UNESCO reveals women journalists are now more exposed to online violence than ever

By Laxman Datt Pant

UNESCO reveals women journalists are now more exposed to online violence than ever

A survey titled ‘The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists’ carried out by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has disclosed that due to routinely deployed disinformation tactics, women journalists are now more exposed to online violence than ever before.

The survey among a total of 901 journalists from 125 countries including 173 international journalists, editors, and experts in the fields of freedom of expression, human rights law, and digital safety reveals that networked misogyny and psychological abuse leave women journalists feeling threatened while threats of sexual violence and murder are frequent and sometimes extended to members of their families.

There are three forms of disinformation that are the major reasons behind escalating gendered online violence against women journalists. Firstly, disinformation tactics are routinely deployed in targeted multiplatform online attacks against women journalists. Secondly, reporting on disinformation and linked issues is a trigger for heightened attacks. Thirdly, those who spread disinformation undertake misogynistic abuse and threats against women journalists in order to undermine public trust in critical journalism.

  • Approximately 73% of the women journalists had experienced online violence
  • 25% of these had faced threats of physical violence including death threats while 18% had been afflicted by sexual violence
  • 13% of women journalists said they had received threats of violence against those close to them including children
  • 20% of the survey respondents said they had been attacked or abused offline in connection with the online violence they had experienced
  • Black, indigenous, Jewish, Arab, and lesbian women journalists experienced both the highest rates and the most severe impact of online violence
  • Physical threats associated with online violence caused 13% of women journalists to increase their personal security
  • 4% said that they had missed work due to particular concerns about the attacks moving offline and resulting in physical violence
  • Mental health impacts were found to be the most frequently identified (26%) consequence of online attacks among survey respondents
  • 12% of respondents said they had sought medical or psychological help due to the effects of online violence
  • 30% of the women journalists said they self-censored on social media whereas 20% confirmed they had withdrawn from all online interaction
  • Employment and productivity impacts included 11% missing work to recover from online violence, 38% making themselves less visible, 4% quitting their jobs, and 2% even leaving journalism altogether
  • 41% of women journalists had been targeted in online attacks that appeared to be linked to orchestrated disinformation campaigns
  • Social media companies were found to be the main enablers of online violence against women journalists with Facebook standing at 77% followed by Twitter (74%)
  • Despite fledgling efforts to improve the safety of journalists on their platforms, social media companies are failing to stem the online violence against women journalists
  • Only 11% of women journalists had reported instances of online violence to the police and very few had made a complaint to law enforcement agencies, stating a general lack of confidence that this would lead to prosecution
  • Likewise, only 8% had taken legal action, highlighting a reluctance to pursue legal remedy due to various obstacles

In order to create a safe working environment for women journalists across the world, UNESCO has recommended that state authorities introduce protocols to act against those who engage in gendered online violence and to ensure the prosecution of those who attack women journalists. Similarly, the recommendations made for media organizations include introducing guidelines pertaining to online violence to ensure content is gender-sensitive and gender-responsive and developing appropriate responses in the context of weaponised social media platforms.