Online Campaigns Represent a Profound Challenge to the Media

Left to right: Azmat Khan, Musikulu Mojeed, Olga Rudenko, Sally Buzbee, Zaffar Abbas and Michael Slackman.

by William J. Holstein

Mainstream media organizations around the world – including America’s most powerful newspapers – are experiencing a surge of coordinated social media attacks against their journalists aimed at discrediting or intimidating them. The attacks, combined with efforts by authoritarian governments to control information flows and paint media organizations as purveyors of “fake news,” are so severe that many editors are worried that the very legitimacy of their organizations is being destroyed. The campaigns are overwhelmingly aimed at female journalists. And the industry has little idea what to do about any of it.

Those were some of the sobering observations offered by a panel discussion at the 71st annual World Congress of the International Press Institute, held at Columbia University Sept. 8 through Sept. 10.

The panel was supported by the Simon and June Li Center for Global Journalism and featured The Washington Post Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, Michael Slackman, assistant managing editor for international at The New York Times, Kyiv Independent Editor-in-Chief Olga Rudenko, Editor of the Premium Times in Nigeria Musikulu Mojeed, and Editor of Dawn newspaper in Pakistan Zaffar Abbas. Azmat Khan, director of the new center for global journalism and the Overseas Press Club’s first vice president, moderated the discussion attended by about 400 journalists from around the world.

Buzbee said the campaigns by government, industries, criminal gangs and others “suppress journalism.” She said it has happened tens of times recently at The Post and has even involved death threats online. In one recent case, a male and female reporter were bylined on a hard-hitting story. She ”immediately came under attack.” Her physical address was posted online. She was so scared she stayed in her apartment for three weeks. “No matter how well-prepared you are, it’s always shocking when it happens,” Buzbee said. The reporter’s mental health suffered greatly, she added. “Doxxing,” meaning the placing of a reporter’s personal information online, is another tool of harassment. Threats of rape also have become routine.

Remarkably similar things are happening in countries as disparate as Nigeria, Pakistan and Ukraine. Nigeria’s Mojeed said one of his female reporters crossed the border from Nigeria to a neighboring country to investigate human trafficking. After her report was published, she was the victim of such an intense online campaign against her that she was forced to flee to the United States. Five years later, her mental health has not fully recovered. “Human trafficking is a huge industry,” Mojeed said, implying that the traffickers themselves, not a government, conducted the campaign.

Pakistan’s Abbas said different arms of the Pakistani government, including its intelligence and security agencies, engage in similar tactics against his newspaper. “In my country, journalists are routinely called traitors and not patriotic,” he said. Ukraine’s Rudenko said she had been the victim of a bullying campaign alleging that she was not loyal to Ukraine, and was in fact a traitor, because of a guest essay she published in the New York Times that was critical of Ukraine President Vladomar Zelensky. Slackman, an OPC member, said reporters at the Times who cover issues of guns, abortion, gender and racial identity are the victims of particularly intense online assaults. “They are attacked from the left and the right,” he said.

The crucial debate is what to do about it. On one end of the spectrum, news organizations could hire more technically competent employees in their security departments to wage war online and seek to uncover who is responsible. “But if I respond to all these campaigns, will I be able to do what I’m really supposed to be doing?” Abbas asked. Buzbee said: “If you go down the rabbit hole and start attacking the attackers, it never ends well.”

Slackman and others said news organizations should not give oxygen to allegations of disinformation by responding too much, which has the effect of spreading the disinformation even further. Yet there’s a problem in not responding at all, he acknowledged. Because so many people use Internet search engines to investigate news, if a news organization does not have a prominent and forceful defense of its position that is easily viewable, then readers and viewers might conclude that the organization is trying to hide something. The algorithms are in charge. “Never in history have so many people had the tools to distribute so much disinformation,” Slackman said.

Whatever path a news organization chooses to take, there is the issue of resources. “More money buys you more eyeballs,” Rudenko said. “And the good guys are not the ones who have the most money.”

Legal strategies don’t work because the perpetrators of the attacks can hide behind fake accounts located in other countries. And news organizations are reluctant to turn to law enforcement agencies for help.

Which leads to the role played by Big Tech social media companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Telegram and others. Journalists who have approached them and urged them to clean up their platforms to prevent campaigns against legitimate journalists don’t get very far. “If you talk to them, they politely listen and nod–then offer you free training on Facebook,” Rudenko said. These companies make money by generating large amounts of traffic, even if it is not all legitimate, and have little interest in spending money to correct the problem.

A media campaign against social media, by showing how it is undermining democracies and established norms of fair play, might help, but only at the margins. Media organizations do not feel they can turn to governments for help because of the traditional demarcations between government and the media. “Disinformation is the problem of our generation, along with climate change,” Buzbee said. Artificial Intelligence is only going to make it worse because computers now can generate false images. “The risk of publishing a composite image is high,” she said.

When the online attacks are combined with the physical attacks on journalists in places such as Mexico, Hong Kong and Russia, they represent an assault on any semblance of press freedom. “The ability of journalists to work independently is not only threatened—it is under full-scale attack,” John Daniszewski, head of the North American chapter of the IPI and vice president of the OPC Foundation, said in his opening remarks. “We the journalists and citizens of the world must respond with vigor, courage and determination to keep the flame of a free press burning.”

The OPC and OPC Foundation were well-represented at the event. In attendance, in addition to Azmat Khan, were new OPC President Scott Kraft and board member Marjorie Miller. Foundation board members in attendance, in addition to Daniszewski, included Marcy McGinnis, Allen Alter, Karen Toulon, Tim Ferguson and Charlie Sennott. The OPC Foundation served as the financial sponsor for the North American chapter of the IPI, allowing funds to flow to host the event. The IPI was founded in 1950 at Columbia University.