Social media companies need to do more to crack down on fake news and targeted harassment of journalists, according to a group of reporters who have been the victims of trolling online.
Speaking at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia (4 April 2019), four journalists from across the world spoke of their experiences with state-sponsored and state-inspired harassment and trolling on social media, in a session titled 'When a state trolls: strategies for responding to online harassment against journalists'.
The panel were unified in their criticism of companies like Facebook and Twitter and the need to take more responsibility for the content on their platforms.
Rana Ayyub, an Indian investigative journalist and author, explained that the spread of fake news on social media, particularly those which demonise Muslim communities, has fueled violence against minority groups.
"I think, in an Indian context, Facebook and Twitter are actually aiding and amplifying the kind of hate against Muslims that we have not witnessed in decades in India, which has happened in the last five years.
"The first thing that Facebook and Twitter need to do is acknowledge there is a problem. If you do not acknowledge there is a problem, you will not come to a solution, and all social media organisations really need to take their responsibility."
Caroline Muscat, a Maltese reporter and editor of The Shift News, went a step further and said that social media platforms need to be held to more rigorous publishing standards.
"They have to stop considering themselves as a neutral carrier and accept the responsibility of a publisher, with all the fact checking and verification that every editor has to go through before anything is published, and face the liability as another other editor or publisher does when they fail at that," she said.
Editor-in-chief of Turkish publication Ahval, Yavuz Baydar, also said that the need for international and independent fact-checking, such as Google's 'ClaimReview' function will be a very important tool in combating false claims.
The panellists went on to explain the ways in which political groups have tried to shut down and silence their publications in their respective countries and the individual ways the journalists have been affected.
Baydar explained that under President Erdogan, the Turkish government has engaged in the active recruitment of 6,000 social media operatives, known as the AK Trolls (after the ruling party, the AKP), a group of state-sponsored Internet trolls who discredit opposition and spread false information to silence individuals, including journalists.
This tactic is known as 'astroturfing', where an organisation or government funds a group to make it appear as through they attract grassroots support.
Following a story Ahval published criticising the son-in-law of President Erdogan, serving as the country's finance minister, the organisation faced a wave of criticism and calls for the publication to be blocked online in the country.
"We felt very very helpless and we continued to insert our view how transparent we were, how we worked, we wrote editorials explaining who we are, but it had a frightening effect," he said.
Ayyub explained that her attempts to uncover the truth surrounding the 2002 Gujarat riots were hampered by her own publication, who refused to publish it due to political pressure.
Opting instead to publish the investigation in her book 'Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up', she became a victim of a huge wave of targeted harassment online, particularly as both a woman and a practising Muslim in a patriarchal, Hindu-majority nation.
After receiving the title of 'Youth Icon of the Year' in 2018, faked tweets purportedly from Ayyub began circulating, claiming to hate Indians and supported child rapists in the name of Islam. These soon went viral and were even shared by news networks and the head of one of the largest provinces in the country. But that was only the beginning.
The last three days there has been a concerted effort in the form of multiple fake tweets, photoshopped tweets, morphed videos on twitter / fb that even the most sensible have fallen for and have gone viral. Those asking me to clarify, please use your own discretion. pic.twitter.com/alf3qkiQSq— Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub) April 23, 2018
"Two days later, I was sitting with a friend in a coffee shop and I received a WhatsApp message from a professional source in the BJP (the ruling party in India)," she recalled. "
He said: 'I'm going to send you something, but try not to be affected by it'.
"It was a pornographic video, it had my image morphed in it. Nobody can be really ready for something like this, and I wasn't.
"I got a panic attack, I was shifted to a hospital, but within the next three hours screenshots of the porn video were all over the country and most of the mobile phones, including that of my father."
In addition to this, her phone number and address were leaked, in a practice known as doxxing.
In Malta, where journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated in a car explosion, Muscat uncovered six secret Facebook groups, coordinating to target critics of the government and independent journalists. The prime minister, the president and members of parliament were members of these groups, which persistently attacked those who spoke out against the government.
Muscat explained that for her investigation, she and her colleagues have also experienced online threats, including having personal documents and details leaked in the secret groups.
"What I am experiencing is an association, shifting the hate from Daphne on to me. One of the groups had a meme of Daphne, with her picture saying 'one witch disappeared and another one's appeared', and beneath it a government employee writes 'then this one deserves a few more bombs'," she said.
Amongst the panel, there was a sense of agreement that traditional routes to remedy problems, mainly legal avenues, were no longer viable options in their countries. This is because their justice systems are influenced by the ruling government.
"Our lawyer in Ankara is trying but hits a wall. The rule of law is no longer existent. It's a totally dependent judiciary that works for the [President's] Palace, and this creates a lot of hopelessness and helplessness amongst our independent colleagues in Turkey,” explained Baydar.
Ayyub echoed this sentiment, saying that when she approached the courts over the faked pornographic video, three male constables were laughing and smiling as they watched it. Examples like these, the panellists agreed, show that it is important for journalists to band together.
"We, as journalists, need to show more solidarity and overcome the limitations we are facing by coming together and publishing and supporting the challenges we are all facing in parts of the world," Muscat said.
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