We can’t afford to let online abusers silence women journalists

© UNICEF/Bruno Amsellem/Divergence Lyon, France, March 19, lockdown day 3. Anne-Lise, journalist, teleworking for TV channel Euronews with 3-year-old daughter Violette keeping close.

Death threats, rape threats, humiliating doctored photos. These are the kinds of harrowing messages women journalists around the world receive every day. For female reporters working to dispel myths about COVID and vaccines, the pandemic has only exacerbated this digital onslaught.

The abuse is targeted, designed to silence women journalists, discredit their reporting, and undermine public trust in critical journalism and facts. During the pandemic, the abuse has focused on those tackling the infodemic. That’s according to a recent study commissioned by UNESCO.

Among the many reporters bearing the brunt of this online vitriol are two courageous women I recently crossed paths with in my work on the infodemic and vaccine confidence. Both have refused to be silenced despite the avalanche of abuse they get just for telling the truth. For doing their jobs.

The first is Maria Ressa, the CEO of Filipino news site Rappler. She endured five years of violence, abuse, harassment and threats for her work debunking misinformation, at one point receiving 90 hate messages an hour on Facebook. She worries such abuse has a chilling effect on journalism.

“The easiest part is dealing with the impact of online violence and disinformation on me. I just see the impact on the world, and I don’t know why we’re not panicking,” Ressa told the authors of the UNESCO study, which was based on a survey of 901 female journalists across 125 countries.

For Marianna Spring, the BBC’s disinformation reporter, the online abuse began during the pandemic. She received an avalanche of violent comments and harassment, much of it misogynistic, after reporting on COVID deniers and vaccine conspiracists in the UK over the past year.

Then, in a frightening spillover into the physical world, a threatening message was left for her on a notice board outside the train station she uses to commute to work. Now she says she is always “hyper-aware” on her way to work, living in constant fear of a sudden physical attack.

These are just two examples of the kind of abuse women journalists face every day. Two-thirds of female reporters surveyed said they had experienced online harassment or abuse, with those targeted due to their race, sexual orientation, and religion abused more harshly and more often.

All this hate doesn’t just cause mental and physical harm. At its worst, it can succeed in its real aim: silencing women journalists. Of those surveyed, 30% said they now self-censored online, with 1 in 5 saying they had withdrawn from all online interaction after receiving hateful content.

One thing is clear, as the pandemic rages on around the world, we can’t afford silence. We need critical journalism. We must stand with female reporters exposing the truth and debunking dangerous lies, bringing lifesaving information to tackle the pandemic and infodemic.

To do so we must make tackling online abuse against women a top priority, raise women’s voices, and build digital spaces safer for everyone. Social media platforms have a special responsibility in this. They must be held more accountable for the abuse, harassment and violence shared online.

There has been some movement. The world’s biggest online platforms, Facebook, Google, TikTok and Twitter, last week committing to a package of rules to tackle online abuse and improve women’s safety at the UN Generation Equality Forum in Paris.

I was glad to add my name to the more than 200 women signatories to an open letter to the platforms’ CEOs, calling for them to do even more to prioritize the safety of women and girls online. We expect things to change. We will be watching their next steps closely.

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.