Hate journalists on Twitter | Newspaper
The Twittersphere is the space par excellence for disseminating and commenting on information. For journalists, this is an ideal exchange forum… provided they have enough backbone to withstand countless hate messages.
We discussed this topic with Elizabeth Dubois, holder of the University Research Chair in Politics, Communications and Technologies, member of the Center for Research in Law, Technology and Society, and professor in the Department of Communication of the Faculty of arts.
Why did you choose to study the phenomenon of hate journalists on Twitter?
Negativity is rampant on the web. All we knew at the start of my project was that journalists were the targets of hate speech online. What we don’t know is how journalists deal with these situations. I want to know how they react to these attacks, and if there are any specific people or groups that are targeted.
How do you collect data on such a sensitive topic?
A combination of manual content analysis and interviews with journalists allowed us to gather a rich set of qualitative data and generate an in-depth summary. For manual analysis, we collected a sample of tweets mentioning the names of journalists and classified them according to the type of comment: positive, neutral, somewhat negative or very negative.
We then combined this qualitative data with those obtained through an automated method, from a machine learning model we designed to analyze tweets that mention the names of journalists. Since repeatedly reading hateful and harassing messages can be very difficult to bear and relieve mental health, we use machine learning to speed up the analysis and save the research team from this emotional burden.
What are your findings from the research?
We mainly analyzed tweets published in the context of the 2019 federal election, in addition to conducting interviews with journalists, to broaden our view of the problem and place our research in a general conversation.
We found that mainstream media outlets provide better support for their journalists, allowing them to delegate tweet management to a specialist IT or social media team or spend less time online doing their work. Blocking or muting functions are very useful for ignoring hateful and harassing messages. It’s a different story for early-career or freelance journalists, who don’t benefit from such resources and rely heavily on online interactions to do their work.
How can you survive online hate and stay passionate about journalism?
In the online event, Journalists Facing Mean Tweets: What It Means for Our Democracy, I interviewed Rosemary Barton, Fatima Syed and Mark Blackburn. I asked them: what drives you to keep going? How do you find motivation deep inside? All three told me it was the desire to produce quality journalism. Despite the negative aspects that surround the profession, quality journalism maintains an important influence in our democracies, and plays an important role for specific groups. Knowing that their work makes a difference is a great motivator for journalists. In addition, there are technical solutions. Blocking and muting features on Twitter and employer support measures are important, as is the ability to distinguish messages of concern from those that should be ignored.
I look forward to the next phase of the project, which will analyze the positive messages sent to journalists, as well as the reasons and circumstances under which they were sent. There have been several cases where members of the public, who have become aware of aggressive attacks directed at a journalist, have sent him messages of support emphasizing the high quality of his work.
If you are interested in Professor Dubois’ work, listen to his podcast Wonks and War Rooms (in English).