Panel Six

Expanding the Analytical Boundaries of Mob Censorship: How Technology and Infrastructure Enable Novel Threats to Journalists and Strategies for Mitigation

Jennifer R. Henrichsen (presenting author) and Martin Shelton

Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University

Mob censorship, which “expresses the will of ordinary citizens to exert power over journalists through discursive violence” is traditionally considered a grassroots phenomenon. However, within technically mediated systems, who is behind the mob is sometimes unclear. We therefore ask how the technical affordances of the internet and telecommunications networks complicate the identification of attackers and their motivations and multiply the forms of retaliation that attackers level against journalists. We conducted 18 semistructured interviews with seven current or former journalists, as well as 11 professionals with experience defending news organizations, including security specialists, press freedom advocates, and newsroom infrastructure support staff. Through a constructivist grounded theory approach and in conversation with Lewis and Westlund’s (2015) 4A framework, we found that journalists and those defending news organizations do not reliably identify sources and motivations behind attacks, which may be grassroots in nature but may also be instigated by corporate or government actors. Journalists nonetheless infer attribution and motivation from the context surrounding attacks. Systemic issues related to the lack of diversity, ongoing financial constraints, and journalistic norms of engagement, alongside a lack of internal and platform support, exacerbate repercussions from these attacks and harm journalism’s role in a democracy.

Information operations and gendered disinformation: A Journalism Threat Typology

Courtney C. Radsch

UCLA’s Technology, Law and Policy Institute and the Center for Democracy and Technology

This paper examines the specific ways that state-aligned disinformation and online harassment campaigns leverage the algorithmic design and permissive policies of social media platforms to target independent media and intimidate journalists with impunity. I propose a conceptual typology of information operations aimed at journalists, providing an inventory of evolving strategies, tactics, and techniques as well as responses. The typology introduces six recurring tactics in state-aligned information operations aimed at journalists: abuse, threats, exposure, smearing, exclusion, and (gendered) disinformation. I examine how these tactics are deployed and how AI and machine learning are implicated in each one. Online harassment has typically been treated as distinct and separate from disinformation and misinformation despite their common strategies, tactics and objectives. This paper rectifies this by reconceptualizing online harassment, gendered dis- information, and state-aligned campaigns targeting journalists as offensive information operations to propose more effective responses to combating impunity for these attacks.

The systematic online/offline trolling of critical journalists and news organizations in Iraq

Ahmed Al-Rawi

School of Communication at Simon Fraser University

In this study, we have identified a Twitter network of bad actors affiliated with Iraqi militias that are connected to the federal Iraqi government. Using disinformation and threats of legal action, these users often target journalists and news organizations that are critical of them. Three datasets were collected totalling about 16,000 tweets by using certain hashtags like (#expel al Sharqiya, the court defeats the traitors, and Basrah expels al Sharqiya- #اطردوا_الشرقية, القضاء_يردع_العملاء, البصرة_تطرد_الشرقية), dealing with targeting Al Sharqiya and Al Iraqia channels as well as Ahmed Al Basheer (also known as the Jon Stewart of Iraq) and Sarmad Al Taei. The latter is often portrayed online as a joker, a pejorative term taken from the 2019 Joker movie that is used to demean activists and journalists showing them as foreign agents and puppets seeking chaos. These bad actors also created a coordinated attack against human rights activists and the UN representative in Iraq, Jeanine Plasschaert, falsely accusing her of fabricating the election results since these militias lost in the 2021 federal election. The militias also have a media channel called Sabreen which we label as a terrorist media outlet. The study seeks to answer the following RQs:

1) What are the techniques and apparent goals of a set of disinformation campaigns by militia groups in Iraq? 

2) How are journalists targeted in disinformation campaigns in this context, with what possible consequences? Methodologically, we identified the major topics, temporal trends, and specific narratives that target independent journalists and news organizations. 

Not Just Words: Reputational Attacks and Journalist Safety

Chris Tenove (corresponding author), Juan Merchan, Manimugdha Sharma, Gustavo Villela, Ahmed Al-Rawi

School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia (UBC)

Journalists’ reputations are often attacked by actors who want to hide the truth or evade accountability. These attacks appear to be increasing due to changes in the current information landscape (including the rise of social media platforms) and political environments (including the global trend of democratic backsliding and polarization). At the same time, threats to journalists’ safety are on the rise around the globe. 

Might widespread reputational attacks contribute to threats to journalists’ safety and autonomy? To address these questions, we conducted in 2022 a global survey of journalists, and follow-up interviews with some of them. The survey was available in English, Arabic, French, Hindi, Portuguese, and Spanish. Respondents were primarily distributed across Europe, South Asia, Latin America and North America. 

In our survey, journalists who face frequent reputational attacks are more likely to experience violence, legal repression, and harm to physical and psychological health. They are also more likely to go into exile or consider quitting journalism. Members of marginalized racial, ethnic, or religious groups in their respective countries are more likely to experience reputational attacks and to suffer associated harms. While gender was not associated with differences in overall rates of reputational attack, women respondents reported higher rates of certain negative impacts, including harm to psychological health.

Based on our findings, we argue that reputational attacks are not “just words” or legitimate media criticism. They can directly cause personal and professional harm to journalists. They can be used strategically by bad actors to complement or increase the likelihood that journalists will face violence, legal repression, or other severe attacks on their safety and autonomy. And they can poison the atmosphere for journalism more generally, undermining journalists’ collective safety and ability to promote accountability, truth-telling, and democracy.