When she received a death threat in Spring 2020, TrollBusters founder Michelle Ferrier doubled down on the organization’s efforts to train and prepare journalists for online attacks.
By Michelle Ferrier, Ph.D.
I opened my mailbox that day and pulled out a card addressed to me. I don’t check the mailbox every day, because all of my official mail is directed to my mailing address, a post office box I established before I even moved here. So instead of the usual “To Our Neighbors” business mail, slightly aged inside the mailbox, I found a perky colored envelope, hand addressed to me.
One red flag.
I turned the envelope over. No return address.
Two red flags.
And inside, a lovely card…and a note with a death threat.
Three red flags.
On it scrawled the words “You are not the first to die.” “I’ll kill you and your family…”
I received this death threat in March 2020 at my home, targeting me, my family and my colleagues. It’s not the first I’ve received, which is why I have a post office box to begin with. The last time was when I last resided in the state in 2006 working as the first columnist of color at a daily newspaper. Right before President Obama’s first term.
I know what it feels like to live under a death threat.
Because the attacks can come from multiple vectors — email, letters, tweets, direct messages and other less visible means, you become wary of what you say, what you tweet, what you share, what you like, what you investigate, what you do.
You get hypervigilant.
You shrink your online world, going invisible, offline or dark to try and hide from the online threats and vitriol. You self-censor your work. You triple check your work.
You get very suspicious. Of everyone.
Your colleagues don’t see what’s happening or worse, consider it part of the job. Sources are noticing. They are afraid to reach out to you for fear they will become the next target. You become toxic because of the attacks and have trouble doing your work, connecting with sources, securing freelance work, and emotionally and mentally stressed about risks online and off. You self-censor your world, shrinking your physical world to minimize threats and provide some measure of safety. I know.
I’ve been tracking the rise of online hate and misogyny since the early 2000s, in online communities I’ve built with newsrooms and in social and digital techologies. Deep in the investigation into my first death threat, I created SpotHate.com. Using geolocation data, social media and newspaper reports, my goal became to geotag and map the rising hate crimes being reported across the United States. As political parties sharpened their psychographic and geotargeted marketing and political messaging using online tools, I tracked the rise of white supremacists online, as they weaponized emerging digital spaces like Second Life, online commenting sections and emerging social media tools like Facebook and Twitter.
In 2015, after disclosures of Facebook algorithmic manipulation of users and the unfolding GamerGate attacks on women gamers, I launched TrollBusters, to provide just-in-time support to journalists experiencing online attacks. Track the bad actors. Help launch a defense to protect the journalists, their work, their reputation and their lives.
Someone to stand by you.
This past year has been challenging for the profession and for journalists of color, navigating the triple pandemics of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and “enemy of the people” misinformation campaigns that put their lives and the work they do at risk. Many have retreated from public view, locking down social accounts or going dark.
I am not alone living under a death threat. It’s a sharper point to the same dull pain I live with every day as a Black woman in the United States. That many Black journalists feel acutely, especially this past year of police brutality and threats from the White House lobbed against “fake news” — at risk. Many people also feel isolated and are under threat, especially if they are a journalist, a person of color, a woman or all three.
What I’ve also learned this past year is no one else can tell you how you should feel or respond to online threats. The online threats ARE real. They have real consequences. And we know, because we’ve been there. We’ve buried colleagues threatened by bad actors online. From Jamal Khashoggi of The Washington Post to the murder of five news colleagues at the Capital Gazette here in the United States to female colleagues in exile or detention around the globe, we live in a more hostile world, online and off. And colleagues all around us are fielding these invisible and physical attacks. The mental health toll on journalists this past year have been well documented as described in this article from the Global Investigative Journalism Network. Are you one of them? It’s exhausting.
As the founder of TrollBusters, I’m a target for these types of attacks. We expose technology abuses and provide support to journalists experiencing online threats. I built TrollBusters because I personally know the harms as a journalist and technologist of our current workspaces. And because I recognized that if we want relief, we have to start by helping ourselves.
Here at TrollBusters, we’ve been using machine learning, social media monitoring and other listening tools to fly alongside you as you do your work. Capturing those who are out of bounds and inflicting harm. Collecting the evidence for law enforcement or technology platforms. Having your back. We provide you with training, coaching, and resources to get the legal, mental and other help you need to stay safe. We’ve been practicing what we like to call 360-degree care, sharing digital tools and mindfulness and behavioral practices to help you stay resilient and stay online.
We have also teamed up with colleagues across the globe in technology, journalism, broadcasting, psychology and media to develop the support they want to see. TrollBusters has partnered with newsrooms, professional organizations and non-governmental organizations to look at laws, policy, and other tactics to solve online harms. Check out our recent workshop and action plans from “With Liberty and Inclusive Tech for All,” a joint program of IAWRT-USA and TrollBusters. Or our physical defense training with Global Journalists Network that illustrates concrete steps to stay safe and escape predators in physical space. In the past year, TrollBusters launched just-in-time training and worked with educators in classrooms to help ensure their students remained safe while reporting around the presidential elections here in the U.S.
Through our monitoring and research activities, we provided the training and coaching to help journalists stay online and counter narratives of fake news and trust. Our 2020-2021 Annual Report, details our efforts to armor student and professional journalists to the new work realities. We trained hundreds of journalists when they needed it most and advocated for journalists’ protections at national and global forums.
That’s what WE mean when we stand by you.
The Toxic Avenger magazine is another way to stay connected and support you to stay safe online and off. TrollBusters is still here, helping you tell the stories that some don’t want to be told. And we are growing toxic avengers like you to help us keep the internet safe for everyone. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters and the executive director of the Media Innovation Collaboratory, a training ground for media innovation and entrepreneurship.
Painting Through My Pain
I used art and news images from #BlackLivesMatter protests to help get my inner turmoil out about 2020 (the whole damn year) and being a journalist, a mother, a wife and a target. This painting, “As I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” August 2020 was painted after the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American woman who was fatally shot in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment on March 13, 2020. It is a self-portrait.
I’ve now painted a collection of Black Lives Matter images.
It’s August 2021. Still painting.
—The Artist Formerly Known as Michelle
Post-Script: Cultivating Resilience
During this past year, I found ways to become more mindful of my feelings, boundaries and perceived risks. I developed tools and practices to minimize the emotional and psychological harms of online threats — through painting, gardening, walking, photography and other focal practices.
Mindfulness can be cultivated in these spaces. Calm can be restored. I’m here to show you how. Come walk with me.
CHECK IT OUT ON VIMEO: Five-Minute Restore: Walking to Reclaim Space
Imagine Better, Michelle