Disinformation – A Troll’s Favorite Weapon

Trolls are mounting increasingly vitriolic attacks against women journalists. One of their most effective tactics is spreading disinformation thus undermining the reporter’s professional integrity. Here is how women media professionals can manage their reputation online.

By Ruby Winter, Team TrollBusters

Today, journalists around the globe have to navigate a heated online environment rife with digital conspiracy networks and political polarisation. In this hostile virtual territory, if a journalist reports a story that opposes the beliefs held by an online troll, they often attack that journalist in groups with abuse.

Journalist Marianna Spring uses Twitter to talk about her current threats and to clap back against her attackers. Here is a tweet from the reporter about how trolls are trying to harm her credibility.

In April 2021 UNESCO published a research paper titled ‘The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists.’ According to this survey of 901 journalists from 125 countries, in gendered online violence, coordinated disinformation campaigns based on misogynistic ideas and using hate speech are commonly used by trolls. They weaponize false and misleading content to erode public trust in critical journalism, thus bringing the credibility of a journalists’ reporting into question. They also manipulate search results on websites such as Google or YouTube and post a barrage of disinformation content created to malign or discredit the targeted journalists — overwhelming their professional reporting. In the paper’s findings, a staggering 41% of the women journalists surveyed said they had been targeted in online attacks which seemed to be linked to disinformation campaigns. Diana Maynard, Senior Researcher at the University of Sheffield and one of the authors of the paper says, “Even highly acclaimed international journalists are not immune, and the phenomenon ultimately has devastating consequences for journalism as a profession and ultimately for democracy itself.”

Journalist Maria Ressa from the Philippines has been a target of vicious online harassment campaigns. Image credit: Copyright 2019. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

In this toxic information ecosystem, most employers ask journalists to censor their speech or worse, blame the victim. But this is certainly not a solution.

Erasing data

One landmark victory in online security is the ‘right to be forgotten’ which empowers individuals to ask organisations to delete their personal data. This law was passed in the European Union and the regulation was put into effect on May 25, 2018. Titled General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it is an online privacy law. The 99 Articles and 173 Recitals of the Regulation signal a firm stance on data privacy and security but are vague in nature. 

In the Regulation (EU) 2016/679 (General Data Protection Regulation), the right to be forgotten appears in three places. However, these guidelines are more applicable for practices where tech companies collect and process data. Recital 65 states that a person should have the right to have personal data concerning him or her rectified. They also have the right to have their personal data erased. Recital 66 also talks about the right to erasure but pertains more to tech giants processing and sharing personal data with other bodies. Article 17 titled Right to erasure (‘right to be forgotten’) provides a number of scenarios under which someone can ask their data on an online platform to be erased. 

In all three cases, the document states that retention of data should be lawful when it is necessary, such as when given data falls under someone’s right to freedom of expression. Trolls can use this loophole to argue that their online statements tarnishing the reputation of a journalist were just them exercising their free speech. Furthermore, once a request is made under this privacy law to get information deleted, it is first reviewed by the relevant platform and then removed — a process that should take no more than one month according to the law. So immediate removal of objectionable data is out of question. Also according to its website, GDPR only regulates bodies that target or collect data related to people in the EU, so journalists who don’t reside in one of the 27 member countries have no such protection.

Reporting misinformation

According to the Google Search Help Center, if journalists find any website on Google Search that is bad, wrong, dangerous, personal, or harmful, then in limited cases Google may remove those links. 

This does not remove the content from the original platform where it was published. This tactic, it only stops negative results from appearing on Google search. People can still find that objectionable webpage through social media, other search engines, or direct links. If a journalist wants to remove the content from the page that hosts it, they will have to contact the site’s webmaster. If the webmaster takes the content down, then it will automatically stop popping up in Google search results. However, if the webmaster refuses to remove the misinformation then Google can still ensure that their website doesn’t appear in search results — provided the content creates significant risks of identity theft, financial fraud, or other harms. 

Google can help journalists to remove non-consensual explicit images, select financial, medical and national identification, and also “doxxing” — a form of online abuse commonly experienced by journalists where their personal information is shared with the public. Google provides different forms that are suitable to these varied scenarios that can be used to report the material.

Among social media channels, Twitter is particularly popular among journalists. Many use this platform to share their work with industry professionals and a wider audience. Twitter is also a platform where hordes of trolls conduct organized attacks against reporters. They not only engage in vicious online abuse, but also ruin the carefully-built credibility of journalists. The Twitter Help Center provides instructions on how journalists can report content on the platform such as a Tweet, List, Moment, Fleet or Twitter Space. If journalists think any of these features was used to damage their reputation, they can report that specific instance. However, this tactic can be tedious and time-consuming. 

Image credit: Getty Images

Out of the reporting mechanisms available on the platform, the most efficient method seems to be reporting profiles. If a troll account is repeatedly causing harm to the reputation of a journalist, their profile can be reported to Twitter with a few clicks. The journalist will have to pick why exactly they are reporting this user. After reporting, journalists can choose the ‘Their tweets are abusive or hateful’ option, then choose that they are ‘Engaging in targeted harassment.’ This option will allow the journalist to select multiple tweets from the troll account with objectionable material and report them in one go.

Elodie Vialle is a consultant of Digital Safety and Free Expression at PEN America and an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University. She is also a co-author of the report ‘No Excuse for Abuse: What Social Media Companies Can Do Now to Combat Online Harassment and Empower Users’ and she says, “Platforms should build shields that enable users to proactively filter abusive content (across feeds, threads, comments, replies, direct messages, etc.)  and quarantine it in a dashboard, where they can review and address it with the help of trusted allies.”

Privacy services

For women journalists, removing their personal information from the internet is not easy. The process requires time, effort and technological knowledge and most journalists are not trained in these digital safety techniques. One solution that women journalists can turn to is seeking professional help to minimize their online presence or delete digital footprints. 

One such tool is OneRep which can be helpful if a woman journalist wants her name, age, current and previous addresses, phone numbers, information about family members, income and more removed from a digital platform. Dimitri Shelest, CEO and Founder, says, “Removing the private details (profiles) from people-search sites will not only improve safety, but will also have another desired effect; with the spammy people-search site profiles gone from the journalist’s Google search results, their professional publications and activity moves up to primary rankings—making their credible news easier to find.” According to the service’s website it scans 106 people search sites such as tech giants like Google, Bing, Yahoo and lesser-known search engines. One of their most interesting features is an initial report which they provide for free, this can be particularly useful for media students and early-career journalists. 

Image credit: https://onerep.com/ 

Another option is DeleteMe which also assists in removing personal information from search engines. Their website states that the tool offers a detailed report in seven days and their expert staff finds and removes personal information every three months. Rob Shavell, co-founder and CEO of DeleteMe, says, “ Women as media influencers are likely harassed and attacked especially online at higher rates than men because it reflects the nature of the attackers / trolls themselves: weak, biased, impatient, and often less-educated. ” He added that journalists but especially women should actively protect their privacy.

Different resources offer a variety of packages which vary in charges and facilities. For instance, according to PrivacyDuck’s website their Basic Privacy package costs $499 and removes data from 91 search sites. VIP Privacy package costs $999 and removes data from 190 search sites over the year. 

Disinformation-based attacks are orchestrated to smear the personal and professional reputation of women journalists. Trolls design these coordinated campaigns to undermine the trust that readers and employers have in the reporting of women journalists. 

One thing is very clear, spreading disinformation about a female journalist is not a singular incident. This is a challenge that the journalism industry is facing collectively and until digital rights and reporting mechanisms on internet platforms are upgraded – women journalists are on their own.

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

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