While digital platforms are often praised for their strength as public forums, in truth, they are frequently used to silence voices with mob censorship. While harassment is hardly new, a forthcoming paper in Digital Journalism by Dr. Jennifer R. Henrichsen (Murrow College of Communication, Washington State University) and Dr. Martin Shelton (Freedom of the Press Foundation), reveals how changes in modern technology have transformed mob censorship from the simple shouting down or threatening of a speaker, to the deliberate use of tech-driven platforms by such actors to silence journalists. This not only impacts journalistic integrity and autonomy, but limits the very dialogue that is essential to a free and democratic society.

“Mob censorship is traditionally seen as a grassroots phenomenon that facilitates the ability for ordinary citizens to exert power over journalists, sometimes silencing them, through the use of discursive violence,” Drs. Henrichsen and Shelton point out, “but technological changes have expanded such social actors from simple grassroots individuals to include corporate, parastate or state actors who leverage interconnected technological actants and infrastructures to attack and silence journalists.”

The authors reveal how journalists and those defending news organizations cannot reliably identify the sources and motivations behind attacks. In some cases, the attacks are grassroots in nature, however, they may also be instigated by corporate, government, or even rival media actors. Such actors use technological infrastructure and its inherent properties of ambiguity to reshape mob censorship beyond its traditional form of bottom-up citizen attacks. They use the guise of grassroots action to launch and/or provoke attacks against journalists.

The paper goes on to demonstrate that while some journalistic organizations can sometimes defend against classic cyberattacks, they frequently do not protect individual journalists against discursive violence. Working as individuals, journalists can be silenced through aggressive online harassment techniques, including abusive name calling, stalking, sexual harassment, and both implied and implicit threats of physical violence. The authors show how such online attacks appear to be disproportionately focussed on women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Henrichsen and Shelton then recount how harassment-based mob censorship seriously impacts individual journalists, leading to trauma, self doubt, and psychological exhaustion. Many journalists end up disengaging, disassociating, and conducting self-censorship. Despite this, journalistic organizations as a whole fail to provide adequate systemic support structures to aid the victims of this assault. This leads to journalists leaving the profession, which in turn further silences their voices, particularly those from underrepresented communities.

“Online abuse against journalists is increasing around the world, resulting in self-censorship among journalists and affecting the robustness and plurality of democratic communication in public spheres,” Drs. Henrichsen and Shelton write. “Amid an increasingly polluted information ecosystem rife with mob censorship and other digital attacks against journalists, how can journalists conduct their work? Work which remains essential to the proper functioning of democracy?”

Read the full article here.