New journalism research will help mitigate the harms of online hostility

Jay Daniel Thompson

23 March 2023

‘Online hostility’ encompasses online behaviours and practices that are chiefly or exclusively aimed at offending, humiliating and/or degrading its targets. Examples include trolling, doxxing (posting someone’s personal details online without their permission), and cyberbullying. Online hostility can also take the form of emails, direct messages, aggressive and threatening contributions in the comments sections of online publications and on social media platforms.

Online hostility poses a grave threat to the health, safety and online participation of all Australians. This hostility (the rates of which are alarmingly high) can contribute to psychological and physical harm; and reinforce the subordination of already marginalised groups.

The project that I am undertaking in my capacity as a recipient of the 2023 Early Career Small Grants Scheme will help to mitigate the harms of online hostility by considering what ethical journalistic representations of online hostility directed at women and girls might look like. Furthermore, how might such representations help protect the digital citizenship of women and girls?’

Online hostility and digital citizenship

Online hostility can jeopardise the digital citizenship of its targets, as well as those who observe or are otherwise made aware of this hostility. ‘Digital citizenship’ describes the rights and conditions that enable internet users to participate in online spaces without fear of being mocked, bullied, degraded.  

Digital citizenship is also concerned with how online activities impact on the analogue citizenship of internet users. The distinctions between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ have become increasingly opaque, with internet access and digital technologies being ubiquitous (if unevenly distributed) features of everyday life. Research has demonstrated that online hostility can coincide with or precede offline violence, and that online hostility can contribute to mental health problems that include depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation.

Further, online hostility both echoes and amplifies inequalities that precede the World Wide Web. Plan International reported the following in 2020:

In Australia, 65% of girls and young women aged 15–25 have been exposed to a spectrum of online violence (compared to the global figure of 58%), and half of those who have experienced harassment have suffered mental and emotional distress as a result.

A growing corpus of scholarship examines the hostility meted out to women in high-profile media roles, including journalists. Perhaps the best-known Australian example of this concerns Charlotte Dawson, a TV host who died via suicide in 2014. There are myriad factors that contribute to an individual’s decision to take their own life. It’s fair to say that the horrific online abuse that Dawson faced, and that she spoke publicly about, would not have helped her emotional state.

The eSafety Commissioner reports that the risk that women and girls face in being subject to online hostility increases if they also belong to other marginalised groups, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Muslims, LGBTQI communities. To demonstrate this point, witness the online toxicity directed against Muslim media commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied endured after tweeting ‘LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine...)’ on Anzac Day 2017. She was subject to extensive online hostility, including death threats.

More research is needed

Thus far, there exists little research into how online hostility is itself represented in journalistic reportage. This gap is striking because, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall argues, ‘representation is an essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture.’ Journalistic representations can play no small a role in helping to construct – and distort – public understandings of the issues being reported on.

Australian journalist Ginger Gorman gestures towards that last point in her brilliant 2019 book Troll Hunting, when she describes some ways in which the term ‘trolling’ has been misused in media discourse (e.g., to describe frivolous reality TV antics). These mis-uses obscure the actual definition of trolling – posting content with the aim of generating heightened, usually adverse responses from targets – and the harms that trolling can cause.

There is a wealth of academic scholarship on press reportage of violence against women. This violence has frequently been physical in nature (including rape and murder). The scholarship has asked how to challenge and/or destabilise cultural narratives about gender, for instance, that men are acting on primal urges, or that women are ‘asking for it’ on account of their dress or demeanour. The edited collection Reporting on Sexual Violence in the #MeToo Era (2022) outlines some ways in which this reportage may be more fact-based, cognisant of cultural differences amongst women, and avoid blaming victims.

There is research on how journalists can be equipped through education to report on that violence; the 2022 article ‘Teaching Journalists About Violence Against Women Best Reportage Practices’ exemplifies the latter.

Also, there is research on the online hostility that is frequently meted out to female journalists. This is a cross-cultural phenomenon, as a 2020 study demonstrates. Hostility is frequently meted out to female journalists covering terrain that might not be regarded as traditionally ‘feminine’, for instance, technology and sports.

When representations of online hostility are mentioned, it is usually fleetingly. For instance, a 2015 study states: ‘Care is … needed with respect to how the relationships between new communication technologies and forms of violence against women are discussed.’ The article quotes criminologist Anastasia Powell as arguing:

In the case of sexual violence, technology enables a new forum for continuing the harm of the originalsexual assault and for further humiliating and harassing the victim.

This study is correct in suggesting that putting the entire blame for online hostility on communication technologies, and ignoring factor such as gender inequality, is problematic. Journalists (and researchers) should avoid falling into this trap.

At the same time, the distinct affordances and powers of those technologies  cannot be ignored. Online platforms have the ability to amplify voices (including hateful voices), and can enable the kinds of public ‘pile-ons’ that would have been less likely in the era of heritage media. My study is cognisant of these factors, and of how representations can potentially exacerbate the distress caused to victims of online hostility and (further) distort public understandings of that abusive behaviour.

Overview of study

In the first half of 2023, I will be interviewing Australian journalists and editors to understand a range of issues relating to representations of online hostility against women and girls.

Firstly, what do journalists and editors themselves think about these representations? My own sense, as an academic, is that journalistic representations of online hostility against women and girls are political; they can either enrich their audiences’ understandings of the topic at hand or perpetuate sexist stereotypes. I am curious to see how this squares with the thoughts of those at the coalface; those who actually produce and edit the journalism.  

These interviews will traverse the research that journalists undertake in reporting on online hostility against women and girls; what sources are consulted (e.g., websites, legal documents, Twitter feeds)? Who is interviewed (e.g., researchers, victims, perpetrators), and what are some of the reasons for selecting these interviewees?

I seek to determine the extent to which this reportage is informed by institutional and commercial factors, e.g., a publication’s target audience and ideological leanings; the need to generate clicks and, therefore, revenue.

Through an analysis of my findings, the project seeks to identify what ethical representations of online hostility against women and girls might look like, exactly. Troll Hunting is certainly one example. Though, such representations should not be confined to lengthy works of investigative journalism (as Gorman’s book is) or solutions journalism (reportage that seeks to identify solutions to a social problem). Such representations might take the form of short news reports that stick to the facts and in no way trivialise the suffering experienced by victims. They can take the form of profile pieces with women and girls who’ve experienced onlne abuse.

The project also seeks to identify how such represenations might –protect the digital citizenship of women and girls. For instance, will fact-based reportage about the factors behind this abuse help ameliorate victim-blaming myths? If the answer is ‘yes’, then this might have ramifications for the willingness of victims to speak up; and might encourage readers/viewers to question their belief that she ‘asked’ to be mistreated.

The key word above is ‘might’. Further research will need to be undertaken to really gauge those outcomes. The project summarised in this article lays the foundations for that research.


About the author

Dr. Jay Daniel Thompson is a Lecturer and Program Manager in the Professional Communication program in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. His research explores ways of cultivating ethical online communication in an era of digital hostility and networked disinformation. Dr. Thompson is co-author of two books published in 2022: Fake News in Digital Culture (with Professor Rob Cover and Dr. Ashleigh Haw) and Content Production for Digital Media (with Associate Professor John Weldon). Dr Thompson is a recipient of the 2023 Freilich Project Small Grant Award.



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