Is online misogyny a threat to free speech?

March 18, 2016
Photo: AP

In July 2013, police collected hundreds of pages of threats directed at Caroline Criado-Perez, a British journalist who had been running a campaign to get women depicted on British banknotes. People tweeted that the freelancer and activist needed to “learn [her] place as a woman in this world,” and that “women that talk too much need to get raped.”

“There were threats to mutilate my genitals, threats to slit my throat, to bomb my house, to pistol-whip me and burn me alive,” she wrote in a recent report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Over a four-day period, the barrage of online threats against Criado-Perez, delivered mostly via Twitter, filled 300 printed pages. Then someone posted a physical address linked to her online. “I felt hunted,” she wrote. “I felt terrified.”

According to data collected by the British think tank Demos, women journalists are three times more likely to be on the receiving end of online abuse than their male colleagues. A 2014 report by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and International News Safety Institute (INSI) found that of the threats and harassment reported by female journalists in their survey, more than a quarter occurred online.

Findings like these, corroborated by women’s personal stories, prompted the February OSCE report, which focuses on countering online abuse against female journalists. Dunja Mijatović, representative on freedom of the media for OSCE, called such abuse a threat to free speech and outlined institutional changes meant to combat it.


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“We’re seeing rape threats, death threats against professionals because of stories where they’re revealing corruption in their societies,” Mijatović tells CJR. “It’s not only about them being critical journalists. It’s also about them being female. Now we’re producing tools and advice for government[s] on how to deal with this.”

Among advocates and journalists, there is little agreement on the best way to deal with online abuse, which Mijatović called a “social phenomenon.” There is even confusion over how to define it; the overwhelming sentiment is “you know it when you see it.” And no one—not the law, social media platforms, or newsrooms—seems prepared to stop it.

“There’s rarely a week that goes by without someone on Twitter commenting on my body, calling me fat, saying that I’m a dumb bitch, that they’re going to do something lewd sexually to me,” says Emma Gray, Executive Women’s Editor for The Huffington Post. She half-jokingly describes the Twitter mute function (which removes an account’s notifications and tweets from your timeline without notifying the user) as her “best friend.”

Some female journalists accept a low level of online abuse as an occupational hazard. Gray resists writing off harassment as a condition of being a female reporter; nonetheless, even she admits she’s “developed a thick skin” in response to the barrage of comments.


Online abuse of women journalists is a very narrow slice of a much larger issue. Though the internet was once considered by some “The Great Equalizer,” it has also been a place for misogyny to advance. For most women, “if they’re subject to revenge porn or stalking or sustained sexual harassment online, it’s usually [coming from] someone they know,” says Soraya Chemaly, a freelance journalist and activist who helped launch a Women’s Media Center project to raise awareness and provide resources for women being abused online.

Services such as TrollBusters and ReputationDefender have popped up to handle abuse and its consequences from within the digital realm, but social media platforms have acknowledged that their efforts to protect users have fallen short. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wrote in a leaked internal memo to his staff last year: “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.”

Twitter has since enhanced its “block” feature, increased the number of abuse reports reviewed, grown its “safety” team, and banned revenge porn. “Our rules are designed to allow our users to create and share a wide variety of content in an environment that is safe and secure for our users,” a Twitter spokesperson told CJR in a statement. Twitter continues to update its rules, which already prohibit violent threats and “hateful conduct,” based on user input and suggestions from a group of organizations including the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and Take Back the Tech.

These changes are a step in the right direction, but they leave plenty of loopholes, as Bloomberg News and Businessweek reporter Dune Lawrence wrote recently. When she complained to Twitter about a user who was trolling her, the service told her he “wasn’t violating Twitter’s rules,” and suggested she block his tweets. When she sent more examples of abuse, Twitter suspended his account, Lawrence writes, but “[h]e was back in less than three weeks.”

Newsrooms are also beginning to take a more active role in dealing with online abuse. TrollBusters founder Michelle Ferrier has started offering online safety training to a handful of news outlets. The Washington Post regularly reports on online abuse and strives to “proactively address it” when it affects employees. “The safety of our journalists is paramount and all actual threats, whether they are via email, social, phone or mail, are taken seriously,” Post Deputy Managing Editor Tracy Grant told CJR in a statement. “Editors at the highest level are involved in any discussion around an actual threat to a reporter and we bring in additional resources, including legal and technical, as the situation demands.”

Legal resources, in particular, are a source of contention. Mijatović and the OSCE advocate for more government and law enforcement intervention in online abuse; at the same time, they don’t want to stifle freedom of expression. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk.

Dr. Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, explains that the OSCE and other advocates aren’t suggesting new laws be made. “In many cases laws against stalking, violent threats and harassment already exist and simply need to be interpreted for the online space,” she wrote in the OSCE report. Dr. Sejal Parmar, a law professor at Central European University, added in her own section of the report that given “the range in severity of abusive statements, […] threats to life or physical integrity, including rape threats, should be prioritised for prosecution.”

As a result of the online abuse Criado-Perez suffered in 2013, she temporarily deleted her Twitter account. Two people, one man and one woman, were convicted of improper use of a communications network because of threats made against Criado-Perez. Now back online, her Twitter bio reads “Please send all hate mail to your mum.”

Laura Thompson is a Columbia Journalism School student who reports on criminal justice and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @laura__thomp.