Discourse about online violence against journalists in Canada reignited in fall of 2021 when People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier targeted individual reporters by tweeting their email addresses and encouraging his supporters to “play dirty.” The incident was followed by an industry-wide statement condemning online hate, threats and harassment against journalists.
In the aftermath of Bernier’s tweet, the Coalition for Women in Journalism documented harassment targeting “at least 18 journalists, most of them women of colour,” and called on Canadian authorities to respond to the ongoing racially charged hate campaign against journalists.
Since then, new rounds of research have provided Canadian-specific qualitative and quantitative data, painting a clear picture for the first time on just how many Canadian journalists are leaving or have thought about leaving the industry because of this violence. The censorship and silencing of these journalists, as well as the disproportionate risk for racialized, women and LGBTQ2S+ journalists, shows how these hate campaigns are far from legitimate criticism and highlights the need for better responses to this ongoing threat to press freedom.
Online attacks on women journalists during the pandemic are increasing significantly, according to 2021 UNESCO research, due in part to a massive influx of pandemic disinformation that has made the online communities where journalists are often required to work more toxic.
While the pandemic has accelerated discussions around solutions and a cultural shift from individual to institutional responsibility, critics and sources point out that responses are long overdue for journalists who have been managing online violence on their own for years.
“Historically, there has been very little support from newsrooms for journalists targeted by online harassment,” digital security expert Ela Stapley wrote in an email to J-Source. “Being abused online was very much seen to be part of the job.”
Stapley, who works with the International Women’s Media Foundation and has led initiatives such as the Online Violence Response Hub, said that while this attitude is shifting, change is very hard to implement without the support of senior management.
The first Canadian survey of online harassment against journalists, conducted by Ipsos, found that, at 65 per cent, online was the most common type reported by the 72 per cent of respondents who said that they experienced some form of harassment in the past 12 months. And one in three of those had thought about leaving the profession in the past year.
Seventy-three per cent of respondents said they believe it is an employer’s responsibility to protect journalists from online harm, and one of the most common factors linked to harassment was negativity surrounding the organizations that the person works for.
Discussions with experts about the impacts of online harassment, especially during COVID-19, are increasingly prioritizing improved newsroom responses, including safety training, better reporting mechanisms and, crucially, a culture shift that takes online violence as seriously as the physical violence that it can lead to.
COVID-19 and harassment in Canada
A June 2021 paper from the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies detailed how women journalists and leaders saw an increased amount of hate when speaking on topics such as the environment, race and COVID-19.
The paper also pointed to self-censorship as a result of online abuse and disinformation targeting women — gender-based disinformation campaigns which co-author Kristina Wilfore says can be made up of individual acts of online harassment and be organized as a system to “undermine women’s participation in democracy.”
Wilfore, who is also the co-founder of gendered disinformation research initiative #ShePersisted, says that instead of making women “bear the burden of managing these harms,” there’s a need for better policy responses to gender-based disinformation that address the realities of how social media operates for women. Wilfore says responses are very narrow when they only consider theoretical notions of free expression or speech, because the self-censorship and silencing women experience means they are already “not expressing and able to get the full benefits of free speech.”
“We’re really not considering and putting a real emphasis on the unique experiences of women online,” she says. “Part of the change is… to bring some light to what women have just been managing for many years.”
During a press briefing in late April 2020, research paper participant and then-reporter Kelly-Anne Roberts pressed Newfoundland and Labrador’s premier and chief medical officer for a more specific timeline for the province’s reopening plan. At that point, the province had said that a plan was forthcoming and some provinces had released details on their respective plans. So, as part of her job, she followed up for details.
The aftermath of these questions was an exponential amount of hate. Roberts, who is now a provincial government media relations manager and colour commentator for Newfoundland’s East Coast Hockey League team, received waves of messages and continuous threatening calls to her then-station that she says were especially troubling because many demanded she be fired due to her tone.
“I found that really hard because I’m the only female most times on those briefing calls as a journalist,” she says, adding that she even listened back to her questions almost 50 times, comparing it to previous briefings, and found she had used her normal speaking voice. “I knew that if a male reporter had asked that question the same way, they would not have received the backlash that I had.”
Eventually her newsroom’s front desk had to start hanging up on people. Roberts heard second-hand that a man called in and said she “sounded like a bitch” and didn’t deserve to work there — her boss, who was on the phone, pushed back and told the caller that he wouldn’t have a problem if a male reporter had asked the same questions. (Roberts says the newsroom tried to shield her from the full extent of the calls, but she had several co-workers check in after that one because they hadn’t realized the severity of the harassment until then.) A message she received directly said that Roberts didn’t deserve to work at the station or live in the province.
Roberts deleted her Facebook account for three weeks after the press briefing to hold back the tide of harassment and to protect her friends and family.
She had moments of insecurity and fear for her safety while doing live broadcasts in public. Because of the vitriolic nature of the harassment, which not only attacked her work but also her appearance, she was worried that the online attacks would translate offline. “It’s something that, especially as a female, sits in the back of your head.”
Roberts says it was especially difficult to deal with while working from home in the midst of a lockdown, where she wasn’t physically surrounded by her co-workers — people Roberts considered a “second family” after four years at their small station.
But Roberts says support from her newsroom was important then, especially the fact that colleagues checked in on her even when she said she was fine, because Roberts says she didn’t feel the full impact on her mental health until weeks later when she reactivated her account.
In the days and weeks after the harassment, Roberts says her boss checked in, asked what she needed and offered time off — which she says she initially refused but needed later.
“I was at the point where all I wanted to do was do my job. And I felt like people were trying to take that away from me. It gave me anxiety, it made me cry for quite a while.”
‘I have no words to describe how awful the harassment has been’
A 2020 survey from the International Center for Journalists and UNESCO found 73 per cent of women journalist respondents reported experiencing online violence during the course of their work, with 20 per cent reporting offline attacks connected with online ones — a trend that has potentially “deadly consequences.”
And with the mobilization of increasingly violent anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine groups in Canada, those trying to correct the record are also subject to harassment campaigns. In an email to J-Source, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation Elisa Lees Muñoz wrote there is some evidence that attacks towards reporters covering COVID-19 have increased, and that their organization had seen an increase in medical reporters being targeted directly.
Sabina Vohra-Miller is a science communicator in Canada who created Unambiguous Science, a health misinformation debunking page, because of the magnitude and frequency of vitriol she was receiving for correcting misinformation using her personal accounts. She was concerned for herself, her family and her friends, so she says the plan was to remain anonymous on the new page — but that was short-lived because it was quickly linked back to her.
Vohra-Miller says the harassment has since escalated to levels “beyond anything [she] could imagine.” Especially since the approval of the pediatric vaccine in fall 2021, when she says the difference between the type of harassment was “night and day”: “I went from getting some fairly nasty messages to flat out getting death threats where people would outline exactly how I should be killed.”
She says she knows many women pediatricians and child experts, many of them women of colour, who didn’t speak about the vaccine at the time because they knew they’d be targeted, which she says impacted public discourse.
In January 2022, Vohra-Miller was also one of 270 scientists who signed an open letter calling for Spotify to establish a clear policy on misinformation, especially in regards to Joe Rogan’s podcast and concerns that the popular host was platforming COVID-19 misinformation.
Vohra-Miller says her tweet about the letter got picked up by Jordan Peterson and in turn by Donald Trump Jr. The wave of ensuing violence from this new audience (she estimates hundreds of messages per day) meant that Vohra-Miller essentially had to “shut down” her online presence for almost a month. She made her Twitter private, posted less on her other accounts, and took additional safety measures to protect her family because she was very concerned about in-person attacks. She also took time off because of the impacts to her mental health.
“It’s just a completely different ballgame… I have no words to describe how awful the harassment has been in the last few months,” she says, adding that one of the worst parts was the inaction of the social media platforms where these violent messages were coming from. “It’s nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced before.”
From June to October 2021, CBC turned off Facebook comments on their pages as part of a four-month experiment due to social media attacks on journalists and story subjects as well as the spread of misinformation. The project has since been extended indefinitely, and in November 2021, CBC News editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon wrote that CBC was able to post more diverse stories with minimal impact to web traffic during the experiment. He also noted an improvement in the well-being of staff according to an internal survey, and an election-time increase in CBC website comments (which remained and will remain open both after and during the experiment).
The disproportionate cost of existing online
Five years after Buzzfeed News culture writer Scaachi Koul was harassed off social media in the aftermath of a callout for story pitches particularly from non-white straight male perspectives, (and several far-right media outlet’s coverage of said callout, which the Canadian author says intensified the threats) she scrolls through her inbox to get an idea of the kinds of messages she’s received lately. “I have so many emails that just call me a cunt,” she laughs. “It’s crazy.”
Koul, who now lives in the U.S., laughs a lot, in part as a way to feel better and deal with the harassment — “I have to put up with this shit and then I also have to take it seriously (and) be sad all the time?” For her and many others the hate is often vitriolic, creepily specific and personal. And often, Koul says, it is sent through work emails: “I’ve had lawyers, doctors and teachers, professors call me a cunt.”
The threats materialized offline “all the time” for Koul, especially in 2016. She remembers not being able to go into work for two weeks because people were following her. Like other sources, Koul says that harassers frequently target family members, an experience so invasive she says it’s like a stranger has “reached into your body and is rooting around your innards.”
“It’s awful, and it’s exhausting. It’s a waste of time. It’s distracting. It’s embarrassing,” she says. “And it’s not surprising to me that there’s a certain type of person who gets targeted in those sorts of attacks. It is rarely my straight white male colleagues.”
In August 2021, Koul wrote about another wave of intensified threats that came after being insulted publicly by internet personality Trisha Paytas and subsequently targeted by their fans. After her profile of Paytas was published, Koul tweeted about spending a week checking in with family members to again protect them from doxing attacks. (This instance also sparked journalistic discourse on the power of fandom and safety of journalists as internet coverage goes mainstream during the pandemic.)
For years, women, racialized and LGBTQ2S+ journalists have needed to dedicate inordinate, tedious amounts of time to address security threats on their own, doing invisible emotional, physical and mental labour.
And the hours of additional labour required to deal with these attacks add up to as many as a second or third job. Koul says she thinks about security constantly and routinely spends time checking her social accounts are safe and that nothing she posted could reveal her location (Koul rarely posts in real time for the same reason). At first, she also documented harassing tweets she reported in a spreadsheet. She estimates roughly 10 per cent got addressed in any way by Twitter, but were only taken down if they were rape or death threats.
In a June 2021 article, Toronto Star journalist Joanna Chiu wrote about the lengths she needs to go to protect herself after receiving routine threats online, including becoming “fastidious about digital security.” Chiu also wrote about both the mental toll and the time it takes to monitor her messages. The Star’s recommended practice is to keep a record of harassment.
“I would say the emotional labour and mental labour is higher than the cost of a hard drive,” says writer and producer Shawn Ahmed. “In many respects, the cost is priceless, because it just changes how you have to live and exist.”
Ahmed received a wave of threats after he came out online, which he did to stop his abuser’s threats from controlling him. The experience and news of later al-Qaida killings of queer people in Bangladesh made him realize that he could never go back to the country, and effectively ended his charity work there.
Ahmed says he’s seen a lack of urgency in response while working in social media in Canada — like times when he flagged specific threats of violence and all he was instructed to do is hide the comment or occasionally block people.
He says despite the fact that he reports threats to platforms and higher-ups, he still thinks about what could happen if someone gets hurt down the road. He thinks about this often, especially after his 2012 visit to a district in Bangladesh where Buddhist temples were attacked and burned by a mob in connection with a Facebook post.
“Imagine the level of privilege that you must have to see someone threatening your office or your place of work, and not take it seriously because you’re not accustomed to having actual (malicious) acts of violence… against you or your community,” he says.
Ahmed, Koul and others’ experiences point to how informal and community support systems have formed in response to online harassment — and just how long there’s been efforts to bring the discussion to the mainstream.
“It’s been a long time. We’ve been talking about this for my entire career,” says Koul. “I’m not that old, but we’ve been talking about this for 10 years.”
Koul says in the past five years, at least, there seems to have been some acknowledgement that publications should stand up for their writers when they are being harassed, like in March 2021 when the New York Times defended their then-reporter Taylor Lorenz against attacks from Fox News’s Tucker Carlson.
Lorenz, who has since left the Times for the Washington Post, was recently targeted by a man claiming connection to Carlson. Lorenz posted about the incident, saying that the man had used bots and hacked profiles to message followers of herself and the Post, spreading disinformation about Lorenz.
“Thankfully WaPo understands these attacks. But tactics like encouraging everyone to reach out to my employer are classic Gamergate-style networked harassment,” Lorenz said in a tweet thread detailing the attack and not being allowed to speak on this topic at her last job. “While WaPo gets it, many newsrooms and companies don’t.”
Koul says that she wishes there was more public support for outlets’ “most vulnerable people,” such as Black, brown and queer employees, when they deal with harassment.
“But I think there’s a little bit more of an understanding that it’s unacceptable,” Koul says of what else has changed since 2016. “People will also take care of each other if they see someone being harassed… people within their community will come together and try to help. It’s not a perfect system. But I think there’s just way more awareness.”
Improving newsroom safety training and personal security
There is a gap between the hostile environment standards for journalistic safety training and the reality that it’s more likely for a woman journalist to experience violence in the digital world, says Alison Baskerville, a soldier-turned documentary photographer and founder of ROAAAR, a journalistic safety training non-profit based in the United Kingdom.
Even before the pandemic, rates of online harassment outnumbered physical threats. A 2018 global survey by the International Women’s Media Foundation found that nearly two out of three respondents said they’d been threatened or harassed online at least once, which was slightly more than reported physical threats. And the impacts were career-altering. Of the two-thirds that had experienced harassment, approximately 40 per cent said they avoided reporting certain stories as a result, and nearly one-third considered leaving the profession because of it.
Baskerville attributes this gap in training, in part, to corporate structures both in newsroom and commercial safety training that don’t adequately consider the nuances of identity and safety or take online harassment seriously enough. Especially with profit-driven news outlets, Baskerville says there’s an emphasis on protecting the reputation of the organization and the security of their website, while effective responses for individual journalists are still missing.
But the demand is certainly there. Baskerville says there were over 1,500 registrants in “How to report safely: Strategies for female journalists and their allies,” the mass online course she taught in May 2021.
A key part of the course was the risk assessment: a plan used by editors and reporters to manage potential threats. In the course, Baskerville explains that it is a living document that can be completed in a matter of hours, then adjusted in the future. She adds that when assessing threats, a team should consider the fluidity of risk based on an individual’s perceived identity (like acknowledging that situations some people might consider safe will not be safe for everybody).
But Baskerville says any policy response won’t work if newsroom leaders — who are still overwhelmingly white — don’t understand the next generation of journalists and their concerns surrounding online safety and identity. (In Canada, the 2021 Ipsos survey found that younger workers, women, racialized and LGBTQ2S+ journalists face more harassment, and that attacks target the gender, sexuality and ethnicity of reporters.)
Diversity in digital security roles is important, Baskerville says, because if the digital safety trainer is a person of colour, queer or a woman, “just by their very presence, they already represent people who are very often not seen in that space, but experience a lot more online harassment.”
As part of her media safety work, Baskerville is a member of the Next Gen Safety Trainers leadership team, a program from the International Women’s Media Foundation which aims to diversify security advisors and training in the industry.
Baskerville says safety training is important, even when budgets are tight, because it makes people better journalists by ensuring they feel safe doing their work and are able to recover from the constant crises that journalists face in their work.
“It’s an investment into the people that you work with, so saying it’s an extra thing to a newsroom is counterintuitive,” she says, adding that the reason safety training may be expensive is because commercial digital training experts have created a niche.
Harlo Holmes, director of newsroom digital security at the U.S.-based Freedom of the Press Foundation and fellow member of the Next Gen Safety Trainers leadership team, says that newsrooms budgeting for basic individual security and safety training can go a long way.
Holmes says this training (which covers things like password management and account security) is especially important because the hybrid personal-professional nature of social media means that many people create accounts before they start working for an organization. (Holmes also recommends services that scrub personally identifying information, like TweetDelete.)
She’s also observed a gap in newsroom IT departments’ understanding of issues beyond network security, like account takeovers, doxing and other realities of online harassment “which are very technical in nature but usually not their job.” Holmes adds that there needs to be more women and non-binary people, especially women of colour, with the technical training to come up with creative solutions to address these problems, as well as more well-rounded IT programs in places like trade schools that address security of the person.
“You’ll probably never find a certification that also includes things like psychosocial care or allyship,” she says, “And I think that the swell of online harassment campaigns has only shown that that is a very critically missing aspect of digital security.”
Sources and research also highlight the need for any safety training programs and responses to extend to freelancers, who are at risk for further isolation from online violence without institutional backing — especially with the rise of gig work in the increasingly precarious Canadian journalism industry.
“Freelancers have no support, kind of by definition,” says Nora Loreto, Quebec director and treasurer of the Canadian Freelance Union. “There’s options that exist when you have a formal relationship with one employer that just do not exist when you’re working from contract to contract.”
It’s isolating on two fronts, Loreto says, because harassment is designed to make you feel alone, and communication for freelancers is already dispersed over anywhere from five to 40 different editors a year (as well as often having no contact with higher-ups who have more direct control of organizational resources).
There’s also distinct pressure to be online and curate an identity that appeals to publications. The boundary between personal brand and individual is increasingly blurred, Loreto says, especially for younger journalists looking to break into the industry by building a following.
Loreto says news outlets in Canada want it both ways. They look to publish journalists who are edgy, humorous and “with-it,” but the instant a joke lands poorly, or a tweet is misinterpreted, or anything a journalist says “steps out of the lines of what’s acceptable by the corporation,” they won’t publish them again.
Another double-edged sword, Loreto says, is that the harassers often weaponize personal details that freelancers have been encouraged to share publicly — hurting them using the same avenues they require to build their career.
A summary of an industry roundtable on online threats that took place in fall 2021 notes that freelancers frequently lack access to the digital security and legal resources newsroom staff do, being left to bear the risks alone.
The need for a ‘point person’
Unclear or strenuous reporting processes remain a major issue for addressing online harassment of journalists.
“The Chilling: Global trends in violence against women,” the 2021 UNESCO research paper, details how even at international outlets with purported best practices for harassment, respondents reported exasperation and abandonment by employers in the midst of online violence storms, in part due to “gender-unaware policies” or safety protocols that had “stagnated” and failed to adapt to increasing online toxicity.
Of the only 25 per cent of women journalists who reported online violence to employers, the top response was no response, followed in prevalence by advice to “toughen up,” as well as being asked what they did to provoke the attack. Respondents in the global survey also reported that employers responded by tone-policing, sometimes through social media policies “requiring journalists not to engage with their attackers, or to avoid expressing any kind of opinion about controversial matters, under the misapprehension that this would prevent trolling.” (The 2019 termination of former CBC Manitoba journalist Ahmar Khan highlighted the asymmetrical application of social media policies for racialized journalists in Canada.)
Almost half of Ipsos’s Canadian survey respondents did not report any incidents of harassment, with 74 per cent of those saying it was because they did not feel it was serious enough to report. The other top reasons were a belief that nothing would be done (36 per cent) and that reporting took too much time and effort (20 per cent).
“If I reported every form of online harassment, I wouldn’t get work done,” according to one anonymous Canadian survey respondent.
Beyond updating policies to reflect the reality of social media use for journalists, the UNESCO paper points to the need for a newsroom “point person” for online harassment — someone trusted who could monitor accounts in the case of a major online attack to minimize harm, reporting abusive social media posts and cataloguing threats for potential future legal responses.
In October 2020, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. created a first-of-its-kind social media well-being advisor position to provide a clear point of contact for journalists dealing with online abuse. The following year, U.K.-based news publisher Reach hired Rebecca Whittington in an “industry-first” role of online safety editor to help staff facing online abuse and to work with social media platforms.
During the #NotOk forum, a November 2021 media industry discussion initiated by CBC/Radio-Canada, current ABC social media well-being advisor Nicolle White said her role is to provide advice and support to both staff and external contributors, and creating resources that formalize the “great work” that was already going on at the organization.
She said in the forum that they use “traffic light system” guidelines to assess low, medium and high-risk harassment, with corresponding advice for each level so it’s clear “amidst the chaos of an incident” which steps to take and where to go.
White added that there some psychologists trained in online harassment available through employee assistance programs. Managers and producers are also trained in risk management approaches, social media self-defense courses are available on demand, and they are increasing education about the impacts of harassment.
While psychology is still catching up with the impacts of online hate, the emotional, physical and cognitive effects of online harassment for women journalists can range from tension headaches and panic attacks to fear of leaving home, according to 2020 research from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. The same research echoes sources’ freedom-of-the-press concerns — that abuse will silence journalistic voices — and documents responses to harassment that include reducing audience engagement and abandoning certain lines of investigation.
Holmes says the impact of online harassment in the meantime is “death (by) a thousand cuts” for women journalists, echoing that as important voices may be compelled to leave the industry, this violence is an issue of press freedom. In Canada, the Ipsos survey found 33 per cent of media workers who experience frequent online harassment consider leaving journalism or changing careers, and of those, nearly half consider leaving every week. Younger workers, women and LGBTQ2S+ journalists are also more likely to cite post-traumatic symptoms like fear, guilt, shame and anger.
“A free press means that we as media consumers… should be able to read everybody’s voices,” Holmes says. “And it also means that our practitioners should not feel that their lives or livelihoods are in danger just for doing a job that they love.”
This story was reported as part of the 2021 J-Source/CWA Canada reporting fellowship, funded at arm’s length by CWA Canada.