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.

PEN-National-Press-Club
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.

Alex-Harris_nutgraf

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

IN THE HEADLINES

  • 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]

ON YOUR TO-DO LIST

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

IN THE HEADLINES

  • 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]

ON YOUR TO-DO LIST

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.

TARS-Chatbot_text-window
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.

TrollBusters-infographic

 

 

 

An ounce of prevention…What you can do now.

IN THE HEADLINES

  • MarieClaire asks “Why is the Internet still an unsafe place for opinionated women?” The Mozilla Foundation Internet Health Report looks at digital inclusion, privacy and openness and what can be done.
  • The Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas-Austin surveyed 75 women journalists about their experiences with online abuse. They confirm what we know…daily nastiness on the web is part of the job.
  • Mosaic offers this interesting read (which was also picked up by CNN, Daily Mail and others) on how social media “amplifies the personal rewards of expressing outrage” and can make ordinary people mean.
  • Professors (and their families) are growing targets on online abuse, NPR reports.
  • At an Internews roundtable, Kenyan journalists said they were struggling both with overt threats and attacks where their own lives were in danger, and also with coping with the trauma that comes when “bearing witness to human suffering.” They said their media outlets had done little to assist with the impact of such traumatic experiences on their mental health.
  • The International Association of Women in Radio and Television summarizes two weeks of panels and workshops on online harassment at the Commission on the Status of Women in New York this March.

Listen to this 3-minute segment on TrollBusters and the #MeToo movement and why Dr. Michelle Ferrier, founder of TrollBusters, feels there’s a privilege to being able to speak out and there are many silenced stories that the #MeToo movement has left behind.

“For many, redress for these attacks are out of reach. It can be upwards of $50,000-$100,000 to bring a case to court to have your story be heard. Who has that kind of discretionary income?”

Share Your Social Media Policy With Us!

We believe that when media organizations require reporters to use their personal handles to promote their journalistic work, they also bear some responsibility for helping their reporters cope with or protect themselves against online harassment. We’re collecting social media policies from media outlets, and we’d love it if you would send us yours. We’re particularly interested in what personal information reporters must make public, how they are coached to respond to online harassment, and what resources, if any, are in place to assist. You can send policies to report@troll-busters.com.

Recommendations for Media Managers

Concerned about online harassment of journalists in your newsroom? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, with the help of TrollBusters, compiled a report on online abuse of female journalists. It offers concrete steps management can take to protect its reporters. Read our recap of the report’s recommendations.

ON YOUR TO-DO LIST

Resources to Keep You Safe

This week, check out these great resources on the web.

  • Written by longtime war correspondent Abeer Saady, the International Association of Women in Radio & Television’s “What If?…Safety Handbook for Women Journalists,” is a must-read. It includes a chapter on digital safety. Learn more about IAWRT’s safety guide.
  • Troll-Busters.com hosted a 2-½ hour session to create strategies for supporting women journalists online at Internet Freedom Forum. Attendees produced a gap analysis matrix of online threats and journalists and the organizations fighting to protect them.

It’s getting kind of…dicey. Rethinking risk for journalists

IN THE HEADLINES

  • A UNESCO panel at the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women reported that both online and offline attacks on women journalists are on the rise.
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists spoke to a dozen sources for this report on the dangers journalists (and their families) face offline when they report on white supremacists, often without digital security support.
  • For your #weekendreading: Amnesty International has issued a new report, Toxic Twitter – A Toxic Place for Women. Broken into eight interactive chapters, it’s a worthwhile, in-depth read.
  • Yes! We can feel it…Female politicians in Scotland call on Twitter to curtail attacks on women.
  • And Fast Company has two rich reads for you: their cover story, “DId We Create This Monster? How Twitter Turned Toxic” and “19 Ways Twitter Can Make Itself Safer Right Now.” The first looked at how the company’s ethos of free speech enabled trolls to thrive on the platform (with some help from lack of internal clarity and insufficient resources to combat trolls and bots). The second presented experts’ suggestions on pragmatic actions Twitter could take to reduce the degree to which it facilitates abuse.
  • The Michigan House moves to criminalize cyberbullying. Will the Michigan Senate take up the bill? A close look at the legislation.

 

POLL: Does your newsroom have a policy to deal with online harassment of reporters?

 

 

Yes

 

 

No

 

 

Not sure

 

TROLLBUSTERS IN THE NEWS

Michelle Ferrier speaks about online harassment on a panel at ONA in September 2015.

WATCH this ONA keynote featuring Michelle Ferrier and others. [September, 2015]

ON YOUR TO-DO LIST

Stay Safe Online

If you haven’t checked on the security of your personal information in awhile, take a moment to to safeguard against online abuse using TrollBusters’ digital hygiene course.

Then, check out these other great resources on the web.

  • This free MOOC on edX will teach you to “think like a hacker but behave as a security expert.”
  • Or, check out VAWnet, an online library of resources on gender-based violence.

Facebook DELETE? What should you do?

IN THE HEADLINES

Thinking you want to #deletefacebook? Here’s some advice from around the web.

  • Step one: If you’re not “utterly horrified” yet, this article in The Guardian will help. A Facebook whistleblower says he warned Facebook back in 2011 that it should protect user data better from third-party developers to avoid a “black market” for user data. He alleges executives consciously turned a blind eye to abuses.
  • So what might Facebook and all these third-party developers have on you? If you want a Flashback Friday on steroids (or just to archive your data before you delete your account), CNBC offers this primer on how to download the “entire history of your life on Facebook.”

  • Next, ask yourself, do you have what it takes (to delete rather than deactivate)? The Washington Post talked with people who tried.
  • As an additional anti-surveillance measure, you can block Facebook’s tracking with Privacy Badger, the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports.
  • A big reason Cambridge Analytica was able to exploit people’s data was because Facebook allowed third-party developers to access more user data than it should have. While what those apps can access has now been reduced to your name, profile and email address, you might also want to check which apps you’ve allowed to access your data in the past. You can see and delete apps you don’t trust under Settings / Apps. But note that, as CNNMoney explains, you may have to reach out to the app to have them delete your data on their end too.
  • If by now you’re entirely fed up, you can always pack your passport and move to Europe. There, a new law, the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), will take effect on May 25, 2018. It has profound ramifications for any company who does business in the EU (including U.S. companies like Facebook). Among other things, it gives consumers greater protection over and access to their data; imposes financial penalties for companies that fail to protect it; and requires active consent to companies’ data protection practices. WiredUK breaks it down for you.

TROLLBUSTERS IN THE NEWS

Gap Analysis Yields New Projects, New Partnerships

At the Internet Freedom Festival, Michelle Ferrier, founder of TrollBusters, led a design-thinking workshop of digital security advocates to identify needs and global activities. She used a matrix that examined impacts on journalists before, during and after an attack and the research, education, policy and technical work being done to support freedom of expression, digital security and other supports for journalists. Read more about the matrix of resources that emerged from the session (and how you can add to it).

Assess Your Threat–in Russian, Turkish and Hindi

TrollBusters Infographic Hindi

ON YOUR TO-DO LIST

Resources You Can Use

If you haven’t checked on the security of your personal information in awhile, take a moment to safeguard against online abuse using TrollBusters’ digital hygiene course.

Then, check out these other great resources on the web.

  • #HerNetHerRights, by the European Women’s Lobby, is a resource pack on ending violence against women and girls in Europe.
  • This Digital First Aid Kit from Rapid Response Network is available in six languages.

Gap Analysis Yields New Projects, New Partnerships

At the Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia Spain, the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Troll-Busters.com hosted a 2 ½ hour session to create strategies for supporting women journalists online.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier leads gap analysis.
Michelle Ferrier leads the workshop in crowdsourcing a gap analysis of organizations working in online abuse.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier, founder of TrollBusters and an associate professor in the E.W Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, led a design-thinking workshop of digital security advocates to identify needs and global activities. She used a matrix that examined impacts on journalists before, during and after an attack and the research, education, policy and technical work being done to support freedom of expression, digital security and other supports for journalists.

Attendees were invited to contribute organizations and projects working at the intersections of the matrix. Participants then suggested projects to serve gaps. Top projects were further developed in small groups, identifying concept, impact and next steps. If you would like your organization or project considered for this resource, please submit your recommendation to us using this form.

Gap Analysis: Online Threats and Journalists

 

  BEFORE ATTACK DURING ATTACK AFTER ATTACK OTHER
FRAMING Language/
Definitions
TrollBusters
Article 19Women’s Center for Global Leadership – Rutgers
Article 19

International Federation of Journalists

TrollBusters

Article 19

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

Committee to Protect Journalists

TrollBusters

Unions

 

RESEARCH TrollBusters

International Women’s Media Foundation

Google

U.S. Director of National Intelligence

International Federation of Journalists

Digital Rights Foundation Pakistan

 

Article 19

FLIP

International Women’s Media Foundation

FFR

TrollBusters

Article 19

International Women’s Media Foundation

Committee to Protect Journalists

TrollBusters

Fundacion Karisma

International Media Support

Reuters

Initiative for Freedom of Expression

TrollBusters

POLICY SEAJU Network of SE Asia

APC

Article 19

SCM

IFEX

TrollBusters

SAMSN Network of South Asia

Fundacion Karisma

Center for Independent Journalism-Hungary

Article 19

Women in Media Australia

TrollBusters

Article 19

Women’s Media Center

Reporters Sans Frontieres

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

TrollBusters

EDUCATION SecDev

MLDI

TrollBusters

International Association of Women in Radio and Television

 

Reporters Sans Frontieres

SecDev

Article 19

Women’s Media Center

TrollBusters

Dutch MFA

Sida: Swedish MFA SIF event

TECHNICAL Women’s Media Center

IREX Safe Project

Guardian Project

Ciber Seguras – Mexico

TrollBusters

Citizen Lab

TrollBusters

24/7

Committee to Protect Journalists

CitizenLab

Guardian Project

TACTICAL RESPONSE TrollBusters

 

 

TrollBusters

Guardian Project

Rory Peck Trust

Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma

HeartMob

Digital Defenders Program

Syria Response Group

Access Now

Digital Rights Foundation Pakistan

Lifeline-Civil Society Response for India

 

Access Now

Article 19

Fundacion Karisma

TrollBusters

Syria Response Group

Digital Defenders Program

Dart Center

Initiative for Freedom of Expression

Rory Peck Trust

OTHER IREX Safe

Fundacion
Karisma

 

 

 

Worthwhile Reading: IAWRT Safety Handbook for Women Journalists

“During my training sessions for female journalists in many countries, I noticed that online harassment is becoming one of the most reported sources of assaults and violations” Saady writes.

The International Association of Women in Radio & Television’s “What If?…Safety Handbook for Women Journalists,” is a must-read.IAWRT Safety Manual Cover
Released in November 2017 at the 37th Annual IAWRT Biennial conference, the guide was written by Abeer Saady, an IAWRT international board member, longtime war correspondent, and trainer for journalists reporting in conflict-ridden areas.

Over the course of 95 pages, Saady offers practical advice to women journalists who report in conflict zones or war-torn countries. She structures her tips around what she calls the “safety pyramid”: physical safety, psychosocial safety and digital safety.  

The safety manual covers issues like travel safety, rape as a weapon, psychosocial safety when interviewing survivors, dealing with surveillance and how to avoid being kidnapped. It also includes discussion of ethical decisions like whether or not to interview terrorists and how to avoid exposing your fixers, who may face deep consequences for helping you.

There’s also a section on strategies to deal with online harassment. The chapter offers brass-tacks advice from journalists who’ve been there (including a few tips from Michelle Ferrier, founder of TrollBusters).

You can download the full guide from the IAWRT website.

 

TrollBusters Represented at UN Commission on the Status of Women

IN THE HEADLINES

  • As her husband takes pot shots at the media via Twitter, First Lady Melania Trump hosted social media executives at the White House to discuss curbing online harassment this week. Unsurprisingly, Jimmy Kimmel had a field day with the news. And all we did was a simple search  >>>>

Donald Trump Tweet search

  • They may be famous, but celebs face trolling too. Celebrities talk about how they handle online shaming in the virtual spaces where they hoped to connect with fans.
  • A new study shows how online harassment deters women around the world from running for office.
  • The NetzDG law in Germany is a relatively new experiment in forcing social media companies to police abusive content online. Lawmakers are now pushing for a way to contest the takedown of legitimate content that may get blocked.
  • And a Pennsylvania lawmaker has a new solution to cyberbullying: fine the parents of the offender up to $750 per incident, The Washington Post reports.

TrollBusters Represented at UN Commission on the Status of Women

TrollBusters founder Michelle Ferrier was an invited panelist for two events hosted by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television at the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women: “Beyond a Pretty Face: Tackling Gender Bias in Media Industries,” and “MeTooOnline: Workshopping Solutions to Counter Cyber Violence Against Women.” She spoke about the chilling effect online harassment has on journalists and the offline and professional consequences of online misogyny and abuse of women journalists. READ MORE.

CSW panel
From left: Jennifer Adams, Project Officer for Safety of Female Journalists Online (#sofjo), Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Representative on Freedom of the Media; Dr. Michelle Ferrier, Founder of Troll-Busters.com; Dr. Dubravka Simonovic, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women; and Colleen Lowe, Chief Executive Officer, Gender Links of South Africa.

We ran out in Spain… and New York! And someone even took our sample:-( Our popular mobile cards are now available as a card deck. Each card describe types of online threats then provides guidance on what to do if you’re being harassed. Card packs are $5. Send an email to report@troll-busters.com if you’d like to buy a pack for yourself or for someone who needs help…or a hint.

ON YOUR DIGITAL TO-DO LIST

Use These Tools to Stay Safe Online

Safeguard against online abuse using TrollBusters’ digital hygiene course. Then, check out these other great resources on the web:

  • The Digital Security Helpline, from AccessNow, provides advice and emergency assistance for those at risk of attack online.
  • Digital and Mobile Security for Journalists and Bloggers, created by International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) Knight Fellow Jorge Luis Sierra, is now available in Arabic.