1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Freedom of Speech

Half the world on mute: the fight against online harassment

Michaela Cavanagh
October 28, 2019

For women journalists, online harassment and abuse aren't just questions of workplace safety but also of censorship, writes Canadian DW editor Michaela Cavanagh.

Hashtag #Hate
Image: DW

For Michelle Ferrier, necessity was the mother of invention. More than 10 years ago, Ferrier was working as a journalist at a US newspaper when she began to receive hate mail. Ferrier is African-American, and the letters she received were racist, violent and relentless. Eventually, the intensity of the letters made her so fearful for her safety that she was forced from her job and had to leave the state entirely. "There was a direct correlation between that harassment and my ability to earn a living in the profession I had chosen," she says. "It was not only the financial impact, but the emotional impact of this kind of activity — it spilled over from me to my family and had a significant effect on my children," says Ferrier. In 2014, Ferrier founded TrollBusters, a rescue service for women journalists experiencing harassment.

A tale as old as time: Woman expresses opinion in public; woman gets told to 'go back to the kitchen' (1, 2)

Twitter Tweets
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Warnecke

Though Ferrier faced harassment and abuse in their "analog" forms — handwritten letters sent to her office — the rise of the internet has been accompanied by the rise of online harassment, intimidation and hate, which has become more accessible, instantaneous and easier than ever and can now be coordinated and anonymous. From deepfakes to doxing, online harassment and abuse are effective tools to silence women and "mute" the experiences of half the world.

From Gamergate — a 2014 coordinated harassment campaign where trolls on Reddit, 4Chan, and Twitter targeted women in the video game industry (3) — to female Members of Parliament in the UK being targeted with misogynistic abuse by Brexiteers (4) last year, to award-winning New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi being trolled and fat-shamed by ISIS, if you're a woman whose profession requires you to be on the internet, you likely have a similar story.

As the work of journalists increasingly takes place online, we spend more of our lives inhabiting this digital world — and for some, it's a hostile environment. A 2018 Amnesty International study (5) analyzed 14 million tweets received by 778 women journalists and politicians and found that in 2017, a woman was abused on Twitter every 30 seconds — with Black women and women of color respectively 84% and 34% more likely to be harassed then white women (6). 

Tanya O'Carroll, the director of Amnesty Tech, calls online abuse what it is: a form of censorship. "Especially given that Facebook, Twitter and others talk about the fact that they're mainly there to promote freedom of expression, they’re very reluctant to take down content," she says. "These platforms are talking about the censorship consequences of removing content, but what about the censorship consequences of this kind of targeted harassment? What are the net consequences of silencing women in this very orchestrated way? Women turning off their accounts or turning away from sharing specific kinds of content, for example sharing political views — those are also censorship consequences," says O'Carroll.

Symbolbild Hate Speech
Image: DW/P. Böll

So just what does online harassment look like? A lot like the famous saying about pornography, you know it when you see it — or rather, when you are the target of it. It can range from relatively benign unwanted attention from "reply guys," to name-calling and dehumanizing comments, doxing — when a harasser broadcasts your personal information, like your address or phone number online — blackmailing (threatening to share incriminating photos, videos or information online) or rape or death threats directed to you and/or your family. And it doesn't always look like what we expect "trolling" to look like.

In one of the most recent and malignant examples, a number of senior French journalists were recently suspended or fired for allegedly coordinating online harassment of female colleagues via a closed Facebook group — the Ligue du LOL — for years, spreading sexual memes and doctored photos of its targets. "This isn't something that's coming from the deep dingy circles of 4Chan," says Rossalyn Warren, journalist and author of Targeted and Trolled. (7) "I know of male journalists who have second accounts to target women journalists who they don't like."

DW Sendung Shift
Image: DW

When Ferrier was targeted with racist threats in 2008, she turned to the FBI, the CIA, the US Department of Justice and professional journalism organizations for assistance and found "there was no one doing work on these issues except the Committee to Protect Journalists, which was focused more on journalists in dangerous physical environments," she says. Ferrier launched TrollBusters, which describes itself as "online pest control for journalists," in 2014. TrollBusters offers a one-stop shop if you're a victim of online abuse — everything from first responder services for stemming the flow of online abuse as it's happening, to psychological and legal support, training and education, and work on long-term strategic policy and legislation.

But the onus to protect women from online harassment and abuse should fall on the platforms themselves, says O'Carroll. When Amnesty International met with Jack Dorsey at Twitter with its findings, Twitter never disagreed with them. "They recognize the scale of the problem," she says. On Twitter, tools for women to shield themselves from harassment and abuse do exist — the mute button, advanced quality filters, the block button, among others — but they are not user-friendly or well-advertised. "At this point, really and clearly abusive content is staying on Twitter for months," placing the burden on women to report abusive content and follow up on the reports.

Deutschland Merkel Selfie mit Anas Modamani
Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Though Amnesty International's research honed in on Twitter, other social media platforms also have a lot to answer for. In 2017, Anas Modamani, a Syrian refugee living in Germany, filed an injunction against Facebook after a selfie of him and Merkel was used in fake news reports linking him to terrorist attacks in Berlin and Brussels — but ultimately, he lost the case. Anti-Muslim hate speech proliferates (8) on platforms like Facebook, from websites using fake anti-Muslim headlines (9) to politicians broadcasting (10) their Islamophobic views to supporters. Meanwhile, calling men "scum" or "trash" on Facebook is now considered hate speech (11).

When I reached out to Twitter for comment, a spokesperson responded to my inquiry addressing me as 'Michael' in the corporate communications equivalent of a Freudian slip (my name is Michaela). "Twitter is an open platform that encourages users to express themselves freely, however, we take action when that behavior crosses the line into abuse or harassment," she wrote. "Improving the health of the conversation on Twitter is our number one priority. It's more important than our bottom line." But this isn't what O'Carroll experienced in Amnesty’s talks with Twitter. "What we've called on them to do is really just enforce their own terms of service, which essentially means hiring more moderators," says O'Carroll. "In order for this to be a platform that is a safe space for women, you need to have more moderators, and if that means taking less profit, then that means taking less profit."

Another possible solution? More women driving the agenda behind the scenes at social media platforms.

Cybermobbing und Internetkriminalität
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"The question is who decides what's offensive and what isn't," says Warren. On Instagram, for example, photos depicting period blood (12), female nipples (13) and plus-sized bodies (14) have been removed because they violate the platform’s community guidelines, which sends the message that women — and their bodies — are shameful, illicit and offensive.

The original raison d'etre of social networks was to create spaces for people to express themselves — and when those spaces opened up, women were able to express themselves in ways that had been far more difficult in a pre-internet era, providing a platform for movements that have challenged sexism, like #MeToo. "The internet is where women are connecting their voices and actually taking a powerful position on saying, 'enough is enough,' so when you force them to turn away again, it harms the whole society when discourse which is supposed to be advancing ends up plateauing," says O'Carroll. "It takes brave women who can continue to weather that level of constant targeted abuse, to keep coming online and to keep having an opinion and expressing it loudly and proudly."

The author, Michaela Cavanagh, is a digital journalist at DW. The shown article is an excerpt of the book "Unbias the News," conceptualized by the NPO Hostwriter and published by CORRECTIV.


1 https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/sports/go-back-to-the-kitchen-gamer-records-verbal-abuse/2019/02/26/f9a484da-fb92-4c52-b133-5f2679ea8eee_video.html?utm_term=.1ebdc1bdb81e


2 https://www.skysports.com/football/news/11095/11656693/international-womens-day-im-here-on-ability-not-gender-says-michelle-owen


3 http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/19/opinion/weinberger-gamergate/index.html


4 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/tory-women-mps-targeted-with-sexist-abuse-online-g0g2t0n32


5 Amnesty International, Toxic Twitter: Women’s Experiences of Violence and Abuse on Twitter, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2018/03/online-violence-against-women-chapter-3/


6 https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2018/03/online-violence-against-women-chapter-3/


7 Rossalyn Warren, Targeted and Trolled: The Reality of Being a Woman Online (Melbourne: Penguin Random House, 2015).


8 https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/janelytvynenko/islamophobia-absolutely-relentless-social-media


9 https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/anti-muslim-traffic-arbitrage-is-a-thing


10 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/03/15/short-history-president-trumps-anti-muslim-bigotry/?utm_term=.6f8f88470584


11 https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/02/men-are-scum-inside-facebook-war-on-hate-speech


12 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/03/27/why-did-instagram-censor-this-photo-of-a-fully-clothed-woman-on-her-period/?utm_term=.1dacd58ce8fd


13 https://www.genderopen.de/bitstream/handle/25595/499/Faust_2017_Hair%2CBlood%20and%20the%20Nipple.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y


14 https://www.chatelaine.com/opinion/instagram-censorship-plus-size/