Why Female Journalists Are A Major Target For Internet Trolls (Sexism Has Something To Do With It)

08/10/2014 12:48 | Updated 09 October 2014

"A BOMB HAS BEEN PLACED OUTSIDE YOUR HOME.

IT WILL GO OFF AT EXACTLY 10:47PM ON A TIMER AND TRIGGER DESTROYING EVERYTHING."

When Emma Barnett, the women’s editor of The Telegraph, received a tweet from an anonymous user with this message, she read it and then promptly went to the pub.

emma barnett

Emma Barnett received the threat last year

As a journalist, who is also a woman, Barnett had experienced years of online abuse. This was the norm.

The tweet - which was sent in July 2013 - didn't even look like it was from a real person, Barnett told The Huffington Post UK: “I thought it was a bot, because everything they wrote was in capital letters.”

But it turned out to be serious.

Barnett was one of a group of female journalists, including Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman and Independent columnist Grace Dent, who were sent the same threatening message last year.

Police moved some of the journalists from their homes, in case the threat was carried out. Thankfully, no bombs were found, but no-one has ever been charged for the illegal messages.

The frightening incident underlines the fact that being female and having an opinion can be a dangerous combination online.

Women journalists are a particularly attractive target for internet trolls. A study by the think tank Demos found that men receive more Twitter abuse than their female counterparts in every single profession — except for female journalists.

Around 5% of the tweets a female journalist gets are abusive or derogatory. That’s one in 20, more than three times the number for male journalists, or for women in general. It doesn't make a difference how well-known she is: the figure holds true whether she's Caitlin Moran or the editor of the Whitby Gazette.

The nature of the trolls' comments could point to the reason for the singling out of women writers and presenters. Abuse is often aggressively sexual. Rape threats are common as are insults about a woman’s appearance. Too much sexuality or not enough seem to be equally problematic: female journalists could be a ‘slut’ or 'in need of a shag'. The majority of the trolls are men. This is, clearly, a sexism issue.

rosamund urwin

Rosamund Urwin on the Evening Standard's TV channel London Live

Rosamund Urwin, a columnist for The Evening Standard, has become used to online forum threads insulting her. She says: “The comments are always personal. If you write anything about sexual violence you always get really unpleasant stuff.

"You'll get people going 'oh well, it’s not a problem for you because no-one’s going to rape you love,' as though it’s desirable to be raped. I’ve had that on Twitter, but often the troll doesn't copy you in, so you only find it if you ever look up your name. I don’t know that that makes it any better.”

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Her trolls are mostly men, “but one woman did say could someone chop off all my fingers. She just disagreed with me about something – I can’t even remember what.”

Urwin and her peers also seem to bait misogynistic trolls by being women who speak their minds, and have a voice and influence. But in some people's minds - this should stop. “Go back to the kitchen” is another favourite piece of abuse to hurl, journalists told The Huffington Post UK.

“One of the things that you persistently get is 'Who isn’t Rosamund Urwin sleeping with to get that column?'", Urwin reveals. "I must be sleeping with everyone apparently." She points out that the Evening Standard is a feminist media company: "I mean, we have a female editor, for f**k’s sake.”

Things can get particularly nasty if the journalist takes on a topic that is traditionally male-dominated, such as sport, technology, or gaming.

Before she received the bomb threat, the Telegraph's Barnett wrote about technology for the newspaper.

“Tech is a very male beat and I was breaking all sorts of stories and then doing comment and the trolling was very, very bad around that," she says. "I'd get responses like 'How the f**k do you understand this? You don’t know what you’re f**king talking about, get back in the kitchen.'"

emma barnett

Emma Barnett experienced abuse when she wrote about technology

“Yet, I knew I was writing about something that they might not know about if I wasn't writing it, and that I understood it better than them. It was very ironic and very silly.”

Video games - not known for their pro-women content - put female journalists in the spotlight in August 2014, when game developer Zoe Quinn was subjected to a sustained hate campaign from her ex-boyfriend, who falsely claimed in a blog that she had cheated on him and traded personal favours for media coverage of her game.

It kicked off a debate about sexism in the gaming industry, sucking in journalists like game critic Anita Sarkeesian and the Guardian's games writer Jenn Frank, who were bombarded with comments like "the main reason why all the harass to women is because of all of the dumb feminist bitches who want to be superior. Hope u die raped" and "How is my favourite slut doing? I take it you'll get on your knees tonight and be a good woman?"

Jenni Goodchild, a freelance writer who also runs ‘geek culture’ convention Nine Worlds, has been collecting sexist comments around the scandal [WARNING: explicit content], which has become known as GamerGate [warning, explicit content] which she hopes will help to catalogue the venom aimed at women who write about games.

video games

GamerGate brought trolling in the gaming world to widespread attention

As you might expect, women writing about feminism in a male sphere such as sci-fi can be a perfect storm. Amanda Keats, a freelance journalist who has written for Yahoo and Metro, wrote a piece last year asking whether the next Doctor Who could be a woman.

In it, she asked: “This male Doctor/female assistant dynamic has been the one constant for the cult TV show, but in the fifty years since the show began, the roles of men and women have changed in our society. Why, then, have they not changed in the show?”

peter capaldi

Could the next Doctor in the BBC show have been a woman?

The article attracted over 600 comments. Some counter-arguments were merely angry: “We don't need any lefty PC changes for diversity / equality / multicultural bull**hit” and “a black one-legged lesbian might stop all the screaming for all avenues to be explored”.

But many posted sexual messages, called her stupid and criticised her appearance. Perhaps naively, Keats expected an enthusiastic debate about the future of Britain's much-loved Doctor. “I was stunned by the sheer level of hatred and vitriol that appeared when the article went live,” she tells The Huffington Post UK.

“I'd love my articles to promote debate, to get people talking and weighing up the topic I've been exploring,” Keats says. “Yet many trolls would rather question my female body-parts than my opinions. After all, if you can't offer a counter-argument or just flat-out disagree then what's the next best thing? Devaluing my opinion altogether, apparently.”

She believes it was her gender that triggered many of the aggressive responses: "Some readers - both male and female - chose to attack me for having written the article, assuming incorrectly that I wanted the next Doctor to be a woman simply because I was one and must therefore have been forcing my feminist agenda down their throats. One disregarded the article entirely because 'Surprise surprise, the article is by a woman.' Had a man written the exact same article, would it have been more valid?"

There is an irony that women journalists covering feminism, gender equality and rape provokes some of the most trolling, says The Telegraph's Barnett.

“When people are sexist or mean because you are a woman and you’ve written an article about how shit sexism is, there is a virtuous circle – you can say that they’ve proved your point,” she says.

“I suppose the next stage of that has actually got to be changing people’s minds, which I try and do. I phrase things in the Telegraph’s women section quite differently from I would if I was at a woman’s magazine that was only going into the hands of women. I want men to read this stuff. I’m not saying I want to change the world, but I phrase my articles for people I really think need to read them.”

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Although, trolls can launch an attack on just about anything: Barnett's writing on Israel - another trolling hot-button - has led to attacks from both genders, and when Keats wrote about her struggle with Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) she discovered trolls certainly aren't above a cheap shot.

“The majority of the comments disregarded my explanations of physiotherapy treatment, wrist supports, constant pain and numerous doctor appointments and told me I should stop masturbating," Keats says. "At least the performance payments I got from that piece helped soften the blow.”

The more prominent a female journalist and the more evident her gender is, the more bold the trolls. Barnett observes that her work as a radio host on LBC and BBC 5 Live - where the audience could her her female voice - leads to particularly hostile comments.

“When I come off air I get a lot more abuse, because people have heard me say something that they didn’t think I had a right to say. I used to block about 15 people a week on Twitter.”

“If they’ve seen you [on television] it’s even worse because then they make comments about your appearance. There are a lot of comments about how I look rather than what I’ve said. Which I find interesting because, I say some pretty opinionated stuff.”

But the sexual comments didn’t bother her as much as “them taking a pot shot at me just for having an opinion.”

There’s not really much you can do, she concedes. “More people don’t want to provoke others, so they start to self-sensor what they say if they are trolled. But if you’re a journalist, your job is to provoke, and if you’re hosting a lively speech radio programme where you are sharing your opinion and prodding people to call in and give you their opinion, there’s even more room for that.”

More likely than bomb blasts (mercifully) is the result that women journalists will simply be silenced. Linda Grant wrote a column for the Guardian in the 1990s and has stopped writing online because of the reaction. "I have given it up as a dead loss. In the past, the worst letters were filtered out before they reached me and crucially they were not anonymous," she told The Guardian.

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Media companies have few powers – or in some cases little inclination – to protect their journalists from abuse online. The women of the website Jezabel were so traumatised by the hundreds of violent rape gifs posted on their site that they wrote a public piece slamming their own bosses for failing to take action to block the anonymous attackers.

But some journalists take the brave approach to try to get to know their trolls. An extreme step is to confront them with kindness, in the style of Mary Beard, the academic who befriended Twitter trolls after being abused, even writing a reference for one because she was concerned his trolling would harm his job prospects.

Emma Barnett of the Telegraph once asked anyone who was thinking of trolling her to call into her radio show. Two did.

“One guy called Gary told me that threatening rape is not that serious, it’s a metaphor," she says with disbelief. "I asked how he would feel if someone said that to his mum, and he said his mum would know its was 'a laugh'. I think that going into these cold dark bedrooms where these people are and speaking with them is really interesting.”

And how does she cope? “I try and have a really good sense of humour about these things. If you can turn them around and talk to them it’s better.”

Urwin, of The Evening Standard, found a rare troll who threatened to punch her in the face - but used a profile which revealed his name and employer. She called his company, let them know what the man was doing with a profile associated with their name, and received and apology from the CEO.

“He was representing a brand in the same way that I’m representing the Evening Standard, but I’d never write that about someone and I’m not someone who believes in inciting violence. I realise he may not have meant it in that way, but posting it when your profile says your company name is unbelievably unprofessional.”

The internet encourages trolling, Barnett believes, is that trolls simply don’t experience their victim as a real person. The recent leak of hacked nude pictures of celebrities online emphasises a common attitude to women online. “There’s a huge chasm between our behaviours online, versus how we are in the real world,” she says.

jennifer lawrence

Nude photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence were hacked and leaked online

"You might want to look online and see a picture of Jennifer Lawrence, but if someone was standing outside your office with a naked picture of Jennifer Lawrence, you wouldn't look at them. We just don’t apply the same codes of behaviour.”

Keats, who wrote the Doctor Who piece, points out that trolling actually does wonders for online traffic. "It could be that it at least means the article reaches a wider audience and therefore promotes more discussion. Unfortunately, it's often hard to find the actual comments among all the drivel of the trolls so many valid points are likely to be forgotten.”

And of course, journalists, perhaps more than most people, are in favour of free speech. “It's hard to say what can be done,” adds Keats. “If we start censoring comments then it sort of negates the point of articles which are there to promote discussion. In my case, I've managed to develop something of a thick skin about it.

"Where do you draw the line? The scary thing is not so much the comments themselves but that people seem to really agree and it spreads like wildfire, drowning all the other voices entirely."

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