New research released on March 8, which marks International Women’s Day, provides the most comprehensive assessment to date of the online violence against a prominent woman journalist.
The research which was published by the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and conducted by Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) members Julie Posetti , Diana Maynard  and Kalina Bontcheva  consists of a big data analysis “of the torrent of social media attacks on internationally celebrated digital media pioneer Maria Ressa over a five-year period (2016-2021)”.
The research “detail[s] the intensity and ferocity of this abuse, and demonstrate[s] how it is designed not only to vilify a journalism icon, but to discredit journalism itself, and shatter public trust in facts”. It is also shown how “[t]hese attacks (…) created an enabling environment for Ressa’s persecution and prosecution in the Philippines” where Ressa “faces a barrage of baseless lawsuits that seek to criminalize her work and expose her to a century in prison” according to Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, the co-lead of Ressa’s international legal team.
The research further shows how “the furor of disinformation and attacks” targeting the former CNN war correspondent and UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize jury chair Maria Ressa is emblematic of “a very 21st century storm (…) – one in which credible journalists are subjected to online violence with impunity; where facts wither and democracies teeter”.
Key research findings show that: “almost 60% of the attacks on Ressa (…) extracted from Facebook and Twitter for analysis were designed to undermine her professional credibility and public trust in her journalism”.
Attacks intending to harm Ressa’s credibility or reputation “frequently deployed disinformation tactics and abuse conflating Ressa and her journalism with “fake news” (e.g., “Queen of Fake News”; “LIAR”; “#Presstitute”)”.
Moreover, “[o]ver 40% of the attacks in the combined datasets targeted Ressa at the personal level” and “14% of all abuse and 34% in the category of ‘personal’ attacks against Ressa could be classified as misogynistic, sexist and explicit abuse”.
The research also finds “evidence that some of the attacks on Ressa are coordinated or orchestrated – a hallmark of State-led disinformation campaigns”.
The study identifies 10 key recommendations for multi-stakeholder action based on the case study of online violence against Maria Ressa.
These point to the need for:
- Political actors to be held accountable for inciting violence against women journalists;
- States to review and adapt legal and regulatory frameworks designed to uphold freedom of expression and equality, to ensure they can be applied effectively online as well as offline;
- News organisations to provide integrated digital and physical security, alongside psychological and peer support for women journalists targeted online; for social media companies to create specialist teams to respond swiftly to attacks on women journalists;
- Law enforcement and the judiciary to ensure gender-sensitive and digitally-literate responses to online violence against women journalists.
- Dr. Julie Posetti is Global Director of Research at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). She is an award-winning journalist who is also academically affiliated with the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) and the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. She leads the Online Violence Against Women Journalists Project for ICFJ, under commission from UNESCO.
- Diana Maynard is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield and a member of the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM), specialising in Natural Language Processing, social media analysis, and media freedom issues.
- Professor Kalina Bontcheva is a Research Professor of Text Analytics at the University of Sheffield and member of the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM), specialising in analysing online abuse and disinformation.