How Brazilian authorities amplify misogynistic and racist attacks against journalists on social media

*By Laís Martins and Giovana Fleck, originally published by Revista AzMina

Warning: The story below includes explicit passages of misogynistic and racist content. We have chosen not to censor them because we think it is important to exemplify how violent the debate is on social media, how violence against women journalists spreads, what terms are frequently used and how we can identify this violence. 

Online harassment of journalists in Brazil has intensified in recent years due to the potential for exposure created by social media and the institutionalization of these attacks. Through an increasing number of verbal attacks, hate speech against media professionals silences, intimidates, and punishes – especially women. On one hand, attacks by President Jair Bolsonaro against journalists have naturalized this type of violence on online platforms. On the other hand, those who should support these professionals are guilty of lack of accountability. This is what a study on violence against journalists on social media reveals.

The study – “How are influence operations across platforms used to attack journalists and weaken democracies?” – shows that misogyny and racism are present in strategies to attack media professionals. This work was a collaboration by InternetLab, National Institute for Science and Technology in Digital Democracy (INCT.DD, by its Portuguese acronym), the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab (DFRLab), Vero Institute, AzMina, and Volt Data Lab.

Carte blanche to attack

Since Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president in January 2019, indicators that measure the situation of journalism in the country have worsened. Between 2019 and 2020, the NGO Artigo 19 denounced a sharp decline in freedom of expression, revising the classification of the Brazilian journalistic environment from "Open" to "Restricted."

In 2020, the National Federation of Journalists (Fenaj) recorded 428 episodes of violence against press professionals, while the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recorded 580 attacks in the country. In 2021, for the first time in 20 years, Brazil was placed by RSF in the red zone of its ranking on freedom of expression. Since the beginning of the Bolsonaro administration, the country has already lost 10 positions in the RSF’s ranking.

The number of attacks on journalists by public authorities, including the president himself, has also increased in recent years. And often these attacks have a target — women. Monitoring by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) on violence against women journalists identified that 52% of the attacks came from authorities, headed by Bolsonaro.

It is important to remember that the fact that these aggressions come from public authorities can encourage ordinary citizens to attack journalists on their own.

"Once there is a public official signaling [that it’s OK to attack journalists], it’s almost like a coded message for supporters to attack, abuse and offend journalists and anyone who opposes or criticizes what these people do while they are in power," Carlos Gaio, senior legal manager at Media Defence, which provides legal assistance to journalists around the world, said.

Racist and misogynist attacks

The virtual environment is especially violent for journalists. On Twitter, for example, women journalists receive more than twice as many offenses as their male colleagues. In the textual analysis of the attacks, gender bias was evident. But there is also a significant presence of racism: "There are differences between white male journalists and white female journalists, but the disparity is even greater if we compare them with non-white journalists," Pedro Borges, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Alma Preta, a journalism agency specializing in racial issues, said.

In 2020, Borges was blocked on Twitter by the then president of the Palmares Cultural Foundation (FCP) [a federal institution dedicated to the promotion of Afro-Brazilian culture], Sérgio Camargo, who also used his Twitter profile to claim that Alma Preta "defends thugs." In another publication, two years later, he said the news outlet "plays the victim."

Borges was not the only one, since Camargo also attacked other journalists, such as Flávia Oliveira, GloboNews commentator and host of the podcast Angu de Grilo. "I was told that the comments on his publication were even worse," Borges said. "That was the only thing I spared myself from, reading the comments," the journalist added.

"We never did any story about Camargo's personal life. He has every right to criticize a story, to point out when something is wrong, but he always chooses to attack [journalists] on a personal level," Borges said.

Alma Preta’s editor-in-chief has filed two lawsuits against the former president of the FCP. The first one requests that Camargo unblocks him on Twitter to guarantee Borges’ right to exercise the profession as a journalist. The second one asks for compensation for moral damages as a result of the attacks and offenses suffered. According to Borges, the lawsuits have not yet been judged by the court. He says that receiving attacks is a constant in his journalistic practice, before and after the attacks perpetrated by Camargo.

Constructing hate speech

In the study — “How are influence operations across platforms used to attack journalists and weaken democracies?”— it was observed that language is different in attacks against journalists of a certain gender and ethnicity. Black and Asian women, for example, are more associated with the terms "biased" and "ridiculous." White women, on the other hand, are more associated with terms connecting them to communism, not simply as a comment on their political position, but as a way to attack them, and are also called "terrorists" or "journazi."

On Twitter, the keywords that centralize attacks were identified as belonging to six main groups: minority groups (“Black,” “woman,” “Indigenous,” “racism,” “rape”), sexual terms (“whore,” “faggot,” “sucker,” “ass”), terms that criticize political positions further to the left (“communist,” “leftist,” “Cuba,” “Venezuela,” “corrupt,” “thug”), professional competence (“biased,” “fake journalist,” “manipulator,” “partisan”), supposed lack of intellectual capacity (“illiterate,” “functional illiterate,” “ignorant,” “dumb,” “demented”), and a variation having to do with assuming a lack of intellectual capacity (“imbecile,” “ridiculous,” “journazi,” “idiot,” “retarded”).

On YouTube, the study observed a series of attacks directed, especially, to news outlets. The TV channel Band and the newspaper Folha de São Paulo are associated with the words "rotten," "liar," "militant," "biased," in addition to more specific expressions such as "scoop," used with sexual connotations to attack women journalists. "Garbage" and "sewer" are associated with other channels like Globo, UOL, CNN, along with "bankrupt," "misinformation," and other words that indicate supposed lack of credibility or lies. When the offenses are directed at journalists, expressions such as "bum," "communist," "scoundrel," "whore," among others, are used.

According to Fernanda K. Martins, director of InternetLab and one of the coordinators of the research, "observing the vocabulary used to attack journalists makes us realize that the offenses carry vocabulary concentrated in several implicitly or explicitly sexual offenses, which mark the attacks made by radical conservatives in Brazil."

Insufficient response

According to Carlos Gaio, who worked for ten years at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the institutional response to attacks against journalists has been insufficient.

On the Executive side, the Protection Program for Human Rights Defenders, which includes communicators, is flawed, and is one of the few mechanisms of its kind that could protect journalists under attack.

The Judiciary, including the Supreme Court, has also failed to curb lawsuits brought against journalists, Gaio said. There is even a conflict of interest, since one aspect of the attacks against journalists is judicial harassment.

This is the case of reporter Rubens Valente, whose case has had a national and international impact in recent weeks. Experienced in covering human rights and particularly Indigenous and land issues, risky subjects for journalists, Valente saw the harassment and attack against his standing as a professional come from a much more institutionalized environment: the Supreme Court.

The journalist was sentenced by the Superior Court of Justice (STJ), in a sentence later confirmed by the Supreme Court, to pay more than R$300,000 [US $70,000] to Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes for "moral damages" for the publication of the book “Operação Banqueiro [Operation Banker].” In it, Valente investigates banker Daniel Dantas, arrested in 2008 in a Federal Police operation.

The sentence also requires him to "include in an eventual reprint of the book, as a right of reply, the sentence, accompanied by a full and faithful transcription of the initial petition filed by Gilmar Mendes," according to a report by Agência Pública, which shed light on the judicial harassment suffered by the journalist.

Valente said that since 2014, when Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes filed the lawsuit against him, his work as a journalist has been impacted in two ways. First, because he voluntarily refrained from further covering Gilmar Mendes despite tips he received from sources. "I declared myself ethically impeded," Valente said in a video conversation. Second, Valente points to time lost while building his defense and to attacks he suffered as a consequence of the lawsuit filed by Mendes.

Although the judicial harassment against Valente has not turned into attacks on social media, what worries the journalist is that the untruths propagated against him will remain. "One goal of the defamatory campaign is to create this cloud, this shadow, so the goal is achieved," the journalist said. He is concerned about the state of his reputation before international bodies, which may eventually judge his case.

Rubens Valente's case was taken by Abraji, in partnership with Media Defence and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The assessment is that the decision against the reporter represents a dangerous precedent for press freedom in Brazil.

Network defense

Civil society has been left with the mission of making a stand and helping journalists protect themselves against attacks. This is true both in cases where journalists publish independently and when more incisive responses and reactions from government institutions and newsrooms are lacking.

Since 2018, the Vladimir Herzog Institute has coordinated the National Network for the Protection of Journalists and Communicators, a space to articulate the fight against violence.

In 2021, Abraji launched the Legal Protection Program for Journalists, funded by Media Defence in partnership with the TornaVoz Institute. The program has so far received four cases, among them two journalists who are the target of a lawsuit filed by Luciano Hang [a businessman and important ally of president Jair Bolsonaro].

According to Gaio, the network response is important to give visibility to the growing abuses. But this response does not exempt any other parties — news outlets, social media platforms and government institutions — from taking responsibility and taking action to stop attacks against press professionals.

Twitter, the most popular platform among journalists, has clear policies on abusive behavior and the spread of hate speech, but falls short in terms of monitoring, identifying and removing offenses. "The platforms say they are making a great effort, but the gap is still very large regarding the volume of attacks, the operation of bots and trolls attacking journalists. On the other hand, they seem to be quick to silence or block accounts for offenses that don't come close to the violence of these attacks, so there seems to be a double standard here," said Gaio, of Media Defence.

As a previous analysis conducted by AzMina with support from Núcleo Jornalismo showed, journalists who cover politics are more exposed to massive attacks on social media, which reinforces the need for measures to be taken especially in election years. In the case of attacks against Black or Indigenous women journalists, the investigation found that only two out of every 10 offenses on Twitter were removed by the platform.

Journalists should think preventively when sharing personal and sensitive information on social media that could fuel attacks. For this reason, it is crucial that newsrooms and media organizations, such as journalists' unions and associations, train their journalists on digital security. And in the case of ongoing assaults, newsrooms should provide support.

"After or during an attack it is also important to document this kind of situation, and to have someone trusted in the newsroom who can provide support to the journalist," Gaio said.