Blended Identities…Who Dis?

Social Media Policies Compromise Journalists’ Safety

“There are certain people…I don’t have an agenda. A self-promotion agenda. I’m not trying to get a CNN gig. And it’s a different industry than it was in the past. You have to build up a personal brand more.”

Anonymous journalist at major global news organization

By Dr. Michelle Ferrier

Whose Fourth of July? By Dr. Michelle Ferrier, painted July 4, 2020 after the protests of George Floyd’s murder sprouted across the United States.

Journalists have always had a tenuous relationship with Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools. As the platforms siphoned attention from branded news, comment sections opened up news spaces to public critique. To meet these new audiences in these digital spaces, media organizations used their journalists to disseminate stories and engage on these new social channels. Journalists used those spaces to share their news stories, interact with other curated followers, source information, engage directly through Facebook Live, try livetweeting and other new digital practices to connect with audiences and readers in real time, in digital spaces. 

In attempts to bring more transparency and engagement with readers in these new spaces, journalists were encouraged to use their personal social media accounts to create more intimate, authentic portraits of themselves as open and part of the communities they covered. Social media policies stressed muting political or personal details that might tarnish the larger media brand and its work and voice. Kelly Fincham curates a list of public social media policies of global media brands.

The Associated Press (AP) recently ran afoul of its policy, when it fired Emily Wilder, an early-career journalist, for tweets from her college years and her political positions. Soon after her hire, Wilder was targeted and her digital past was paraded before the AP from a conservative online mob shaming Wilder’s pro-Palestinian views. Without any clarity on what she had done or tweeted, AP dismissed Wilder. AP’s own staff sent a sharp response to management you don’t have our back. The journalists at the Associated Press made it clear that reporters are working daily in hostile online spaces, with bad actors and targeted campaigns to derail the work holding power to account. The AP has since revised its social media policies (see sidebar “What Media Outlets Can Learn from Emily Wilder” by Ruby Winter.)

In a memo, AP told its staff:

“One of the issues brought forward in recent days is the belief that restrictions on social media prevent you from being your true self, and that this disproportionately harms journalists of color, LGBTQ journalists and others who often feel attacked online,” the organization said. “We need to dive into this issue.”

What if journalists violate the social media policy of the publication?

  • New York Times: Department heads have to monitor the social media activities of employees. Violations will be noted on performance reviews.
  • BBC: Employees might face disciplinary action according to standard procedures including possible termination of employment. Contractors might be punished with non-renewal or termination of contract.
The news media have debated, ad nauseum, objectivity and the freedom of the press. But when identities are blended in social media, individual humans feel the effects. Both personally and professionally.

‘We Need to Dive into This Issue’

This blending of personal and professional identities exposed journalists directly to their readers, not filtered by the newsroom or the machinery of a large organization. Freelancers are particularly at risk. On their personal accounts, on their private devices, journalists were positioned on the front lines of the digital information wars.

“It was entirely about [the media organization] and to reduce the legitimacy for yet another media organization. It’s gone beyond right or left, it doesn’t have anything to do with politics.”


“I think the company has been remiss in not using the tool because I’ve gotten followers and sources. I have people come to me with contacts or saying ‘I’d like to talk.’ It has upped my profile. It’s a good thing to do and to encourage it.”

Global media organization journalist, 2018

The news media use social platforms for social sourcing, engaging with audiences and readers, distributing content, and capturing viewers in dialogue in online spaces. Social media platforms are used beyond distribution to build personal and corporate brands. Reporters are cross-promoted on other platforms, from stories to social media and perhaps as pundits on national television news.

Personal and professional identities are blended in much of the newsroom social media policies we examined. A review of the social media policies of some media organizations shows the conflicts inherent in their guidance:

  • Most publications encourage journalists to have social media accounts – to promote the publication’s work, add to their digital presence, and increase their credibility.
  • Journalists have to stay in line with the publication’s values on social media, social media policies apply to public and personal accounts. 
  • Under no circumstances are they allowed to post, like, or retweet anything taking a side.
  • However, media organizations don’t provide concrete advice on dealing with online abuse.

The message from media management: Protect our brand at all costs.

“When I tweet about my personal life, it’s very oblique.  Refer to my daughter or son but not use their handles.  I will post a picture of my cat which people love. I will tweet soccer. Studies have shown that you should tweet about things that aren’t about work.” 

“Being exposed to hate speech is a daily part of my job because of the nature of the reader comment protocols on our company website, which enable haters to comment anonymously, either about me or to make racist comments about others. There are so many of these comments that I can’t flag them all.”

Anonymous journalist at global brand

Many news organizations use digital spaces throughout the organization’s workflow, from the transmission of digital files through the internet, to the use of social media spaces such as Twitter, Facebook and other places to distribute content to users directly. Reporters typically use personal social media handles to push out content they have created. Media corporate handles are also used in distribution of news, opinion and other corporate messages. And these corporate handles are attacked online with threats of fake news and death threats. But the campaigns are much more effective when they target individual journalists with real consequences.

The attacks are personal or professional. They come with sexual solicitations or death threats. Sometimes they are legitimate critiques. In a weird way, said one journalist, the viral attacks mark you as someone.

Bad actors use insults, critiques, slander and manufactured content to discredit and build distrust in other social users. Journalists were and are tools in the misinformation and disinformation campaigns, as foils for right-wing, religious and other nationalist zealots crying “Fake News,” “Enemy of the People” and “Murder the Media.” As one journalist lamented in my research, “(President) Trump has forced us to determine if Twitter is really valuable.” 

Social media memes showing the beheading of journalists and other violent content threaten journalists in these social spaces. Gendered attacks play on sexualized harms and misogynistic fantasies. Journalists are not just seeing a more hostile work environment in social spaces, but they are experiencing violence on their daily beat. Journalists need to be prepared for hostilities that have moved offline into physical spaces from police, agitators, viewers and Average “Wacky Guy” on the Street. Or the targeted violence painted on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 — “Murder the Media.”

This transparency, authenticity and engagement in online spaces comes at a cost for individual journalists. Journalists, now carrying the corporate stories on their personal streams, threads and statuses, are the foot soldiers, carrying their blue checks marking “TARGET” on a weaponized internet. Unmoored, set adrift, journalists and their personal identities continue to take the frontline blows in the misinformation and disinformation warfare happening online.

Ferrier found that for journalists around the globe, the past five years have seen a significant increase in the social media attacks. Many journalists field threats and harassment on a daily basis, targeting their reputation, their jobs and their lives (Ferrier, 2018). Two out of three female journalists said they had been harassed online and of those some 40 percent changed their reporting activities because of the harassment (Ferrier, 2018).

Research into online harassment and abuse shows that journalists that are women, early career and people of color are most at risk in this weaponized environment (Ferrier, 2018). Age is the second factor that plays a role in how harassers choose targets. Hagen (2015) found that harassers target young female journalists between the age group of 26 and 35 years, who as compared to their male colleagues of the same age and older journalists, reported experiencing more harassment. Gendered attacks continue to be a persistent part of the daily routine of women journalists both inside and outside of their newsrooms (Flatow, 1994; Ghiglione, 1990; McAdams & Beasley, 1994; North, 2016; Walsh-Childers & Herzog, 1996.) Online attacks frequently reference body, personal features or family and personal relationships. Many of the threats women journalists receive on Twitter, Facebook and online backchannels are sexist in nature, designed to intimidate or shame the journalist. For women journalists, these attacks serve a double blow – to their private lives and to her professional mobility. In Ferrier (2018), nearly 30 percent (29%) of all of our respondents indicated the threats and attacks they received made them think about getting out of the profession

However, when we examine the data by age, early-career journalists (ages 18-29) are nearly twice as likely (36 percent) to have considered getting out the profession as their older colleagues, ages 40 and older (18 percent). Another 24 percent indicated that their career advancement had been negatively impacted. 

Female journalists have reported little support from management in resolving or mitigating these attacks (Ferrier, 2018). Response by management to these online attacks has been lackluster. In Fall 2020, reporters of color were taken off of covering Black Lives Matter protests after online “cancel culture” calls for their jobs and their heads. (Mapping (Binns, 2017; Gazeta & Wierzchowski, 2018; Mapping Media Freedom, 2019; Onali, 2018). Perpetrators of these physical and online threats operate for the most part with impunity, leaving individual journalists to navigate how best to respond. 

“I didn’t use Twitter for a month. Trolls were about when are you going to get fired? Fuck it. I’m going on a blackout.”

Defining the Online Threats

Online attacks can manifest in a variety of ways. While social media attacks on Twitter or Facebook are more visual and swift, other technological attacks can disrupt the professional lives of these journalists. Online threats tend to occur most in the online comment sections on news articles (61 percent), followed by professional Twitter accounts (39 percent) and personal Twitter accounts (37 percent) [see Table below]: 

TrollBusters created this typology of threats and possible avenues for support, defense and coaching on navigating online threats. This infographic is now available in Russian, Spanish, Hindi, and other translations. TrollBusters also developed the Global Safety Resource Hub to provide country, context-specific support to journalists under attack online.

Other tactics TrollBusters has encountered in its work include:

  • Smear campaigns: One way in which harassers intimidate journalists is through smear campaigns, which involves different online and offline intimidation tactics such as setting up fake websites where disinformation can live online, or intimidating a journalist with compromising photos or videos and then spreading them online. Such attacks damage the credibility, integrity and confidence of journalists – elements which are essential to successfully carrying out their jobs, and forces journalists into self-censorship. Many journalists report having trouble developing rapport with sources, while sources may also harbor similar suspicions when a journalist is being targeted online.
  • Cyberstalking: Cyberstalking is when someone uses electronic communications to track and repeatedly harass an individual or group, whether online or through digital means.

PEN America provides a glossary of additional tactics including:

  • Astroturfing: A propaganda technique, named after the artificial lawn material used in sports stadiums, creates the illusion of a spontaneous popular movement of the internet started by a fake grassroots organization.
  • DoI Attack: A Denial of Information attack consists of the amplification of messages through autonomous software (bots) thereby drowning an information channel in false or distracting information.
  • Deep Fakes: Producing a video then using software to alter the identity of people in the video. Used to create fake news or damage credibility.
  • DoubleSwitch: Stealing a journalist’s social media account and using it to disseminate fake news.
  • Hashtag Poisoning: Hashtags are used to rally troll forces online.

What to Do?

 “They didn’t feel empowered to talk about it. They didn’t talk about it. Some of my colleagues that have higher profiles get attacked. There wasn’t a general awareness that we should let people know about this.” 

We asked our respondents how they react when attacked or threatened in person or online. More than two-thirds share the event with a family member, friend or colleague (67%). More than 50 percent will use blocking tools to block the offenders. Nearly one-third have reported threats and attacks to social media platforms. Others personally replied to the harassment, either publicly (28%) or privately (34%). 

However, our respondents are hesitant to report it to management and colleagues. One-third of our respondents had never reported their abuses to management (35 percent). A significant number of respondents did not report the abuses to management for fear of retribution or punishment. Nearly one third (29 percent) indicated that they feared retaliation/reprisals from the persons who initiated the attack and an equal number feared they would be taken off their beat or lose future work. 

Excerpt: “A Twitter Tightrope Without A Net”

–Excerpt from Nelson, J.L. (Forthcoming). A Twitter tightrope without a net: Journalists’ reactions to newsroom social media policies. Columbia Journalism Review.

The answers I heard were consistent: Newsroom social media policies do not aspire to protect reporters from virtual threats on their lives so much as they seek to protect news organizations from perceived threats to their credibility. They are not intended to prevent harassment, but to maintain traditional notions of “objectivity,” a journalistic value many I spoke with believe should be revised or replaced. Journalists consequently find themselves walking a “Twitter tightrope,” where they feel compelled to use social media platforms to build awareness for and trust in themselves and their work, yet simultaneously apprehensive about the professional pitfalls and “dark participation” they encounter while doing so.  

Management Response “Retaliatory”

More than 50 percent (56 percent) indicated that they didn’t think anything would be done and that is why they did not report to management. Twenty-six percent indicated they didn’t know how to report the threats. More than a third said they felt uncomfortable making a report or they felt that they would be labeled a troublemaker. Another 29 percent indicated they had heard of negative experiences of others who had reported their threats to management. While not widespread, some respondents reported retaliation in the workplace – 19 percent indicated they experienced social retaliation from coworkers, 14 percent reported professional retaliation where they were removed from their beat, lost privileges or were denied a promotion. 

“As a freelancer, I have not reported harassment/assault that I’ve experienced when working on stories because I am afraid of not getting support from editors far away or losing the gig or the possibility of covering a topic because they don’t think it is safe for me to work it. Or sometimes, I think… What is the point?” 

However, a quarter of our respondents who did report to management received favorable outcomes for their disclosures. Twenty-six percent report being very satisfied with management response; another one third indicated being somewhat satisfied (33%).

In several open-ended questions in our survey, we asked respondents to share how they might be better supported when they are under attack. Overwhelmingly, these journalists suggest that organizations establish a protocol for educating and addressing harassment and that their claims be thoroughly investigated by management, law enforcement, social media platforms and others. 

Policies from social media guidelines that touch upon online abuse:

New York Times“If a reader questions or criticizes your work or social media post, and you would like to respond, be thoughtful.” “If the criticism is especially aggressive or inconsiderate, it’s probably best to refrain from responding.”“We support the right of our journalists to mute or block people on social media who are threatening or abusive.” (Shifting the responsibility to the individual journalists.)
Agence France Presse“Refrain from reacting in the heat of the moment; take time to write a considered cool-headed post.” Publication encourages reporters to open accounts on popular social media platforms as it helps to build the publication’s credibility, give their journalism visibility and help in boosting the publication’s online presence.
BBC“Do always treat others with respect, even in the face of abuse.” “Do not be drawn into ill-tempered exchanges, or exchanges that will reflect badly on you, or the BBC.” Do not support campaigns, (eg. by using hashtags) no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial.
Avoid ‘virtue signalling’ – retweets, likes or joining online campaigns to indicate a personal view, no matter how apparently worthy the cause.

“Management told me not to respond at all to any of the accusations and while that may have proved to be a good strategy, it left me feeling rather defenseless and vulnerable.” 


Oftentimes, management is unaware of the ways this festering online harassment and threat activity has affected the news enterprise. Beyond the reputation damage of “fake news” and the credibility of reporting, journalists report a chilling effect of this online activity on their ability to do their work. Clearly respondents engage in self-censorship when going about their work; 37 percent indicated that they avoided certain stories and another 23 percent indicated they had trouble establishing rapport with interviewees. 

The attacks have a chilling effect that affects newsgathering and freedom of expression around the globe.  Caution has slowed the newsgathering and news production processes, from how journalists approach sources to using technologies or social sourcing to do their information gathering. In addition, caution on the part of management to what may be sensitive stories has slowed the newsgathering process by adding additional layers of management and legal review. Ferrier provides specific suggestions from journalists and media organizations on workflow, threat analysis and response to various online attacks from the research respondents and journalists around the globe.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters and the executive director of the Media Innovation Collaboratory.

Online Harassment: Media Management Response

The following text comes from TrollBusters 2019 graphic on “Online Harassment: Media Management Response.”

Online attacks impact journalists in different ways. Management’s response should be: You are not alone.

Step 1. Platform
  1. Provide buffer to review social media posts.
  2. Provide liaison to work through tech companies on restoring accounts, takedown, and other threats.
Step 2: Response
  1. Determine public and internal response.
  2. Remove identifying data from stories, social posts.
Step 3: Identify
  1. Understand the ways in which employee/contractor/media worker is at risk.
  2. Work together to determine strategies for safety online and off.
Step 4: Listen
  1. Create clear guidelines for social media use and reporting.
  2. Do not minimize threat.
Step 5: Support
  1. Express empathy.
  2. Provide psychological, legal or technical support.
  3. Provide physical support.
Step 6: Presence
  1. Provide peer to attend management, legal, law enfordement and other meetings.
  2. Develop long-term work strategy for managing social spaces.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters and the executive director of the Media Innovation Collaboratory.


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