Standing Together to Stop Online Bullying: Harassment of Women Journalists is a Community Problem

Quote from Lydia Cacho — Español: “Cuando hablamos de acoso en línea, siempre estamos hablando de violencia. Es una forma de violencia psicológica, de persecución, sin duda.” English: “When we speak about online bullying, we are always talking about violence. It’s a form of psychological violence, of persecution, without a doubt.”

  • From the outset of their careers, women journalists are taught that they need to establish and foster an increasingly recognizable online brand under their real name - yet when their reporting is inevitably met with online bullying and harassment, they are told the problem is an individual one for them to handle on their own.
  • As part of the IWMF-led Coalition Against Online Violence, our team sought to help stem this rising tide of intimidation by providing research and design support for the launch of the Online Violence Response Hub, a new digital resource designed to assist and inform women journalists facing these types of threats.
  • Our work on the project aligned with our broader organizational efforts to change who technology serves by shifting the conversation around online bullying and identifying how platform design choices today often enable harassment instead of prevent it.

Three-out-of-four women journalists (73%) have experienced some form of online violence - ranging from sexual and physical threats to the targeting of family and friends. And for 20% of these reporters, online threats end up transitioning into offline attacks and in-person abuse. Alarming statistics like these indicate just how normalized online violence against women journalists has become. Yet such actions are far from normal and cannot be accepted. They represent attacks not only on individuals, but also on society writ large - which suffers in the wake of stifled reporting and an inability of diverse voices to participate freely in news formation.

Launching today, the Online Violence Response Hub - a new digital resource designed to assist and inform women journalists facing threats from online bullying and harassment - represents the efforts of a united community against this repugnant and dangerous behavior. Simply Secure is proud to have participated in the creation of this invaluable website, and we ask all members of our community to share this resource and expand its reach.

Toxic Newsroom Norms

Starting in journalism school or at their first job, women journalists are taught they need to establish and foster an increasingly recognizable online brand under their true identity. From an online security standpoint, this practice creates an incredibly large online footprint from which these journalists can be attacked. Yet despite direct encouragement to create such a presence, when a woman reporter is inevitably met with online bullying and harassment, they are routinely told the problem is an individual one for them to handle on their own. “This is just a part of your job,” runs a common industry refrain. “Tough it out, or get out.” 

For the reporter and her family and close associates, the psychological and physical toll of these attacks are compounded by the lack of accessible resources available to help. Though several initiatives have been created to address various points of this systemic problem, no universal platform currently exists to which a journalist can turn in a time of need. Left without support from their employer, and unable to locate much-needed resources, women reporters often have little guidance and few allies during these high-stress and dangerous situations. It is beyond time for that to change.

Creating the Online Violence Response Hub

In October 2020, Simply Secure joined the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF)’s Coalition Against Online Violence, a diverse group of stakeholders working together to stop online abuse. Five months later, we were engaged to join the team creating an easily accessible online resource that journalists can go to for answers and help when faced with a bullying problem.

In supporting the design of the Online Violence Response Hub, we worked with the IWMF team to bolster their needs research by developing an interview and focus group guide, facilitating discussions, synthesizing research findings, co-designing the information architecture, and supporting site development and implementation. Through this human-centered approach, we were able to distill three key findings:

  1. Some form of bullying is accepted as a consequence of being a woman and a journalist.
  2. Emotional processing is an important first step in getting help.
  3. Harassment is a community problem, but is treated as an individual one.

Alongside other needs- and issue-based findings, we were able to understand the most common challenges and how journalists describe them. These essential takeaways informed the organization of the website’s content and increased accessibility by ensuring users would be able to quickly and accurately find answers to and resources for their most pressing questions and needs in times of crisis. 

Designing a Safer Tomorrow - Together

This project also spoke more broadly to issues of design and how platforms often enable harassment. By failing to design clear content moderation strategies or ways for individuals under attack to get help, social media platforms create ample space for bullying and harassment to thrive. Their algorithms, designed to promote engagement and interaction, actively promote the most sensational and inflammatory interactions - drawing more people into the fray. Powered by the inverted economics of surveillance capitalism, which prioritizes profits over people, these companies have no incentive to work on the complicated issues at the intersection of content moderation, censorship, and user experience design. Instead, they complacently pass the impact of platform-enabled harms on to vulnerable users like women journalists.

When helpful information exists but is inaccessible or undiscoverable, the most vulnerable among us can be left without a lifeline. As a design and tech community, we need to work together and actually engage with these issues - not just as issues for policy and legal teams, but as problems of product and design. We believe that in order to address problems like online harassment, we need to actively work to shift who technology serves. By leveraging a human-centered approach to design and research, and addressing foreseeable stress cases, we can center the needs of people experiencing harms and increase overall project accessibility. One actionable tactic to do this essential work is for designers to plan for the arrival of bad actors (personas non grata) on their platform, and then design to minimize their harmful effects. When scenarios like these are baked into the design process from the outset, the tech and design community are able to work together to support people like women journalists experiencing harassment. 

Four of the largest tech companies recently announced commitments to address online abuse and protect women, signaling an acknowledgement that these design flaws are communal, not individual, problems. Though the responsibility for a safer tomorrow starts with platforms designing to address these harms, more is still needed. We all must do our part and stand together. That’s why we ask that you do yours today by sharing the Online Violence Response Hub with your community members, friends, and family.

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