Black and Indigenous journalists are attacked online when they take a stand against racism

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  • March 21, 2022

By Jamile Santana and Laís Martins. Originally published by Revista AzMina.

Warning: The article below shows explicit snippets of misogynistic and racist content. We chose not to censor them because we think it is important to exemplify how violent the conversation is on social networks, how violence against women journalists spreads, which terms are frequently used and how we can identify it.

Women journalists, in general, face challenges when expressing themselves on social networks. In the case of Black and Indigenous women, we find even more problematic aspects. In addition to being targets of misogyny and gender violence just because they are women, these groups suffer attacks that try to discredit anti-racist struggles and the guarantee of constitutional rights of Indigenous peoples.

Accusations such as “Black woman speech,” “victimhood” and “opportunist” are often found in tweets written to these professionals. This is what was found by data research carried out by Revista AzMina, InternetLab and Núcleo Jornalismo, together with Volt Data Lab and INCT.DD, with funding from Carnegie for International Peace and support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

The second article in the series on gender violence against journalists analyzed nearly 240 offensive tweets directed at a group of 26 Black and Indigenous women journalists. It was also found that only two out of 10 insults were removed by the social media platform. The most frequent terms are divided into categories such as racism, personal insults, insults to professional performance, [attempts to] intellectually discredit them, sexism, physical threat, and sexual harassment.

The insults “partial journalist,” “biased” and “manipulative”, “communist” (meant as an insult), “loser” and “ridiculous” are the most frequent among the tweets to the analyzed profile group. Attacks always happen when a user disagrees with the information or point of view published by the women journalists.

Another perceived phenomenon was the use of misogynistic phrases to discredit and silence the professionals. The offensive messages contained phrases such as “go wash dishes,” “go take care of your family,” or “unloved” and “frustrated.” Terms to intellectually discredit women were also identified, such as “crazy,” “stupid,” “sick,” and “stupid,” for example.

Anti-racist postitions

Black women are often attacked when they take a stand against racism. In the messages, the aggressors relativize anti-racist positions, suggesting, for example, that “you can no longer criticize a Black person” or that “Black people can also kill white people.”

Last year, journalist Flávia Oliveira, a commentator for Globo News and columnist for the newspaper O Globo and CBN radio, posted a tweet commenting on the episode in which the statue of Borba Gato had been set on fire in São Paulo. In the message, she, who is a Black woman, recommended reading the book “Escravidão 2” (“Slavery vol. 2”), by Brazilian historian Laurentino Gomes, so that people could know who was the target of the anti-racist protest. The journalist was attacked with a series of racist and misogynistic insults, and the content remains online.

But, in some cases, the attacks are not even responses to posts published by professionals. When journalist and presenter Maju Coutinho appears on the air on TV Globo, for example, she receives gratuitous insults. In some cases, attacks are accompanied by physical threats. Monitoring also suggests that there is harassing behavior on the part of some users: we found 10 attacks on Maju Coutinho made by a single user. All content is still online.

Professionals who work in national media outlets, especially television, are more exposed to insults. But Black journalists from online or print media also suffer organized attacks, as reported by journalist Gabi Coelho, a reporter at the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo and member of Coletivo Lena Santos, a group of Black journalists from Minas Gerais.

“The attacks that I receive and have already received, practically all of them were directed towards issues of gender and race,” said Coelho. In one of these experiences, a photo of her was released after a report she made on denialism. “The objective was to have my face circulate and be marked for the social media’s other users,” she said.

In the incident, Coelho had the support of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), the newspaper where she works and Twitter. But the journalist wonders how to seek support on social media platforms, “knowing that they reproduce what we call structural racism.” And she concludes that seeking support is important, “so that we continue to exist in these spaces that are essential.”

Investigative journalist Cecília Oliveira receives attacks on her Twitter account almost daily. Oliveira, who is also the founder and director of the Fogo Cruzado Institute, focuses her coverage on the area of ​​public security, mainly on arms and drug trafficking, topics that are covered and discussed mostly by men, she said. “What could be a criticism of my work turns into personal criticism, with attacks on sexuality and race. These are insults that are more directed at who you are as a person, precisely because many of them work on attacking the person and not the idea,” she said. More than half of the offensive terms found by the analysis are personal insults and unrelated to the professional performance of journalists.

Indigenous struggle

Indigenous journalists are also attacked when they address issues such as land demarcation and Indigenous policies. The questioning and discrediting of Indigenous identity has long been a silencing strategy, as when they are questioned for occupying urban spaces, making use of technologies and speaking other languages.

Posting a tweet that showed the map of Brazil completely demarcated as an Indigenous area, journalist Elaíze Farias, reporter and co-founder of Amazônia Real, was attacked by several users who tried to discredit the fight for recognition of Indigenous territories.

“When Indigenous women start talking about their experiences, social and cultural practices, using one of the many tools of technological advances, when they put their finger on the wound and denounce injustice and violations to which they are subjected, this upsets, it causes discomfort and anger in non-Indigenous people,” Farias said.

Indigenous journalist Alice Pataxó has also been the target of offensive attacks when she covers events that discuss access to fundamental rights for Indigenous peoples. In one of the incidents, she published a photo of the trial of the Indigenous Lands’ Timeframe and a user criticized the fact that the journalist had access to a cell phone.

Online quilombos

Despite this hostile scenario, in contrast to violence, our survey found 157 tweets supporting Black women out of a total of 2,204 messages analyzed that included terms about race.

The unity of Black people to strengthen individuals in a collective way is known as the “quilombo strategy.” The quilombos were fundamental devices for the preservation of the identity, dignity, culture and mental health of the Black population during the period of slavery, as explained by the psychologist and Master in Clinical Psychology from the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF), Lucas Veiga, in the article “Decolonizing Psychology: Notes for a Black Psychology.” “The gathering of Black persons is healing,” he wrote.

For Fernanda K. Martins, anthropologist and one of the research coordinators at InternetLab, social media occupy a very ambiguous place in the professional practice of Black and Indigenous people.

“On the one hand, there is more space for these people to be heard, reach a wider audience and find healing spaces when interacting with their peers,” she said. On the other hand, Martins adds that platforms in general have difficulties in dealing with attacks. According to her, this is partly because they are unable to identify the context of the attacks, which prevents, for example, some content from being excluded.

“It is urgent to improve this type of moderation, as social media can keep content available which violates even Brazilian law,” said Martins. This is the case of the explicitly racist tweets found in the course of the research.

Offensive content remains online

Only 2 out of 10 offensive posts identified in our analysis were taken down — some by Twitter and some by the user. It is worth mentioning that our analysis did not follow the platform’s terms and policies. The company follows its own guidelines for identifying potentially harmful posts.

Farias said that when she receives this type of attack on Twitter, she tries to shield her mental health using a particular strategy. “I don't usually read posts and retweets. I usually only interact with people I follow on Twitter and the attacks get lost in the rubble. The important thing is that the message was delivered,” she said. But she advocates for digital platforms to fine-tune their strategies to combat violence. “I think there could be a moderation, especially for lies and racist posts. A means of identifying who the perpetrators are, because racism is a crime in the country. On the other hand, we cannot be naive that this will happen in the short term.”

After taking a course on social media interaction, Oliveria also changed her way of dealing with attacks and insults. “Before, when I was attacked, I was very shaken. So today when I know that there are tweets with the potential to attract haters, I silence that tweet and do not return to it.” She also does not share the attacks she receives and uses filters made available by Twitter that limit, for example, notifications of users without verified email and phone.

But social media tools are not always satisfactory. Oliveria recalls that in September of 2021 she began to receive systematic attacks from the same user, who responded to all her tweets with a freeze-frame of ‘Nega do Cabelo Duro’ [a Brazilian song with racist insults towards Black women]. When she denounced it through the platform, she received a notification a few days later saying the content did not violate the platform's policies.

“I complained on Twitter about the response I received from the platform. I said it was a systematic attack from the same account, with racist insults, and they responded that. Then, the Twitter staff sent me an email. They thanked me and I suppose they changed it later,” said the journalist, who has 173,000 followers on Twitter.

In a statement, Twitter said it "has a policy against spreading hate which prohibits tweets with content using dehumanizing language based on religion, caste, age, disability, illness, race, ethnicity or birthplace, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. The abusive behavior policy prohibits engaging in or encouraging harassment directed at someone.”

The platform also highlighted that it is not always clear whether the content was produced with the intention of harassing or attacking a person based on their “protected category status” and, therefore, it may be necessary for the person to file a complaint. “To help our teams understand the context, we sometimes need to hear from the person directly affected to ensure we have the necessary information before taking corrective action, which can include removing and/or reducing visibility of a tweet to permanent suspension of the account,” the note reads.


We created a list of journalists with different gender, racial-ethnic profiles and different sexual orientations who had their profiles monitored, seeking to build an analysis that would allow us to articulate social markers. This list included 200 journalists (133 women and 67 men), which mixed journalists who work in different Brazilian press media, different regions and, at the same time, at different stages of their careers.

We collected tweets and retweets that mentioned the monitored journalists and that contained at least one of the words present in a list of terms that could be used in offensive publications. The lexicon includes offensive terms related to misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc., and was constructed by linguists, journalists and other experts.

The collection of tweets was carried out from May 15 to September 27, 2021. We collected a total of 7,082,947 tweets and retweets targeting male and female journalists.

Once the collection was completed, we analyzed separately the tweets addressed to Black, Indigenous and Asian women journalists. As it was not possible to qualitatively analyze all the tweets and retweets mentioned, we chose to analyze only the tweets that had at least 1 like and/or RTs as engagement. 2,455 posts with potentially offensive terms were considered. Manual analysis was important to remove “false positives” tweets that could have been embedded citing words that appeared in the lexicon but were out of context and not meant as an insult.

To make sure there was a common understanding among researchers about what constituted an insult and what was just criticism, we initially analyzed the first 100 tweets together. Additionally, tweets that had more complex contexts and could not be easily labeled by just one researcher were analyzed by more than one researcher.

Finally, the offensive terms found were classified into categories: racism (which considered name-calling or discrediting the anti-racist struggle tweets), cursing (expletives and aggression according to the personal contexts of each journalist), insults to professional performance, intellectual discredit [attempts], sexism, physical threats, and sexual threats.

*The project “Understanding How Influence Operations Across Platforms Are Used To Attack Journalists And Hamper Democracies” is carried out in a partnership between Internet Lab, INCT.DD, Instituto Vero, DFR Lab, AzMina and Volt Data Lab. The research is funded by Carnegie for International Peace's Partnership for Countering Influence Operations and is also supported by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), through Volt. The study aims to understand patterns of attacks on journalists in digital environments, with a special focus on gender and race issues.

Originally published by Revista AzMina.