Social media maelstrom we invited upon ourselves

Apart from receiving cyanide through the post, I can recall only one death threat made against me as a journalist.

I don’t recall too many downright abusive letters although plenty of readers took issue with stories I wrote or for which I took responsibility as an editor. I was lucky because I did my tour of duty in the days when letter writers were required to sign their correspondence and before social media unleashed a tidal wave of cowardly anonymous invective.

Social media abuse was brought into sharp focus by the trans-Tasman celebrity Charlotte Dawson, both before and after she was found dead – an apparent suicide – in her Sydney apartment. The role it played in her deteriorating mental health occupied countless columns in newspapers and magazines and an equal amount of airtime and online comment. It also led journalists on both sides of the Ditch to reflect on the fact that they, too, were subjected to deeply personal social media scorn characterised by both intemperance and anonymity.

One New Zealand columnist, reflecting constructively on Dawson’s death and the problems of aging, opened herself to a volume of vitriol that she described as “excruciating” – and she didn’t read the worst of it. She admitted that she had been unable to sleep and found it a “struggle to hold myself together”.

How press in Australia reacted to Charlotte Dawson’s death.

How press in Australia reacted to Charlotte Dawson’s death.

Another columnist who suggested that the Winter Olympics were “an expensive ski holiday” for Kiwi athletes attracted 183 comments to the website version of her opinion piece before the thread was closed off. Some supported her views, many didn’t and were often abusive but they paled alongside what she had to endure on Twitter.

A fight-back column headed “When did free speech become an F-word?” listed in abbreviated form some of the obscenities thrown at her in their totality by invariably anonymous tweeters with a rudimentary grasp of their native English. ‘Whore’ was the mildest insult thrown at her and she listed several conjunctive uses of the C-word. Female journalists are particularly susceptible to obscene references to anatomy.

Online abuse is not a problem limited to Australasia. The University of Central Lancashire in the U.K. is in the midst of a survey on abuse of journalists – generated by “plenty of anecdotal evidence” – and it is already indicating that relentless online abuse is taking its toll.

All of which leads me to a question: What duty of care do employers owe their journalists in dealing with seriously abusive social media?

The obvious response might be to wring hands, abhor the depths to which sociopathic tweeters and Facebook ‘friends’ descend, but admit that nothing can be done to bring order and accountability to social media where trolls exist in greater numbers than in Lord of the Rings. Added to that would be the unfortunate reality that control of the digital environment has as many dangers for legitimate rights of free speech as an anarchic environment does for the vulnerable. The duty of care would, in that light, be to tell journalists they just have to toughen up.

Unfortunately, not everyone in a newsroom is a Clark Kent or a Gina Hardfaced Bitch. Editors must assume that some members of their staff will be vulnerable to the effects of online abuse. They must also accept that the marketing departments of their newspapers have encouraged reporters actively to engage in social media exchanges with readers. Publishers have exposed reporters to ‘social interaction’ by publishing their hashtags in print and online, and by inviting comments on websites and Facebook pages. Their duty of care must extend beyond a general sticks-and stones message.

Most newspapers have established rules for reader contributions that, if observed, would prevent issues arising. However, website comment threads and Facebook entries are either inadequately moderated or the rules loosely interpreted to prevent accusations of ‘censorship’. Twitter, by its very nature, is an unmoderated environment in which those carefully written and eminently fair rules count for absolutely nothing.

The newspaper industry needs to take a series of collective actions but the initiative would have greater impact if all sections of the media combined in a unified campaign. Journalists are vulnerable to this abuse irrespective of the media in which they work.

The duty of care owed to them requires the following:

• Prominently published and unequivocal statements that personal abuse of writers will not be tolerated.

• Active moderation of comment threads and Facebook pages (including automated keyword searches to identify abusive posts) with immediate and un-notified removal of offensive comments.

• Temporary or permanent suspension of staff Facebook and Twitter accounts when a writer is subjected to persistent abuse.

• Internal systems for monitoring and reporting extreme forms of social media abuse, with access to counselling for staff who request it.

It is too late to simply shut down the various forms of reader participation. I did that in the early days of our newspaper’s website when juveniles used it as an electronic toilet wall, but we must recognise there is now a legitimate expectation of participation. It is important not to over-react but to deal decisively with real threats when they arise. That is why the cyanide letter was referred to the police but the other death threat wasn’t taken seriously. It was written in crayon.

Dr Gavin Ellis is an Auckland media researcher and former editor-in-chief of The New Zealand Herald.

Leave a comment