A journalist never forgets their first reader complaint. Until the second one. By the third, possibly in the same week, you realise that robust feedback is an occupational hazard. So too is occasional vitriolic abuse and even threats of violence. In the social media era, that abuse has been significantly #levelledup. Think of Twitter as an over-crowded Wild West peopled by anonymous keyboard gunslingers. Like the sci-fi thriller Westworld, once you peel back the veneer, many inhabitants turn out to be robots. And it’s not always easy to tell which are flesh and which are not.
Real or otherwise, this bunch of cowboys can form lynch mobs and round on journalists – all behind the masks of their digital avatars. Threats of murder, rape and endangering loved ones are not uncommon – and far more likely to be aimed at women, research has shown. Ugly hate speech is often in the mix. Abuse can be personal, persistent and humiliating.
Of course, threatening a journalist’s life and livelihood is not a phenomenon invented in the digital age. But the platform for abuse is global, immediate and connected. It’s so much easier to reach into the lives of reporters online than by using the old ways.
While news outlets are trying to re-engage with communities, journalists on local beats are themselves often hidden behind keyboards or based in out-of-town newsrooms. Walk-up complaints to front desk reception are dying out. Hairdryer treatment over the phone is also old hat. Now disgruntled, disaffected and sometimes deranged critics use social media to vent, mobilise the masses, and form a bullying ring around reporters.
An alarming trend has emerged: open hostility towards media professionals in the social space. Experts and academics have been targeted too. Faceless trolls with several numbers after their Twitter handle have been joined by actual, identifiable people, including public figures, stirring up hate. The troll commander-in-chief, Donald Trump, has namechecked journalists in his caps lock tirades, singling out individuals for savage, semi-coherent assaults. The Washington Post journalist Felicia Sonmez fled to an hotel earlier this year after internet abuse turned into credible threats against her life. She had tweeted a link to Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault trial coverage in the wake of the basketball star’s death.
Journalists in the UK are experiencing similar pressures. So, why put yourself through this by posting on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Twitter? For many, the answer is simple: you have no choice. You can’t opt out of social, not if you want to get story tip-offs, rapidly reach sources and drive traffic towards the articles you are paid to promote.
The rewards for success on social media are potentially significant – life-changing, even. As well as oiling the cogs of reporting, developing a portable audience through a personal following is valued by employers. When The Athletic launched in the UK with a hiring spree of national and regional sports journalists, it created instant reach by snapping up millions of social media followers virtually overnight. Having many Twitter followers and an authenticated account pays.
The downside of social media is just as extreme. The abuse in this space is horrific – and at times hard to understand. One of the more curious aspects of online trolling is the disconnect between the almost innocuous “offence” and the scale of the rage it inspires. Most comments made by a journalist are not at all personal, and yet they can draw brutal and devastating ire.
When technology journalist Chris Stokel-Walker wrote about the K-Pop band BTS, he knowingly crossed the group’s legions of fans. In an article for The Daily Telegraph, he followed up news of a car crash caused by one of the group’s singers, Jungkook. He highlighted social media spamming by fans, a tactic of posting floods of content to bury news of the crash. It was an attempt to control the media narrative and protect the reputation of the star – pushing the crash news down the agenda and surfacing positive stories instead.
The backlash from fans was, sadly, inevitable. Stokel-Walker received death threats, and the accuracy of his journalism was questioned. While challenging reporting is clearly legitimate, doing so by shouting with apparent disregard for the facts, creates a stiff test for journalistic resilience.
When Stephanie Finnegan, a reporter for Reach PLC’s Leeds Live, successfully challenged an order banning mentions of court proceedings involving “Tommy Robinson”, she was hailed for taking a stand in the name of transparent justice. But she was also subjected to rape threats and death threats from people claiming to be supporters of “Robinson”, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. Soon trolls were trying to track down Finnegan’s address and posting information about the area her mother lived in. Police patrols were stepped up around her home and she was issued with a personal alarm by officers. All for daring to stand up to Yaxley-Lennon.
These stories are not the construct of some mainstream media – sorry, #MSM – conspiracy. These are tales from a frontier that at times feels decidedly short of a sheriff.
The writer is head of the School of Media and Communications at the University of Sunderland and contributing editor of the Professional Footballers’ Association magazine. @leehalltweets