Currently viewing the tag: "online harassment"

Nicole Brumley
Special to the RJRC

May 1, 2018

(Courtesy World Trends in Freedom of Expression, UNESCO via Creative Commons)

As a student journalist, I’ve been afforded the protection of speaking to a mostly liberal audience through campus newspapers. But, as a black female journalist, I know this protection will crumble when my work is showcased in larger publications. Having an opinion on social media while being visibly racialized opens the floodgates for abusive trolls. I know deep in my bones, however, that using my voice as a young black woman to talk about difficult issues and tell difficult stories is important.

A 2018 report by Amnesty International referred to Twitter as a “toxic” place for women. The study found that Twitter inadequately enforces policies when women report violence and abuse on their platform. Various journalists and writers reported receiving threats and targeted racism.

According to Amnesty International’s online poll, of the respondents who experienced abuse or harassment on social media, 29 per cent in the United States said they experienced threats of physical or sexual violence. Around half of the women who responded, 53 per cent in the U.S. and 47 per cent in the United Kingdom, said the abuse included sexist and misogynistic comments.

While the reality of online hate is a nagging concern, my commitment to highlighting controversial issues about race, culture and religion is unwavering. I have written about my own experiences with racism, black Somali women taking a stand again negative media representation, and Muslim women tackling social justice issues. I understand why racialized female journalists sometimes need to take a step back from social media when their personal safety and well-being is under attack online. But when it’s my turn – and I have every reason to think my turn will come – I hope I will be resilient in the face of pressure intended to silence my voice. A recent workshop organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre gave me some tools for doing this.

The April 3rd workshop, which organizers called “Entitled to Your Opinion, ” included a discussion of the effects of online abuse and a session that focused on ways to maintain your well-being when dealing with hate. Dr. Diana Brecher, a Ryerson adjunct faculty member and positive psychology expert, explained that coping training does not involve accepting harassment or giving up the fight to counter it. What it does offer is instruction on how to practice meditation and conscious positive thinking so that you can remain grounded and thrive, even when dealing with online hate.

Noor Javed, a Toronto Star reporter, talked about the backlash she experienced as a result of a story she wrote 10 years ago about polygamy in Toronto’s Muslim community. She reported about imams who officiated the marriages and also practiced polygamy, and the impact it had on women who were first and second wives.

Social media platforms weren’t as active at the time, Javed said, but there was considerable backlash from members of the Muslim community who criticized her on blogs and online forums, and even launched an email campaign against her. The story resurfaced recently, she said, because it is being shared online by right-wing Muslim groups.

And once again she is being “hated” because of it, only this time it’s on Facebook and Twitter where the story has been shared.

“It made me think ‘would I have written that story today?’” said Javed. “In today’s anti-Muslim political climate, I probably wouldn’t have.”

It was disheartening to hear first-hand how online hate and racism can influence the kinds of stories journalists report on. I realized how the intensity of online hate differs for various racialized women: Javed’s experience with online hate as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, will undoubtedly differ from mine as black woman. But it’s also important to remember who benefits when these stories are told. Javed’s experience was case in point: She said that when her story first appeared, it started a much needed conversation about polygamy in the Muslim community and many Muslim women were happy to have a place to discuss their views on the matter.

Javed told workshop participants she has dealt with hate by occasionally taking some time offline. She also finds solace in the support she receives from her colleagues who understand the toll that comes with being publicly hated, threatened and verbally abused.

We also see publications like the Toronto Star taking action by disabling its comment section online – a move some argued posed a limit to reader engagement. I think the Star did the right thing: newsrooms cannot stand idly by while their journalists face a barrage of online abuse. Space for informed public debate is diminished when ignorance and hate prevails. Javed said the paper has also been understanding about giving reporters time off when they are feeling overwhelmed by online hate and harassment.

During her presentation to the 25 or so students attending the workshop Javed recalled being told by another journalist that “if you want to stay in journalism as a brown Muslim woman who wears a hijab, you will need to have thick skin.” As a black, female journalist, I hope that I will not only develop a thick skin, but have the necessary support and personal resiliency to tell difficult stories, and voice opinions some people just don’t want to hear.

Nicole Brumley is in her final year of studies at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. She has worked as the Communities Editor at the Eyeopener Newspaper. Nicole is also a reporter for RUtv News and a photographer.

Special to the RJRC

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Left to right: Shauna Hunt, Hana Shafi, Paula Todd and Ryerson School of Journalism instructor Lisa Taylor.  (Allison Ridgway)


The harassment of reporters online and during live television hits can have personal consequences for women in the field and affect their careers, veterans of the troll wars said during a panel discussion hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Harassment – both online and off – most often targets female journalists and raises concerns about their safety on the job, author and journalist Paula Todd told a room packed with journalism students during the Oct. 28 event. This in turn, she warned, may make producers hesitant about sending women out to do live broadcasts at all.

“Imagine if you’ve worked hard to get this position [as a reporter],” Todd said, “and now someone is trying to prevent you from doing your job.”

Fellow panelist and CityNews reporter Shauna Hunt knows all too well how harassment interferes with her ability to do her job. Since it was popularized by several online videos in 2014, she and other women journalists across North America have had the phrase “f**k her right in the p***y” (known by the acronym FHRITP) yelled at them by passersby while they are trying to film live hits.

Hunt said she has been interrupted by children, men in business suits and drivers who roll down their windows to shout the obscenity as they pass by. Reporters at her station, she said, have tried to cope by using noise cancellation equipment and repositioning the camera in quieter areas where there are fewer people. In the latter case, filming away from the crowd is at odds with the whole point of doing a live hit, which is to be in the middle of the action.

“The anxiety level used to be very high,” Hunt said. “We’d say in the newsroom, ‘I just don’t want to do [this story]’ because we knew we’d go out there and be harassed.”

Hunt’s decision to confront men who interrupted her when she was covering Toronto FC’s home opener in May went viral after CityNews aired the footage. The video now has more than 5,400,000 views on YouTube.

The publicity, Hunt said, seems to have discouraged copycats: “I’m not being harassed the way I was before this story went viral,” she said. “I used to be fearful, but the anxiety happens a lot less now.”

Interrupting women while they are doing their jobs is not a harmless prank as some have argued, said Todd, whose book, Extreme Mean: Ending Cyberabuse at Work, School and Home, examines why people – often men – choose to demean, stalk and threaten others.

“FHRITP is an attack against female journalists,” she explained. “It’s an incitement to violence against women. They are being told that a part of their body is going to be violated…it’s all about denigrating women.”

Harassment, whether it is online or in the field, is not free speech, Todd said, noting that in fact it can stifle free speech by silencing women’s voices and making people afraid.

Indeed panelist Hana Shafi said online trolls forced her off the Internet for two months.

“I got harassed a lot,” Shafi, a 2015 Ryerson journalism graduate, told the audience, “Like, all the time, on a constant basis.”

Shafi often writes about social justice issues and controversial topics and she says this draws the ire of those who don’t like her challenging the status quo. Instead of simply disagreeing with her opinions, she said she gets “hundreds” of messages from online trolls hurling insults, slurs and threats.

In her first year as a journalist, the online harassment worsened to the point where Shafi said she began to question why she’d ever gone into the field. Eventually, though, it was her love of writing that brought her back onto the Internet.

“I realized that I couldn’t suppress the urge to write something,” Shafi explained. “I just had to get my two cents out there.”

While she said she doesn’t respond to trolls and just blocks them, she does get screenshots of their tweets, posts and messages and shares them on Twitter as proof of what she deals with.

“Always make sure that when you get harassed, you talk about it, otherwise it will continue to be normalized,” Shafi said. “Don’t frame it as an exchange of opinions or a Facebook status debate. It’s not. Online harassment is violence, and we need to start acknowledging that.”

Todd offered the similar advice: “We can’t go offline,” she said. “If you surrender the Internet to people who use it for hatred, eventually the people who are trying to change the world for the better will have no voice. We need to use the Internet in even greater numbers to counter every single negative, racist, sexist and other-ist comment out there.”