It’s All Journalism: Tech Thwarts Threat of Online Trolls

It’s All Journalism is a weekly conversation about the changing state of the media and the future of journalism.

The days of women being catcalled on the street by construction workers are long gone. Now, some women find themselves the subject of unwanted attention, hostility, even death threats while sitting behind their computer screens, doing their jobs or posting their opinions.

What little protections are in place to protect women, and especially women writers and journalists, are insufficient and do nothing to discourage these kinds of attacks from online trolls, said Michelle Ferrier, associate dean of innovation at Scripps College of Journalism at Ohio University. And it’s just getting worse.

A report from the Pew Research published in revealed that a full 25 percent of women have been sexually harassed online, while 26 percent have been stalked.

“I think it points to a problem that’s very gendered and focused around women and the Internet as a tool for communication,” Ferrier said. Women whose online presence is rooted in written communication are particularly at risk for this kind of treatment.

Another group, Women, Action and the Media, looked exclusively at Twitter activity and found that among writers, 27 percent of women had experienced some kind of hate speech directed at them, while another 22 percent were the subject of doxxing, where their personal, private information had been published online, leaving them susceptible to having their identity stolen or, worse, vulnerable to personal, physical attacks in their own homes.

It’s not that these women are “making” themselves easier targets online. “I think they’re the typical targets,” Ferrier said of women in general. “When you think about the kinds of issues we have in society, the physical world, they translate into the technology we have built online. Gender bias in society translates into the kinds of intimidation women experience online in these kinds of platforms and forums.”

That these trolls largely stay anonymous provides them a sense of safety in their own identity while attacking another “without repercussion, without consequence,” she said. “I think there’s another aspect as well. If you think about this as a young teenager, a boy in a basement who has self-esteem issues, doing this in his free time because he gets a power trip off of it. That might be partly true. But what we’re seeing is a concerted effort by groups online to shut down powerful women’s voices, and that includes women who have an opinion.”

Ferrier points to a female reporter in Europe who asked, innocently enough, why more women shouldn’t appear on currency and, as a result, received many death threats. For every woman whose story of online intimidation, threats of death or rape or physical harm become public, there are hundreds more who live in fear and silence.

In April, the Knight Foundation gave Ferrier at $35,000 grant to start Troll Busters, an online suite of services she’s developing to support targets of online harassment, particular women writers, journalists and publishers. Not only is she looking to provide assistance and tools for women in online media, she’s hoping to flood those women who have been targeted with positive messages through one component of Troll Busters called HeartMob.

There’s a twofold goal here, Ferrier said.

“What I hope it does as well is send a message to trolls that someone outside the person they’re targeting is watching and collecting information,” she said. “Perhaps it puts them in a little bit of fear they’ll be found out.”

On this week’s It’s All Journalism, Producer Michael O’Connell talks with Michelle Ferrier, associate dean of innovation at Scripps College of Journalism at Ohio University, about the threat many women journalists face from online trolls. She also discusses Troll Busters, a suite of technology designed to combat online harassment.