How can journalists respond to growing harassment online? Recent publications advise practitioners and organizations

For at least six years, Brazilian journalist Gabriela Moreira has lived with sporadic waves of hate on the internet. A reporter with ESPN, she is dedicated to covering Brazilian soccer and has a blog where she publishes articles on the day-to-day activities of the clubs and their athletes, as well as investigations on corruption in the sport.

For each report that exposes the shady attitudes of soccer clubs and their leaders, Moreira has become a target of fan groups that, instead of demanding more honesty from their teams, turn against the journalist, aiming at the messenger instead of the message. "In my email inbox or on social networks there's always some insult, some swearing," Moreira told the Knight Center.

She is also a director of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), which has just launched a booklet in Portuguese titled "How to deal with harassment against journalists on social networks." The publication, available online and for download, seeks to help reporters who, like Moreira, face orchestrated attacks –in the form of insults and threats on social networks– just for doing their jobs.

"By the investigative nature of his profession, the journalist is susceptible to criticism," the publication says. "But it's important to separate criticism of work from insults to the person. It is also vital not to naturalize the harassment as if being targeted was part of the job.”

The booklet provides practical guidance for journalists to control access to their data online and avoid being surprised by an attack, and tells how to act when they see themselves at the center of a wave of online harassment.

Marcelo Träsel, also director of Abraji, told the Knight Center that the organization has recorded attacks on journalists since 2013, when there were dozens of cases of journalists harassed by police and demonstrators during street protests in Brazil.

Recently, online harassment has also entered Abraji’s radar, which since March 2017 has recorded 30 cases of online attacks on journalists for their coverage coming from politicians, groups and media companies. It also recorded 45 journalists targeted by undue exposure, harassment and swearing or slander and defamation since May 2018.

A reference for journalists in the country, Abraji was called to action by several professionals who went through this situation. "We tried to help in some way, give some guidance," Träsel said. "But we imagine that it will grow a lot, unfortunately, during the elections, and we realize that we will not be able to attend to everyone individually."

The material was then created so that journalists know what to do when they find themselves in this situation. It is important, for example, to be able to properly record the threats they receive so that they can be accepted as evidence in a possible legal process; or how to report and remove offensive content or content that discloses a journalist’s personal information from social networks. "These are very basic, initial guidelines so that later people can calmly deal with this situation. We do not intend for the booklet to solve all the problems; the idea is to reduce damages initially," Träsel said.

Surviving attacks

Reporter Without Borders (RSF) has also recently launched a publication on the subject. The report, “Online harassment of journalists: the trolls attack,” gives a global overview of the problem.

"The rise in attacks against journalists on the internet is associated with a broader strategy of misinformation," Emmanuel Colombié, RSF regional director for Latin America, told the Knight Center. "The intimidation of journalists, targets of insults and threats to discredit and silence them, is part of this process. Today, orchestrating this kind of action has become relatively simple and inexpensive. In the same way, we see a trend of strong political polarization, which has become a fertile ground for discourses of hatred and intolerance. In this context, journalists were particularly exposed. "

The RSF report also highlights that attacks on women tend to be more frequent and violent than those against their male counterparts working in the same journalistic investigative segments.

"There is a clear gender cut, with women journalists being preferred targets, with attacks often associated with violent and sexual messages," Colombié added. "Journalists who cover politics, or even themes considered taboo, also end up more exposed to this type of retaliation. In addition, the number of cases of violence related to sports coverage, again especially with women reporters, is also surprising.”

This is the case of Gabriela Moreira. In the biggest wave of attacks she has faced so far, the aggravating factor was the participation of a club official whom the reporter investigated.

In the report that aired on Nov. 20, 2017, Moreira reported that Grêmio, a team from the southern region of Brazil, was using drones to spy on opponents' drills. Although the club did not respond to requests for a position on the case, Grêmio's legal director went live on the show's broadcast program and suggested that ESPN was intent on harming the team.

"He denied, saying that I had invented a lie, moving a giant network of hate," Moreira said. "Then Grêmio itself, a club coach, at a press conference, confirmed [the use of drones]. But whoever wanted to think it was a lie had all the institutional support in the figure of the legal director."

From that moment, the reporter was bombarded by insults and threats from club fans on social networks, which included misogynist name-calling and threats of sexual violence.

According to her, to blame the journalist is a strategy used by many clubs to divert attention from the denunciations presented. "When pressed for something, they go to social networks to deny the story, and then they do not simply deny it, but they name [the journalist] all the time. They have that attitude of always naming the reporter, at least with me it is like this. This obviously contributes [to online harassment], because you personalize it, take the focus off of you, and it seems like it's the reporter's personal conduct," Moreira said.

After years of living with these sporadic attacks, the journalist tried another way to deal with the situation. "I had already worked under some waves of hate and I saw that it was very ineffective to keep looking at it. That prevented me from working." Moreira then hired someone to screen the posts, shelving those that contained threats that could be framed as a crime.

The journalist handed over the files to the Police Department for the Repression of Crimes of Sports Intolerance (Drade) in São Paulo and she said they took it to the prosecutor’s office.

The Knight Center contacted the public prosecutor in São Paulo about the status of the inquiry, but was informed that "the case is a judicial secret, decreed by the Judiciary," and that the entity can not disclose any information about it.

Another of the journalist’s actions had a positive result. She selected those who appeared in their profiles on social networks as company employees and contacted their employers. "I referred the insults to the companies saying 'look, I know it's not institutional behavior, but that person works for you and puts it on social networks. I think it's something you should notice in that employee's behavior,'" she said.

According to her, all the companies she contacted dealt with it seriously. In many cases, the attackers have come to apologize for the offensive posts. "It's not revenge," Moreira said. "I just want people to realize that writing some serious offenses, driving hate on social networks against people, that has consequences."

Support networks

Among the recommendations in Abraji's booklet is that colleagues and outlets come out publicly in defense of the journalist who is the victim of online harassment - with the safeguard that "giving visibility to the case may interrupt the natural cycle of declining attacks."

Moreira assesses that it is not the public positioning of the outlet that is the most important, since it would not be an official request of the publication that would stop the attacks. For her, it would be worth more if the media companies legally supported their employees by providing lawyers if the journalist needs to defend, or decide to sue, the trolls.

"We are not receiving this kind of treatment [online harassment] because of something we said in the bakery, but because we are exercising our profession, in that channel," noted the journalist, who said ESPN supports her work, but this support does not extend to legal representation.

Träsel agreed. "Hiring lawyers costs money, and journalists earn little," he said, adding that Abraji encourages journalists who are victims of harassment on social networks to seek redress in civil matters, since most of the time the attacks do not constitute a crime. "I think it is very educational for someone who promotes harassment to receive a subpoena, even if the process does not work out."

In its report, RSF also recommends that the media become more involved in protecting their employees. Among the recommendations to media companies are recognizing the threat and establishing internal mechanisms to support and protect journalists who are being harassed; create response networks with professionals inside and outside the newsrooms - editors, community managers, legal officers - to exchange experiences and best practices in addressing the problem; and to make visible online harassment against journalists through investigations and reports, informing the public and authorities about the subject.

Colombié stresses that although the phenomenon is occurring in a similar way in almost all regions of the world, "it is even more worrisome in countries with serious histories of violence against journalists." "In places like Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Honduras, for example, the impact of these attacks tends to gain another proportion, making the journalist feel they are in real danger, reinforcing psychological trauma and self-censorship."

Moreira also suggests the creation of police stations and courts to conduct such cases, with training and a framework to legally investigate and hold those responsible for harassment online. She sees an “epidemic of hate on social networks," which not only affects journalists and has serious consequences. "It affects a lot of people, it is not just the person who is there [being attacked]. It's the family, their relationships. You can become a more reactive person,” she said. “This has psychological and physical consequences and institutions are not prepared.”