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Data on Online Hate Directed at BBC Journalists Mirrors Global Trend

FILE - BBC signage is seen outside the headquarters of the organization, in London, July 19, 2017.
FILE - BBC signage is seen outside the headquarters of the organization, in London, July 19, 2017.

A journalist who reports on disinformation for the British broadcaster BBC has spoken out about the level of online harassment she endures over her work.

Marianna Spring, who hosts the podcast “Marianna in Conspiracyland,” said that 80% of the online hate directed at BBC journalists targets her specifically.

The public broadcaster uses software that flags messages containing threats or online violence. Of 14,488 items, 11,771 were directed at Spring.

Speaking about the level of harassment, Spring told The Times of London, “It’s really normal to hate me.” She added that she felt “relieved” when she saw the data because the numbers supported what she was experiencing, proving that she was “not going mad.”

Spring’s experiences reflect a global trend of trolling and online abuse directed at female journalists.

A 2021 study by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists found that gender is a big factor, with women the target of more online violence and sexual harassment.

The study found that 73% of those surveyed had experienced “online harassment in the course of their work” and many described receiving messages containing threats of sexual violence, bigotry and intimidation against family.

Others who report on or investigate disinformation campaigns have also experienced online hate.

Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said she has seen an environment of hostility against women on social media.

Wang, an expert on digital censorship and disinformation in China, said she too has been a victim of online hate.

The harassment takes a toll, she told VOA on Tuesday, even when you know the posts are likely generated by a bot.

“Everybody gets affected. I don’t read those comments, [but] knowing there are 100 people writing nasty comments under my tweets, you wonder, ‘Why are people so vicious? Why are people not nice and why do people do that?' ”

Studies have found that gender-based online violence is a global issue, with female journalists targeted with smear campaigns and online attacks.

An earlier UNESCO study found that the attacks are worse when combined with misogyny and other discrimination, such as racism.

In some cases, online attacks escalate to physical threats, with female journalists the victim of stalking and physical assault or legal harassment.

In countries like Mexico, where journalists are at higher risk of physical violence, the level of online threats is a worry, say analysts.

Online attacks leveled at male and female journalists is common in Mexico, but analysts have long said there is a noticeable difference. When it comes to the digital sphere, threats are more commonly directed at female journalists, studies by Article 19 and other groups have shown.

Such harassment can take a toll on mental health too, research shows.

But British journalist Spring said that though a lot of people face “awful online abuse,” the attacks directed at her will not distract from her work.