Online Harassment: How to fight the trolls
Online harassment against journalists today has many varieties. It is often the most concerning of all digital threats for journalists as it is directly visible and time consuming. While fighting the trolls, journalists cannot focus on their stories any longer. Although the adversaries – often 'only' regular users – may not have measures comparable to states, they at least spend as much time on their actions and they are many.
Reporters Without Borders gives a short overview of the most important forms of online harassment and lists basic countermeasures. We also link to various resources from partner organisations that might have additional information if you choose to dig deeper into that topic.
In general, all countermeasures against online harassment can be summed up under the thumb rule as follows:
Journalists are by definition an attractive target for hateful speech online. As it is their job to report critically, they often provoke equally critical responses. Unfortunately, this is mostly not a constructive method of feedback. It quickly leads to defamation and invasive online threats. Specific types can be differentiated as follows:
- Hateful Speech: Adversaries express their position in an inadequate, often offensive and violating way. They usually focus on specific characteristics of the journalist’s identity, such as their gender, race, political opinion, or religion. In doing so, adversaries often want to avoid a discussion about the topic itself. They go "off topic".
- Trolling and Cyber Mobs: The adversary is not a single actor but rather a large number of users. They coordinate themselves and use several tactics such as hateful speech, cyberstalking and doxing, or message bombing.
Countermeasures against Hateful Speech
There is probably no way for journalists to completely prevent hateful speech and attacks of trolls. However, there are several tactics that journalists can use to at least be capable of handling the problem and learning how to work with it professionally.
- Report: Hateful Speech can violate the terms of service of the platform where it takes place. Report it to the platform or the website operator and ask them to remove the content. This helps, because the content may not be visible any longer, and the adversaries notice the fact that you took action.
- Communicate: Due to the amount of harmful posts and comments, reporting everything might be too much for a single journalist. Ask your community and supporters for help.
- Block: Especially on social media platforms, there are various options to block specific content or to block user profiles from accessing a page.
- Document: Extremely abusive content, in particular, should not only be reported, but also documented. Take a screenshot of the content with the user’s information and time and date of posting. This could help you, for example, if it came to a criminal investigation.
- Investigate: Hateful speech can violate the national law. Report it to the law enforcement if you think it is worth it.
- Explain: If some of the critics have a real point, because the journalists made a mistake or some parts of an article are not clear enough and therefore are open for interpretation, an additional explanation or statement might help.
- Counter: Although the vast majority of the comments might be harmful, there are probably a few that express interest in a constructive discussion. You might counter their arguments and start a conversation.
- Ignore: ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ is one of the most prominent rules on social media. If counterspeech appears useless, you may just let the haters hate and come back a few hours or days later. In many cases, they probably already went to their next target.
All these measures are time consuming. Although technology cannot solve the problem of hate speech, it might support journalists in all their actions. There is technology available that supports journalists and newsrooms in automatically identifying potential hateful speech, like Perspective API by Jigsaw, which is related to Google.
Doxxing means the publication of a person’s personal and sensitive information publicly on the internet. This information can include the home address, phone numbers, email addresses, content from social media such as photos and comments, address books, and messages. Adversaries collect the information both from public sites nearly everywhere on the internet and through hacking attacks. Not only are the targets themselves affected (like a single journalist), but also their relatives, colleagues, and friends. The aim is to intimidate the target and violate their reputation.
Journalists can counter doxxing relatively easily: Adversaries can only publish information that journalist either published on their own or did not protect accurately. In other words: Good prevention makes it nearly impossible for doxxers to be successful.
- Secure: Journalists should secure all their accounts that contain sensitive information, especially in using strong passwords and enabling the Two-Factor Authentication. See more information here.
- Regulate: The best way of preventing doxxing is to not even publish sensitive information. Journalists should "regulate themselves" while publishing content on the internet. An effective way is also to limit the audience on social media so that only a trustworthy group of people can see the private content.
- Delete: Everything that journalists have published in the past could contain information that is "interesting" for doxxers. Is it really necessary that it’s still online? If not, delete it. Think also about very old accounts such as blogs or former social media accounts. Doxxers want to find everything.
- Investigate: The publication of sensitive personal data may be a violation of rights, for example, data protection laws. Journalists should report this to platforms and website operators, maybe also with the support of a lawyer. While the chances to succeed are quite well on popular websites like social networks, it might be impossible to succeed on so-called Share Hoster or on Onion Services of the Tor network.
Cyberstalking and Swatting
Both the cyberstalking and swatting are illegal nearly everywhere in the world. Cyberstalking means that the targets – individuals, groups or organisations – are continuously stalked and harassed over the internet. It is often accompanied by realtime and offline stalking. Swatting is another tactic of harassment in which emergency response teams like the police are sent to another person with wrong accusations. In both cases, adversaries mostly stay anonymous.
- Investigate: Both cyberstalking and swatting are crimes in most countries. Affected journalists should start a legal investigation by involving the law enforcement and lawyers.
- Document: To support legal actions and provide evidence, journalists should document every form of illegal behaviour and online harassment.
- Prevent: Although prevention of these illegal actions might not be completely possible, journalists should think especially about all the information on the internet that reveals their private address. This could include the address in official registers, geo-local information in the uploaded content, and their IP addresses.
DDoS and Message Bombing
One tactic of the adversaries is to make the journalists unable to work due to an overload of attacks. The most common ones are the DDoS attacks and the message bombings. A Distributed Denial of Service attack means that a website is flooded with requests so that the service is not accessible anymore. Message bombing means that a target’s communication channel like email account or chat app is flooded with a large numbers of messages in a short period of time.
- Filter: Journalists should in advance enable filter systems to be able to react quickly in a crisis situation. For DDoS attacks, there are services available that distinguish malicious requests from genuine ones. These include the Project Shield by Google or the DDoS Protection Service by Cloudflare. For message bombing, targets can try to filter the adversaries' messages by applying spam filters or blocking the contacts.
- Report: Especially for message bombing, journalists should report the attack and ask for help on how to work around it.
Guides on Online Harassment
- Online Harassment Field Manual by PEN America
- Report of Reporters Without Borders about Troll Armies
- Overview and Resources by the OSCE representative on freedom of the media
Reporting Content on various platforms:
Manage the audience settings on various platforms: