A study found that journalists in Latin America are attacked more for their political opinions on Twitter than for their work, and that after online attacks, 68 percent of them restricted the frequency of their publications, withdrew temporarily from this social network or stopped publishing on sensitive topics.
The survey was carried out between April 2019 and April 2020, with funding from UNESCO's International Program for the Development of Communication (IPDC) and implemented by the organizations Sentiido, from Colombia, and Comunicación para la Igualdad, from Argentina. The study was coordinated by Sandra Chaher and Lina Cuellar and published in full on June 21, 2021.
The survey took into account cases of violence on Twitter against 66 journalists, mostly women, in seven countries in the region: Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Of these 66, in addition to data mining and analysis of their profiles, 28 underwent qualitative interviews (three women and one man per country).
“Most (65%) of attacks on journalists are concentrated into two categories: criticisms of their work as journalists and of their political ideas, with the latter prevailing. Most are accused, regardless of their gender, of working for one political side or another,” a study summary said. Thus, attacks occur more when a journalist gives their opinion than when they publish a link to a story they wrote, for example.
The fact that aggressions focus more on political positions is related, according to the document, to a high social polarization, which is aggravated by the design of algorithms for social networks.
Furthermore, the report says it is linked to the growing role of journalists, who are seen as influencers, on the networks. That is, followers seek journalist profiles not only for their work in the press, but also –and perhaps mainly–, to learn about other aspects of their daily and personal life: political opinions, the causes they defend, their tastes and comments on subjects that they do not usually cover.
The study also shows that the attacks have clear consequences. Of those interviewed, 68 percent said that their freedom of expression was affected and that their behavior changed after the attacks. Likewise, 75 percent reported being attacked on other social networks, in public, by email or by telephone. This demonstrates that violence against journalists is not limited to the internet, and that their online and offline lives are not disconnected.
Another relevant statistic from the survey is that 95 percent of journalists felt negative emotions after the attacks, such as anger, fear, shame, among others. Although this online violence affects the journalists psychologically and their practices, none of the interviewees left Twitter permanently as a result of the attacks.
“A situation arises in which these people build strategies (temporary or selective withdrawals, blocking attackers, limiting their reading of notifications, among others) to continue to participate in a space they perceive as violent and hostile, but in which they stay as part of the ‘rules of the game’ of contemporary political life,” the report said.
In addition to not abandoning Twitter permanently, 43 percent of respondents did not take any steps to increase their security. And 86 percent of them responded that the organizations or companies they worked for did not offer any kind of training before the attacks and only 25 percent did so afterwards.
One of the main objectives of the study was to identify differences in attacks according to the journalists' gender. Like men, women were attacked mainly for their political positions, but, discriminatory terms in relation to gender and expressions with sexual connotations are used against them more.
In cases of violence against women, there were 10 percent more mentions questioning their intellectual abilities, compared to attacks against men. There were also 20 percent more sexist expressions and 30 percent more comments about their physical appearance – a number that is double in Argentina and Uruguay. Likewise, many of the attacks against women use their names in the diminutive, as a way of infantilizing them, something that was not identified in any of the cases of the male journalists.
The study also identified that women are attacked when they cover feminist protests or take a stand on related issues, such as the legalization of abortion. In these cases, the use of pejorative terms, like "feminazi" or "femininja,” are common.
In addition to the nature of attacks being different against men and women, the impacts are also different. Women journalists more often responded that they felt negative emotions as a result of the assaults, compared to their male counterparts, and 75 percent of them assumed some form of self-censorship – a rate 7 percent higher than among men. Another important point of the survey is that women stopped using terms such as "patriarchy" and "sexist" to avoid further aggression.
Therefore, the report's coordinators conclude that the attacks have been successful in silencing women and, above all, feminist discourse.
The document also says that women seem to be more affected or more sensitive than men when it comes to attacks and, perhaps because of this, they react more.
“Women formally report the violence to Twitter much more than men: 71 percent in relation to 43 percent of men. Women were fairly more proactive than men in their reactions to attacks: only 19 percent did nothing, in comparison with 43 percent of men. Women were also more active in modifying their digital practices: 62 percent did something, in relation to 43 percent of men,” the report said.
For the coordinators, this shows that male journalists accept online violence as something that is "part of the game" more easily than women. Thus, women journalists tend to reject and try to change these invisible rules more frequently, as they understand that this environment limits their participation in public debate.
The report said that, “while both women and male journalists perceive the violence received negatively, men appear to have ‘thicker skins’ and are less alarmed at attacks.”
“One remaining question is whether women and men should in the future ‘naturalize’ and learn to ‘tolerate’ violence if they want to participate on social media and, particularly, be part of the contemporary political debate; or whether it might be possible to imagine less aggressive spaces of debate, both offline and online. We understand that this is one of the great dilemmas currently present in social media, along with how to regulate the content circulating there.”