New tool seeks to protect journalists from online hate


RSF sounds the alarm on the increase in abuses committed against journalists. — AFP Relaxnews

For a few years now, a new threat has been looming over journalists: cyberbullying. As many organisations express their alarm about how wide-spread the phenomenon is, the Thomson Reuters Foundation has set out to create a new platform to help media professionals combat online abuse when it occurs.

Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said in 2018 that “online harassment is a phenomenon that is spreading throughout the world and now constitutes one of the gravest threats to press freedom”. Four years later, these words are unfortunately still relevant.

“News and information chaos” and the “spread of disinformation circuits” are fuelling international tensions and divisions within societies, according to RSF’s latest annual report on press freedom. This increased polarisation only makes the job more difficult in three quarters of the world's countries.

In all, 73% of the 180 countries evaluated by the NGO are characterised by situations deemed “very serious”, “difficult” or “problematic” concerning the freedom of media professionals to exercise their profession. While this proportion remains the same as last year, the number of countries where the situation is “very serious” has reached a new high.

The international organisation also sounds the alarm on the increase in abuses committed against journalists. These professionals find themselves increasingly targeted personally, insulted and threatened with death, attempts to discredit them and silence them. Women are particularly vulnerable. A 2020 Unesco study by the International Center for Journalists found that 73% of women journalists have been victims of online violence.

Cyberstalking and psychological trauma

Rana Ayyub is one of them. She has been the target of a massive online intimidation campaign since the publication of her investigation into the use of anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 by Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India. The International Center for Journalists recently counted 8.5 million mostly hateful tweets directed at the Washington Post reporter.

At a time when journalists’ freedom to work is under particular threat, the Thomson Reuters Foundation has partnered with Jigsaw, a Google-owned organisation, to develop a platform to help them guard against aggressive and hateful messages on social networks. TRFilter syncs with the user’s Twitter account to automatically recognise and report unwanted comments.

The technology also allows journalists to block and mute problematic content, as well as safeguard it for potential legal action. “TRFilter empowers the user to continue their critical reporting mission without suffering the psychological trauma associated with online abuse,” wrote Antonio Zappulla, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in an op-ed in The Press Gazette.

For now, this tool works only on Twitter and in English. It will soon be available in other languages. Journalists and other media professionals wishing to try it out can register online on a dedicated site. – AFP Relaxnews

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