Journalism Professor Is Making The Internet A Safer Place

The recent attacks on the press have made journalists easy targets of online harassment. This phenomenon which includes sending abusive messages or death threats to the journalists, doxing, hacking their social media accounts and systematically attacking them can have severe consequences. Not only does this have lasting psychological impact on the journalists, it also makes them more vulnerable to violence in real life. Students studying journalism often learn about the challenges of the field in detail, but their training mostly pertains to the profession, not these recent attacks and how to deal with them. In this landscape, sharing any opinion on social media can make one a target of online trolls – exposing them to anything from a few hate mails to sustained smear campaigns.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier, a professor of journalism, will soon be moving from her position of Associate Professor at Ohio University to be the new dean of the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication at Florida A&M University. With more than 30 years of experience in the media field, Dr. Ferrier is not new to receiving hate online. She began receiving hate mail when she was a columnist for a newspaper in Florida.

“I was one of the first African-American columnists at the newspaper, so I received a lot of hate mail both through postal system and email” (Dr. Ferrier). Back then even though social media wasn’t used much, people who had their faces in the newspaper were under attack – she being one of them.

“That was 10 to 15 years ago,” she adds, “but we were the first ones to feel the effects of the social media attacks.”

Because of that experience she began to think of ways to support journalists, which inspired her to start Troll Busters – a rescue service to help journalists navigate online abuse attacks.

“We work with students, we work with professionals, we work with media companies themselves to help them understand what the best practices might be in terms of supporting people who are going through this,” says Dr. Ferrier. When journalism students are often encouraged to practice the lessons they learn in class, whether by working for student media or creating their private media brand; being online opens them to risks of harassment and abuse. Digital training, like the one that Troll Busters provides, can not only help aspiring journalists, but also women who are often easy targets of online harassment.

“In the past 3 to 5 years we’ve seen the attacks get much more sophisticated and coordinated,” says Dr. Ferrier. These can be perpetuated by individuals, state-sponsored actors, industry representatives and even political groups.

“Women, people of color and those with a different sexual orientation are the ones most affected by online abuse,” she says. Online spaces can be misogynistic and the behavior there can migrate into reality.

“When someone is attacked it can be hard to understand how overwhelming it can be until it happens to you,” says Dr. Ferrier about the support that journalists need. As more people use the internet, the more there are ways to harass and be harassed. Due to such challenges, the work done by Dr Ferrier in training journalists to have a safer online presence is necessary. With a huge grant coming from the Knight Foundation, Troll Busters and Dr. Ferrier are gearing up for some exciting initiatives in the coming year, all in an attempt to make the internet safe for minorities.