Notebook: Writing in the Crosshairs
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
United States Capital, January 6, 2021
On September 3, Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German was found stabbed to death outside his house in Las Vegas. Four days later, Clark County public administrator Robert Telles was arrested in connection with the crime. German’s critical coverage of Telles’s job performance was credited locally with contributing to Telles’s decisive loss in a primary in June mounted by a staff member from the office where German had reported on his misconduct.
German’s murder was an extremely rare case in the United States (though emphatically not elsewhere) of the killing of a journalist. Of the eight journalists killed in the US since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, four were lost to a single mass shooter in Annapolis in 2018. But threats to journalists have been mounting. According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, run by a coalition of journalism nonprofits, there were more than 140 assaults on journalists in 2021, more than the total from 2017 to 2019 combined (2020 was an outlier, at 629, because of the large number attacked in the course of covering the George Floyd Protests, mostly by law enforcement). Eighteen journalists were assaulted while covering the January 6 riots (“ALL JOURNALISTS are soft targets, and are fair game in the coming revolution!,” one cheerleader posted on the social media site Parler; Bloomberg tech reporter William Turton shared a video showing rioters threatening journalists and attacking camera positions and damaging equipment; “murder the media” was etched by rioters on a door inside the capitol; CNN senior national security correspondent Alexander Marquardt told The Daily Beast, “I’ve covered parliaments stormed, foreign coups, riots and protests across the Middle East and this was by far the most universally hostile crowd I’ve been in”). A man who texted threatening messages to the families of CNN commentator George Stephanopolous and Congressman Hakim Jeffries on January 6 was later indicted and found to have serially harassed many public figures, including then-CNN commentator Brian Steltzer, to whom he texted a picture of his father’s grave. Reporters Without Borders cites in its annual World Press Freedom Index “a troubling trend of journalists experiencing harassment, intimidation and assault in the field.” The number of assaults on the press by private individuals is on the rise.
The current trend of physically attacking journalists was kicked off in 2017 when congressional candidate Greg Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the ground while Jacobs was asking him a question about health-care policy. Then-President Trump applauded Gainforte, a decision questioned by the Committee to Protect Journalists, particularly in light of the then-ongoing investigation into the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khoshoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul two weeks before, saying such an attitude “runs the risk of inviting other assaults on journalists.” Reporters commented on being ill at ease at rallies where the former President would assail the media and the audience would “turn to us to boo and yell”; reporters have been assaulted at rallies in El Paso, Orlando, and Duluth; CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta posted a video of rally attendees taunting the press.
Even in this digital age, reporters do have to be somewhere as a live person, often confronting in the flesh the very forces they must be prepared to challenge in their stories. But the digital world has opened a whole new universe of threats. Also in the last few days a popular political commentator and figure on the game-sharing platform Twitch named Clara Sorrenti succeeded in persuading, with a campaign of public pressure, a pervasive web security company called Cloudflare to withhold services from a web forum called Kiwi Farms. Kiwi Farms’ entire existence is dedicated to spawning harassment campaigns, mostly against LGBTQ and other vulnerable people. Gizmodo called it “the worst site on the internet,” and cited evidence implicating it in three suicides. In Sorrenti’s case, Kiwi-Farms-inspired harassers “swatted” her by sending an armed police unit to her home with a false criminal report (claiming she had killed her mother and would soon go to City Hall to shoot every cisgender person she saw) and then followed her in flight using dogged geo-location techniques first to a hotel in her home city of London, Ontario, and then to Belfast, Northern Island, hacking her Uber Eats account to send her hundreds of dollars’ worth of food and unearthing contact information to send threatening messages to her and her family. Cloudflare, which is a security, not an information-sharing platform, was reluctant to enter into “content moderation” decisions about its many customers (technology reporter Casey Newton had a subtle consideration of the issue), but finally suspended Kiwi Farms citing an imminent threat to human life.
The culture here, if one can call it that, descends from the Gamergate controversies beginning in 2014, in which hostility to journalism (in the form of arguments by a certain committed group of digital gamers that the game-reviewing press had become too feminist and left-leaning, as well as corrupt) became a sort of setting for the stone of a campaign of misogyny and anti-LGBTQ harassment. Protesting this perceived grievance took the form of intense, digitally organized harassment of individual people, developing the now-common strategies of organized online trolling, sometimes creating bots and fake accounts to magnify the volume of harassing posts, swatting (calling in a false police report), and doxing (releasing private information publicly). Tech journalist Casey Newton noted that the rise of open-source and commercially available malware has made it easier for bad actors to do pinpointed damage by extracting, for instance, text messages, personal contacts, location history, and other sensitive data from their targets’ devices. Even moderation by tech companies has been weaponized by malefactors who mass report bogus violations of service to remove their opponents from digital platforms, so-called “Denial of Service,” or DoS, attacks.
The strategies Kiwi Farms used against Clara Sorrenti are well known to journalists, particularly women, among them particularly women of color. Nina Jankowicz, author of How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back, writes that in 2020, UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) surveyed over 900 journalists from 125 countries, finding that 73 percent of women respondents had experienced online violence and “twenty percent … said they had been attacked or abused offline in connection with online violence they had experienced.” A survey of women in media conducted in 2018 by the International Women’s Media Foundation and the advocacy group Troll-Busters found that 70 percent of respondents reported harassment, 52 percent in the preceding year. An Amnesty International report the same year found that 7.1 percent of tweets sent to a sample of women politicians and journalists were “abusive or problematic,” amounting to 1.1 million tweets, or one every thirty seconds. Black women in the study were 84 percent more likely to be mentioned in abusive or harassing tweets. Buzzfeed correspondent Anne Helen Peterson wrote in The Columbia Journalism Review that year, “What begins as displeasure with a piece can escalate to confrontations that are chilling in their cruelty. Abuse and menace have become a way of life for women in journalism. But like so many things in women’s lives, the labor of confronting that menace is largely invisible.”
Journalists are especially vulnerable to organized campaigns of harassment because they are increasingly obliged by the profession to be publicly present through their personal social media accounts (even as their superiors fret over how “official” journalists’ social media should be). Media organizations have taken some steps to protect journalists, but the problems, as harassers become more sophisticated, continue to escalate. A 2021 PEN Report, “No Excuse for Abuse,” detailed the diverse digital exposures of contemporary journalists and the failures of the tech platforms to take seriously the threat that their commitment to “engagement” at all costs creates for visible individuals. The PEN report enumerated steps that the platforms could take to identify and penalize harassers and allow targets to collect evidence of harassment without exposing themselves to a daily barrage of abuse.
In a poignant case, the Poynter Institute published in March 2021 the story of three journalists, two Black women and one Latinx woman, and their editors at the Virginian-Pilot. The group elected to tell their story for Poynter instead of the Pilot in order to avoid provoking the very harassers they were documenting. They recounted waves of personalized abuse and threats—“Racial slurs, made-up insults. Wishing harm on reporters”—especially when they covered sensitive issues like the removal of Confederate statues, to the point where their relatives worried about them and they feared being recognized on the street and considered leaving such stories uncovered or leaving the profession altogether. Such consequences, as noted also by the Women in Media and PEN reports, have the effect of reducing the already low number of women and people of color in the newsroom and the visibility of such coverage. The International Women’s Media Foundation survey found that 40 percent of respondents “avoided reporting certain stories as a result of online harassment.” Nina Jankowitz cited a survey for the 2020 “State of the World’s Girls” report from Plan International, a development organization that fights for the rights of girls, interviewing fourteen thousand girls across thirty-one countries, that found that “most girls report their first experience of social media harassment between the ages of 14–16,” and adjust their online expression accordingly. Her own research among teenagers found that by the age of seventeen or eighteen girls were already curtailing what they said online in response to experiences of harassment.
The hounding of journalists to silence them is taking place in an environment where digital violence is increasingly pervasive and accessible. The Washington Post and CNN reported that the Uvalde shooter had been a serial harasser of girls on the youth-oriented live-streaming app Yubo. Organized campaigns of doxing and digital harassment are being launched against teachers and librarians. A report was released just yesterday that a deliberate social media campaign against the organizer Linda Sarsour by a Russian troll farm in 2018 contributed to the collapse of the Women’s March organization. Some studies indicate that threats to journalists come from across the political spectrum. Recently protesters have assaulted press photographers to prevent them from taking pictures at demonstrations, believing, falsely, according to Press Freedom Tracker, that this leads to police surveillance. Capitol Hill reporter Seung Min Kim was targeted for questioning of an official that was perceived as hostile to liberal political interests.
Reporters express regret that protecting themselves from this onslaught has shielded them from the genuine exchange that was once a real benefit of the social media platforms. I remember with fondness and gratitude personal exchanges on Twitter with the Washington Post’s great recently departed media columnist Margaret Sullivan. Reading these reports left me wondering what sort of horrors she had to wade through to find my inquiring little tags. The amount of information and personal exposure we volunteer into our devices, both for convenience and, for journalists, as a more and more inevitable conduit in the information ecosystem, makes us all vulnerable to these mysteriously malevolent forces. As we try to muster truth, and usher it into a world in which it is audible, we must do everything we can to protect it from these voracious powers, that feed and grow on their ever-increasing access.
For more on how tech platforms fail adequately to invest in user safety and content moderation, see our post on whistleblower Francis Haugen’s 2021 Congressional Testimony.
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post.
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