added a filter it says will help combat harassment on its platform.
  • Wired writes about the complexity and promise of detecting online hate speech with artificial intelligence.

Tackling Online Hate and Harassment at RightsCon

Next week, founder of TrollBusters Michelle Ferrier will speak on a panel at RightsCon Toronto. The “Take Back the Net: Innovations in Tackling Online Hate and Harassment” session will highlight organizations battling the chilling effect online harassment has on journalists, women, people of color and others. The panelists will discuss efforts to solve online abuse, even as tech companies struggle to find solutions. Check out all the themes of RightsCon Toronto from May 16-18.

Ferrier will be sharing work that is building on the gap analysis developed at the Internet Freedom Festival in March 2018.

WATCH as founder of TrollBusters Michelle Ferrier speaks on a panel at CUNY J-School’s Social Media Weekend about supporting journalists in the face of online harassment. [June, 2016]

World Press Freedom Day | May 3, 2018

WPFD This is Africa post
According to the United Nations, World Press Freedom Day is a day to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, assess the state of press freedom throughout the world, defend the media from attacks on their independence and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in their line of duty#WPFD,  on May 3, 2018 inspired and informed us. Here are our top ten tweets from this year’s campaigns for safety and freedom of expression.

Above: @ThisIsAfricaTIA tweeted 10 things to know about World Press Freedom Day. Number 3 on their list: Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that everyone “has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to see, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

And below, our nine favorite tweets of #WPFD that help describe the deadly issues of press freedoms and the new states of media oppression growing in the United States and around the globe. We especially call out the work of Nighat Dad and Digital Rights Pakistan in providing safety for women journalists.

World Press Freedom Day tweet from Article 19
World Press Freedom Day tweet from IFEX
World Press Freedom Day tweet from Antonio Rodriguez
World Press Freedom Day tweet from Mokumnews
World Press Freedom Day tweet from Johanna Carrillo
World Press Freedom Day tweet from CPJ
World Press Freedom Day tweet from Soonfeed Europe


Here’s What You Can Do

What can you do today to make yourself safer online and off? Clean up your digital footprint with our 16-lesson Digital Hygiene Course.

  • Lesson 3: HTTPS everywhere
  • Lesson 4: Anonymous “Tor” cloaks and VPNs

Check out these and other lessons at Troll-Busters.org.

Trolling the News: How Algorithms, Bots and Smart Mobs Target Journalists

WASHINGTON, DC — Canary in a coal mine. That’s how one Ohio University journalism professor describes herself when she began to talk about the online abuse she received more than 15 years ago as a newspaper columnist. However, today’s brand of social media intimidation, she says, can be swift and painful. And the techniques used today have been refined over the years to specifically target journalists.

Suzanne Nossel, of PEN America, moderates a panel on Trolling the News with panelists Dr. Michelle Ferrier of TrollBusters, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, Soraya Chemaly of the Women’s Media Center, Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times, and Julia Ioffe of The Atlantic at the National Press Club on March 27, 2018.

She knows. Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters, a rescue service for journalists against online abuse. On April 27, she spoke about the changing digital attacks on journalists at the National Press Club where she was joined by Ohio University alum Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, Soraya Chemaly of the Women’s Media Center, Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times, and Julia Ioffe of The Atlantic . The four convened for a panel,“ Trolling the News: Protecting Journalists from Online Harassment,” hosted by PEN America and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, moderated the session. She offered sobering news:

“We see so many attacks on the press …their work is to report and to expose and to hold accountable which could not be more critical at this moment. But they need allies,” said Nossel. At the event, PEN America released its Online Harassment Field Guide, a new tool to help writers and journalists protect themselves from online abuse.

Ferrier says what we are now seeing online is a visible tip of what has been underground for years. When she searched for the origins from her own attacks, she found that hate mail was a tactic used by white supremacist groups to instill fear. Ferrier described the recent example of a Florida journalist who used social sourcing to reach out to victims in the Parkland high school shooting. Her tweets were altered to look as if she was racially biased in her reporting.


Ferrier said the fake tweets, smart mobs and bot attacks are designed to create fear and intimidation and to discredit the work of journalists. “If they can sow mistrust, if they can isolate and separate people and have them fighting among each other…they’ve done their job because then we don’t get the deep reporting that we need. We don’t have those diverse voices in the media.”

Ferrier started TrollBusters three years ago as she observed a rise in targeted activity against journalists. She provides just-in-time coaching and tools to journalists under attack.

“Unless it’s happened to you before, you don’t really understand the consistent, persistent nature of what’s happening. Fifty tweets an hour… 100 tweets an hour coming at you. There’s a chilling effect that happens both on the individual journalist and on their ability to gather and report news,” she said.

Lowery described the types of online attacks he endured during reports on Ferguson, Missouri for the Washington Post:

“What we saw were especially from these kind of online, far-right figures. There were these sustained harassment campaigns. Every time you would open your phone, the would be thousands upon thousands of new interactions – bad faith interactions, fabricated interactions.”

Fifty tweets an hour… 100 tweets an hour coming at you. There’s a chilling effect that happens both on the individual journalist and on their ability to gather and report news.

The panelists discussed potential solutions, but found that the technology solutions are limited, while the attackers and their methods keep evolving. Chemaly described the shift from text to pictures that makes it difficult for machine-learning algorithms to discern hate speech and threats.

“If you are a woman or a person of color, the harassment that you get is often in images, not words,” said Chemaly. “So memes, pornographic videos and deep fakes – all of those are not captured in the current attempts to solve the problem by looking at text,” Chemaly said.

Ferrier said even the blocking and content reporting functions can be compromised.

“They are weaponizing the very tools designed to help us. And so whether it’s blocking tools, organized smart mobs on 4Chan and 8Chan or Reddit are using different dark web channels to go after people who haven’t done anything and report them.”

The attackers flag content or block en masse, triggering an automatic account suspension. The target must challenge these reports to the platforms, which are oftentimes slow to respond, Ferrier said.

“Women and women journalists of color have experienced this silencing tactic,” Ferrier said. “When social media is your avenue for engaging with your readers or viewers and you no longer have an account, that affects your work and it affects your ability to earn a living.”

Reporters Without Borders recently downgraded U.S. on its press freedoms from 43 place to 45 out of 180 countries because of the high-profile media bashing in the past year. Unfortunately, Ferrier says, it’s working. “Whether it is through content that’s manipulated in a way to paint the journalist in a bad light or through explicit sexualized video or death threats, the whole purpose of all this activity is to discredit the media and its ability to be effective in speaking truth to power.”

Oh, the lengths to which we have to go…#ShePersisted


  • She had to copyright her breasts to fight revenge porn, but #shepersisted. This month, represented by The Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project, an unnamed woman won her lawsuit against an ex who was spreading her naked pics online. She was awarded $6.45 million.
  • What we’re watching: The attorney for MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid (@joyannreid) says Reid’s decades-old The Reid Report was hacked to insert homophobic slurs into old blog posts. The embattled TV journalist is currently fighting for her reputation and has taken her case to the FBI.
  • The highly anticipated independent film Netizens debuted last weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film highlights three women’s experiences with online harassment and abuse. Go to the film’s website to request a screening for your organization.
  • Journalists, it’s unethical to ignore your online security, says this op-ed on Poynter.
  • And Salon offers this piece on How the U.S. Became Troll Nation.
  • This new study, by assistant professor Gina Masullo Chen, at the University of Texas, along with Paromito Pain and Victoria Y. Chen, looked at how online harassment affects female journalists in multiple countries.
  • A bipartisan bill in Michigan could make cyberbullying a felony if it includes a continuous pattern of harassment that leads to serious injury or suicide.
  • And new software from MIT, SquadBox, will combat cyberbullying.

Event: The National Press Club, Washington, DC

Trolling the News: Protecting Journalists from Online Harassment

If you’re in the D.C. metro, don’t miss this event from The National Press Club and PEN America. TrolllBusters founder Dr. Michelle Ferrier is part of the discussion, alongside Soraya Chemaly of the Women’s Media Center, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and other journalists.

WATCH as TrollBusters founder Michelle Ferrier speaks as part of the Safety of Female Journalists Online project for The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. [February, 2018]


Online Harassment Field Manual

Our friends at PEN America have put together this handy “digital field manual” for writers and their employers, to help them prepare for and combat online abuse. The section on legal considerations is particularly useful in knowing how to document incidents.

In other resources:

  • Feminist Frequency has this guide to protecting yourself from online harassment. It comes in Arabic, English and Spanish.
  • And check out this list of victim resources, from the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

Our new chatbot helps you navigate online abuse


  • Misogynistic abuse, particularly of women journalists, is “tediously predictable” says a recent report about the online harassment of women on the Australian Broadcast Corporation.
  • It seems Facebook likes watching. When complete strangers were rating this woman on “how f*ckable she is, she couldn’t gain access to the private group and couldn’t get Facebook to shut it down.
  • Predating #MeToo movement, this Wall Street Journal article describes the long-term effects of online abuse after Whitney Wolfe Herd took on Silicon Valley and Tinder.
  • Abortion fundraisers are suing several entities they say were behind a “multipronged cyberattack,” which hacked their websites, stole donors’ identity and banking information, instigated a DDOS attack on their website and subjected them to harassment from extremists. They are alleging violation of The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act as well as the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.
  • top lawyer in Australia says victims of cyberbullying should have the opportunity to sue the platforms that allow it to persist.
  • Cyberbullying is now punishable with jail time and/or a fine in West Virginia thanks to the passage of Grace’s Law, which goes into effect in June.
  • And PBS NewsHour recently asked “Is the U.S. Doing Enough to Fight Russia’s Troll Factory?”

Get Just-in-Time Support
Our Artificial Intelligence Chatbot is Jane On-The-Spot

From our website at http://www.troll-busters.com or from our Facebook page, our AI-powered chatbot will give you immediate coaching on what to do next in an online attack. We’ll lead you through a series of questions to direct you to just what to do when you’re under attack.

WATCH TrollBusters founder Michelle Ferrier speaks on a panel for The International Association of Women in Radio & Television, “#MeTooOnline: Workshopping Solutions to Counter Cyber Violence Against Women.” [MARCH 2018]


Lock It Down!

What are you doing to protect yourself from hackers, trolls, and corporate and government surveillance?

These resources will help guide your efforts.

  • The Center for Investigative Journalism offers this handbook on information security for journalists.
  • Digital rights technologist Gem Barrett goes through tactics and tech tools for fighting online harassment in this post on Medium.

Chatbot Provides AI-Powered Coaching for Online Attacks

50 different Twitter threats an hour. One woman journalist was overwhelmed at the threatening tweets coming at her from different users. Combatting the online activity quickly took over her work plan for the day. She turned to TrollBusters for help.

chatbot-e1524061535359.jpegTrollBusters new chatbot, linked on www.troll-busters.com’s Chat and on our Facebook page message button, helps direct journalists to immediate resources to combat online abuse. The bot responds to users answers about the type of abuse they are experiencing and provides technical, psychological and platform-specific strategies for counteracting attacks.

TrollBusters chatbot

Much of TrollBusters’ work has been about addressing just-in-time interventions to diminish the effects of online abuse. While women in general experience misogynistic attacks online, women journalists face a different dynamic because they are targeted as “public figures” and as women. Organized attacks, by anonymous smart mobs, or swarm activity by a frenzied, viral tweet, online abuse can quickly devolve with immediate, long-term impact on a journalist and her work.

“We’ve learned from our work with women journalists that this abuse can be fast and furious,” TrollBusters founder Dr. Michelle Ferrier said. “Our interventions are designed to quickly monitor and address troll activity so that we diminish the duration and frequency of attacks.”

TrollBusters worked with Lisa Williams to design the beta chatbot using the TARS platform. Williams describes the development process in a series of posts on GitHub. The bot is designed after TrollBusters’ popular infographic, “Online Abuse: What to Do? Where to Go?” that provides a threat analysis and resources to combat attacks.  The infographic is available in English, Spanish, Hindi, Russian, and Turkish. The TrollBusters chatbot is available in English.