Ferrier addresses European Commission on online harassment at post-election gathering
In a speech before the European Commission on Friday, E.W Scripps School of Journalism Associate Professor Michelle Ferrier urged representatives of the European Union member states to look beyond strengthening laws to serve women journalists who experience online harassment.
Ferrier stresses to EU member state representatives that the solutions to online harassment of journalists must deal with the immediate effects of fear and intimidation.
"We need responses that not only address the attackers, but also support women journalists throughout their experience," said Ferrier, founder of Troll-Busters.com, a social enterprise that offers online "pest control" for women journalists. Ferrier was invited to the Fundamental Rights Colloquium in Brussels, Belgium on November 17 and 18 that focused on media pluralism and democracy.
More than 250 representatives of member states, academics and media organizations such as Google, The Guardian and Politico, participated in the high-level forum where participants wrestled with the conflicting rights of freedom of speech and expression and freedom of the press. Ferrier participated in the panel on "Protecting journalists and new media actors from hate speech," a critical issue across the world and especially in the United States after the presidential election.
Women and ethnic and religious minorities are disproportionately affected by online harassment and hate speech. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has underlined the connection between the activities of far-right groups and hate speech, including open threats to journalist.
Ferrier says she was the "canary in the coal mine" warning of the United States rise in white supremacist and nationalists sentiment nearly 10 years ago as the first African-American columnist at a daily Florida newspaper. There she was targeted with hate mail that threatened her and promised an upcoming "race war between us and all you n----- people." Ferrier believed the attacks she received were coordinated through organized hate groups that were on the rise after the election of President Obama. She experienced the personal frustration of attempting to bring her perpetrators to justice and ultimately left her job as a journalist out of fear. Ferrier’s story was featured in the 2016 edition of Attacks on the Press by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The chapter, "The Progression of Hate," details Ferrier’s experiences in tracking and mapping the rise of hate speech online.
The European Commission colloquium attendees were particularly focused on the recent U.S. presidential election and were highly concerned about freedom of expression and the press under President-Elect Donald Trump. Participants said journalists must be free to report on any topic and engage on social media platforms without resorting to self-censorship because of fears of threats and hate speech.
Commissioner Vera Jourova, a co-host of the colloquium, said because of hate speech, one-third of journalists say they self-censure: "Citizens are unable to access a plurality of news. This information underpins an effective democracy and technology can undermine this as well. We must make sure all voices are heard."
Commissioner Gunther Oettinger said the underlying question is whether we want online platforms to be responsible for the content that they transport. "The main responsibility for plurality and media freedoms is in the hands of member states, but in many cases we need council to have power to take effective action. It’s going to be a priority of the commissions legal affairs."
Two years ago, Ferrier created Troll-Busters.com that sends just-in-time education and positive messaging to targets of online harassment. The organization also coaches targets on next steps and proactively monitors the targets Twitter feed for additional activity.
"Journalists need to address their own professional culture that holds these criticisms like a badge of courage," Ferrier said. "Journalists need to feel free to talk without repercussions about their experiences and have legal options for what they are exposed to online," Ferrier said. "There is not just one solution. We need a complex of solutions to address this problem."