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Disinformation and violence on social media change journalists' behavior in Brazil, study shows

By Vitória Régia da Silva*
This article was originally published on Gênero e Número’s website

As soon as journalist Vera Magalhães exposed, in 2020, that Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro was calling for anti-democratic acts [in February 2020, Magalhães revealed that the president had shared invitations to demonstrations against the National Congress through his personal WhatsApp], she became the target of what she would come to classify as the biggest hate attack on the internet she has ever suffered: “On that occasion, the threats were more explicit, with the publication, for example, of where my children studied, the name of my children's school, and I had to appeal to Twitter to remove that post because it put my children at risk,” she recalled during an interview granted during the research phase to create the study “The impact of disinformation and political violence on the internet against women and LGBT+ communicators and journalists” (visit the website to download the full report, in Portuguese).

In line with Magalhães’ statements, 92.5% of the professionals who responded to the survey stated that the phenomenon of disinformation is “very serious” and that it affects the work they do. In 55% of cases, it affects their daily work, their professional life (55%) and their personal life (45%). [Disinformation is content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm.]

For Bia Barbosa, incidence coordinator for Reporters Without Borders, an attention-worthy aspect of the study is the change in behavior of professionals on the internet, as a reflection of the perception they have of violence. “This practice of violence is so successful that it even results in the intimidation of professionals who did not directly suffer an attack, but who, for fear of suffering one, have already changed their behavior.” The data reveals that 85% have changed their behavior on social media in the last three years to protect themselves from attacks, even those who have not suffered online violence.

Barbosa pointed out that disinformation and violence often silence these women [and LGBT+ people], so there was a concern to understand if and how the phenomenon of disinformation and online violence against journalists is a new form of silencing and censorship. “If at the time of the [military] dictatorship we had censorship coming from the State, then from the Judiciary, or the news outlets themselves censoring their journalists, in the era of social media this is manifested through the practices of disinformation and violence against these groups, with the silencing of these journalists who give up on investigating certain issues or change their behavior on social media because of this.”

In the seven in-depth interviews carried out by Gênero e Número for the survey, which contribute to the analysis of the context along with the data collected through an online questionnaire, several journalists said they are more cautious with some types of stories, or even avoid them altogether.

“I continue reporting, but I gave up certain subjects because I would’ve had to face the same powers here in Santa Catarina and I said 'well, this is not the time for that,'” said Schirlei Alves, a reporter who in 2021 suffered hate attacks on social media for two months after publishing a story on the Mariana Ferrer case [Ferrer is a digital influencer who was raped and during the trial of her alleged rapist she was humiliated by the defense and the judge, who insinuated that she was to blame for the sexual assault].

Profile

The survey collected responses from 237 participants. The majority (43%) self-identify as a cisgender, white, childless woman. The average age is 33 years. The respondents are mostly highly qualified professionals, who have completed higher education and postgraduate degrees, and have been working in the profession for more than ten years. They work mainly in capitals (78.8%) and earn more than R$5,500 (about US $1,000). Most of them work as freelancers or service providers. In addition, almost half of the respondents, 48.9%, work with digital media and 28.7% work as media relations.

One quarter had to leave social media

The effects of violence and disinformation on the daily lives of women and LGBT+ journalists are diverse. Among people who have experienced some form of violence, 31% have reduced or changed the way they use social media in their work and 25% had to close their social media accounts after the attacks.

“I get hate attacks on Twitter because I don't keep silent when I see transphobia happening in the press,” journalist Caê Vasconcelos said. “So it's quite common for me not only to get hate attacks, but I always see [attacks]. Especially when we talk about LGBT+ people, Black people, women, Indigenous people. They are the target of hate attacks on the internet,” he said.

Mental health is also heavily impacted by online violence. The survey shows that 15% of respondents developed some kind of mental disorder during the study period and 10% acknowledged having lost enthusiasm to carry out their professional activities. Magalhães says that the incident that led the president to attack her personally on TV affected her a lot, physically and mentally: “I even had physical reactions, I felt sick, so that was the most violent time [...] it certainly takes a toll in terms of mental health. You feel really fragile.”

Perception of the increase in violence

Half of the study participants said they had already suffered some type of violence due to their profession, with 41.9% being people who self-identified as female. And the perception of violence is also gendered, since among those who said they had already witnessed some situation of online violence, the number jumps to 81.4% – with 67.4% of the victims being women.

The violence doesn't stop there. For 36.8% of people who reported having suffered some type of aggression online, the aggression motivated new attacks. And 67% of people who witnessed violence against colleagues or acquaintances have the perception that an episode of violence results in a new one.

Reporter Juliana Dal Piva, who was also interviewed for this study, observed that from 2013 onwards, there has been an escalation of intimidation against journalists who cover politics. She talked about incidents she experienced that left her, at times, afraid to even leave the house. The most serious of these incidents was the threat she received through a message from President Jair Bolsonaro's lawyer, Frederico Wassef. Dal Piva appealed to the Judiciary and she also had the support of other journalists, but she thinks that she was attacked differently for being a woman.

“If you look at the most serious incident for me, several fellow journalists cover this issue that involves Bolsonaro, [Fabrício] Queiroz and company. One of them received nothing [no attacks]. Another journalist, a man who did some very important stories on the case as well, is Fábio Serapião, the reporter who exposed the Coaf report (Council for the Control of Financial Activities) in December 2018. He is the reporter who did the story about Michelle's checks, which she received from Queiroz [Michelle Bolsonaro, wife of Jair Bolsonaro, received 27 deposits, for a total of R$ 89,000 (about US $17,800), from Fabrício Queiroz, who was investigated in an alleged case of diversion of public funds by senator Flávio Bolsonaro, son of Jair Bolsonaro]. Frederico [Bolsonaro’s lawyer] didn't send these messages to Serapião, you know?,” she said.

Among the most common types of violence, content that uses swearing or hostile words appears in first place (35.4%), followed by attacks on their work (34.1%), disqualification of the work performed (33.7%), and misogynist attacks or with a sexual connotation (19.4%).

“For some time now, especially I think during the Bolsonaro government, we have noticed, I have noticed, even looking at the situation of colleagues, that the attacks have been much more personal, aimed directly at the journalist. And this is a way of intimidating and silencing a professional as well. Especially those who work as freelancers, as I do now,” said freelance journalist Alves.

For Barbosa, in a scenario of trivialization of violence against women on the internet, disinformation and political violence against journalists impact women journalists much more strongly than men. She notes that violence against women and the LGBT+ community carries a sexual connotation, focuses on physical appearance or tries to diminish credibility, which are already widespread practices in Brazilian society.

According to the survey respondents, the aggressors were mostly unknown to the victims (36.7%), 18.9% came from public profiles, 12.6% were the target of bots and 8.4% of the cases of aggression came from politicians. In the latter case, President Jair Bolsonaro appears as the second profile with the highest percentage of observed cases. 19.8% of participants pointed to him as a source of attacks against journalists, behind only representatives of the Legislature (21.9%), which reinforces how this type of violence has been normalized in the spheres of power.

“The Bolsonaro government uses violence against journalists and disinformation practices as communication strategies. This started with the electoral campaign and was institutionalized as a political strategy of his Presidency, following the example of [Donald] Trump, who claimed that all stories he did not agree with were ‘fake news,’” Barbosa said. "We see how these attacks have grown and are associated with disinformation, and some are even threats and insults to attack the credibility of the press."

Disinformation is one of the pillars of the study. The other two pillars are “online violence” and “protection and platforms.” The main effects related to disinformation, in the relationship between society and the press, are the normalization of attacks on journalists (85.6%) and discrediting the work of the press (81%), according to respondents.

Among journalists who have already suffered online violence, only 21.9% said the attacks happened in only one place, which shows how violence and hate speech are amplified on social media. The main platform where journalists report having suffered attacks is Facebook (26.1%). Next, Twitter (20.6%). The website of the news outlet where the person works appears in third place, with 17.3% of reported cases.

Journalist and co-founder of Amazônia Real, Kátia Abreu said that the website’s policy is not to publish hateful comments. “We receive a lot of racist comments, comments from people unhappy with the stories. We don't post misogynist, racist, or biased comments. We neutralize them, but even so, there are people who still send many attacks via comments, which we receive. But we don't publish them, we won’t spread them at all,” she said in an interview for the study.

Platforms do not respond accordingly

Platforms still have a long way to go to offer support and adequate responses. They need to implement protection mechanisms and rules in order to monitor and punish these crimes. According to the study, more than one quarter of people who suffered an online aggression (26%) did not have their complaints validated by the platforms and 1.3% were not even able to file a complaint on the platform where it happened. For 52.5% of respondents, there should be stricter, specific legislation to hold accountable the production and dissemination of fake news.

Given that there is no single solution to end disinformation and hate speech against women and LGBT+ journalists, Gênero e Número and Reporters Without Borders offer a series of recommendations that deal with the roles of the State, platforms and news outlets. All material is available free of charge, can be accessed online and also downloaded (in Portuguese), in PDF format, from the study’s website.

*Vitória Régia da Silva is assistant editor at Gênero e Número.

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