Credit: Photo by Grianghraf on Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it a wave of disinformation and conspiracy theories, from anti-vaccine groups to linking 5G to the spread of the virus. As a consequence, reporters on the frontline have been subjected to all manner of online trolling, abuse and harassment.

At BBC's Trust In News conference this week, industry reporters, leaders and campaigners led a discussion on how to protect journalists in this situation.

What it is like on the frontline

Marianna Spring is a specialist reporter covering disinformation and social media for BBC News. Throughout the pandemic, she has been reporting on anti-vaccine propaganda and how bad information spreads online.

It's very unique type of abuse, from being called a satanic paedophile that eats babies, to death threats that have to be escalated to the police.Marianna Spring, BBC News

She is one of those reporters who receive abuse from people who do not like their work. Spring is worried that she is becoming desensitised to the harassment, despite the extreme nature of the abuse she receives.

"It's very unique type of abuse, from being called a satanic paedophile that eats babies, to death threats that have to be escalated to the police and higher," she explains.

Experience does not make the situation any easier, according to Katarina Subasic, a senior fact-checker for AFP, covering Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro.

She is very much used to a hostile environment as a consequence of her reporting into war, conflict and political unrest. Over the years, she learned that threats come usually after a damning story goes to print, or when it is necessary to evacuate from unsafe scenes.

That has all changed in the online environment when abuse can come at any moment and reporters have to always be on guard. It makes it tough to switch off and harder to know how to react when abuse comes your way.

AFP has to assess the severity of threats. Sometimes it is better to ignore them and not risk giving oxygen to the abuse. Other times journalists are encouraged to report it to their editor who can then flag it to the social media platforms or the police in cases of real physical danger.

What Subasic has found useful over the years is the peer support networks, basic protective measures to ensure social platforms do not give away your location (even through uploaded pictures), and the professional support that news organisations ought to be offering online, 24/7.

"When I first faced online harassment, I already had my therapist and I went through a bunch of feelings with him to deal with this kind of stress," she says.

Why are trolls trolling?

Trolling is purposeful behaviour, according to Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate. They fit into two buckets: organisations and individuals.

Organised actors will seek to attack in numbers on a visible platform. These are fringe groups with some high-follower accounts who troll to gain momentum.

Journalists feel under pressure to respond when their phone blows up with 5,000 notifications. The reality, Ahmed said, is that number is actually around 50 densely-connected people all sharing and liking each other's posts.

There are also individuals who get the kick out of causing harm. Ahmed refers to it as 'negative social potency - people who crave the attention - which is why the 'don't feed the trolls' mantra is such an effective approach.

They want to change the things you say, they want you to be scared to say it.Imran Ahmed, CCDH

In terms of death threats, there is zero cost for the offender to send a vicious message. It is, unfortunately, also effective.

"They want to change the things you say, they want you to be scared to say it," Ahmed says. For this reason, he has his emails screened and vetted, with legal or security action decisions are made for him.

"It doesn't affect the way that I think, the choices I make or the work that I do. But I know that if I thought my life was at risk I might choose to actually make our next report about Care Bears and not about anti-vaxxers or ISIS."

The danger is that trolling has a "halo effect" on society: the more the public sees something, the more it becomes normal. Ahmed stressed that trolling cannot become normalised and he called on social media platforms to take ownership of the issue.

Currently, the likes of Twitter and Facebook are not legally liable for content on their platforms, because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The recently elected Biden Administration is considering reforming or revoking the law.

Old problem, new solutions

This issue is not new. In the years before social media, disgruntled readers would take to phoning up news desks or sending in written complaints to voice their displeasure. They would be no less vitriolic than the type of abuse we see today online, according to Diana Swain, senior investigative editor for CBC News, the Canadian national broadcaster.

The difference is that trolls are getting smart in their tactics nowadays, resorting to searching and publishing private information about an individual online usually with malicious intent (doxxing). Journalists are also fed false information to trick them into reporting misleading stories. Websites, social media ads and memes have also been created with the aim of pushing false information to discredit journalists.

CBC has responded with its own measures, including media monitoring software that can geolocate posts. This offers an approximate location, thus assessing any risk of danger. Like Ahmed, it also uses email filtering software so that journalists do not have to face abusive messages.

As a public broadcaster, CBC has an open contact section where getting in touch with a reporter is very simple. It believes that this is necessary given its public role. But journalists should not have to find their inbox littered with abuse as a consequence.

"Sometimes it's the sheer weight of reading those emails when they come at you which can be difficult to bear," Swain explains.

Canadian harassment law requires an offender to have been warned that their actions are considered harassment at least once, before they can be charged with harassment. For that reason, CBC intervenes with cease and desist letters when people are sending messages considered to be abusive. The public has a misperception that the internet, borderless in its nature, is somehow exempt from harassment laws. CBC reminds these people that is not the case.

Staff are also given a quick reference document that offers stock responses to negative comments and guidance on when, and how, to escalate concerns. Generally, journalists are advised to limit engagement with trolls as this rarely works in their favour.

"Unfortunately, like a bad poker player, you're going to reveal your hand, your weaknesses and they will prey on that."

Looking for a job in the media? Subscribe to our daily newsletter and keep an eye on our jobs board for the latest announcements.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).