“Unprecedented” is a word that many people have used to describe events in the year 2020. But as novel as civil unrest, a global pandemic, and an economic crisis may seem to many people in the developed world, there are still many phenomena that have deeply-rooted precedents. And the closer that good people get to achieving social equality, the more these precedents rear their ugly heads for one last attempt at holding us all back. One example is the kind of sexism that turns violent when women not only match men in their field but far exceed them.
Misogyny is nothing new but, within the scope of thousands of years of patriarchy, the Internet is. The way we use the Internet is even newer. While the Internet can empower women, particularly disenfranchised women, to access resources, opportunities, and activism in ever-more powerful ways, it also opens women up to novel vulnerabilities.
My field, journalism, has perhaps most benefited from women’s empowerment. As American journalism, in particular, has been dismantled in recent decades, the greatest success stories come from women who are able to access difficult information, provide stellar analysis, are brutally honest, and amazingly innovative. Just look at the Pulitzer Prize list from the last decade. Looking abroad, women have proven invaluable in documenting wartime abuses, investigating deadly corruption, resisting assaults against the free press, and generally just being damn good reporters.
The thing is, the more women succeed in journalism, and the more that reactionaries feel a certain way about it, the more dangerous it gets. Succeeding at journalism means becoming a highly-visible figure, whether your reporting makes powerful enemies or not. And as almost all news has migrated online, the toxic cocktail of anti-free-press attitudes, anonymity, and misogyny has never been easier to serve. According to an analysis by the International Women’s Media Forum and Trollbusters, two out of three women in journalism have experienced online harassment. Since patriarchy still runs deep in our society (newsrooms being no exception) 40 percent of those who experienced harassment didn’t feel empowered to report it.
So what does this have to do with cybersecurity, you might ask? Just because harassment is easier through online means of communication doesn’t mean the systems aren’t working as they’re intended, right? Perhaps. Maybe it’s just a workplace liability. And maybe journalists are able to develop a high tolerance for verbal abuse, even when it is gendered. Here’s the issue. When harassers, especially those set on silencing women, want to be effective the slightest cyber vulnerability can turn a nuisance into violence – violence that women acutely feel – and new forms of violence that weren’t possible in a pre-connected newsroom.
Through hacking, bad actors can determine where a journalist lives, threaten their families, find, manipulate, and/or post revenge porn, compromise personal and professional commitments, and limit access to vital communications all to punish women for doing their jobs or extort them from doing their jobs. The Attacks and Harassment study found that 52% of women experienced the effects of at least one of those hacks in the last year, while 10% of women reported receiving overt death threats.
Here at the Global Cyber Alliance, we’ve assembled a cybersecurity toolkit for journalists that can help prevent some of those bad actors from effectuating some of their worst threats. Again, our Cybersecurity Toolkit for Journalists won’t prevent all harassment, and it most definitely won’t end misogyny, but it will give women the ability to rest a bit easier knowing that their reporting is solid, their reputations are covered, and that their safe spaces are kept private. The “Encrypt Your Data” toolbox helps keep the journalistic firewall between personal and professional lives strong. Our “Backup and Recover” toolbox allows journalists to keep at their work, even though something may have been rendered inaccessible. “Communicate Securely” has some apps that allow women to be contacted only by the people they want to hear from. There’s a lot there. Explore it at https://gcatoolkit.org/journalists/ and connect with us on the Community Forum: https://community.globalcyberalliance.org/c/community-discussions/journalist-community/
Now, in the past, patriarchal societies would say “don’t put yourself out there.” We most certainly have a culture of victim blaming—of addressing symptoms instead of causes. I am deeply sensitive to that. At the end of the day, it’s up to online platforms to act more swiftly to take down harassing content before it can snowball. Companies need to do a better job at tracing and limiting serial harassers. It’s up to newsroom leaders to listen and to trust women when they say they’ve been harassed. Local governments must take cybercrime seriously, too. We need a serious culture change, and a radical rethinking of how technology helps humanity, before we can rest assured that women are safe doing their vital journalistic work. Unfortunately, that’s just not the world we’re living in, nor is it one that most people are interested in fostering.
And yet, despite the challenges, despite the harassment, American newsrooms are closer than they ever have been before to gender parity. We need to all keep working towards that. What’s missing are women in leadership, women in large newsrooms, and more racial diversity (it’s worth noting that harassment’s negative effects compound when other marginalized identities intersect with gender). So could you imagine how much more just our newsprint, our airwaves, and our web pages would be if we could effectively cut out the harassers? That’s how we protect the free press: when we protect the most vulnerable reporters, covering the most important topics. I’m confident a more just world is around the corner. In the meantime, we work. We fight.
The author, Julian Hayda, is the Craig Newmark Journalist Scholar at the Global Cyber Alliance. You can follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.