Journalists’ experiences of online threats during the blockade offer insights into how virtual abuse spills offline and how newsrooms should be planning ahead

For Toronto Star reporter Raisa Patel, covering the Ottawa blockade meant “getting blowback on the streets and online at the same time.”

Patel uses Twitter to share her stories, images, footage of breaking news and relay what she sees on the streets or hears from the people she meets. She lives close to Parliament Hill and she would share what she saw when she went grocery shopping or walking in her neighbourhood. 

Late in January, for example, she shared a thread of tweets describing protesters “climbing atop the Terry Fox statue screaming about the ‘bullshit’ being done to their freedoms,” people banging on the doors of a local thrift shop, a police officer jumping over a snowbank and yelling “parkour” and grocery store staff telling her they were “too uncomfortable to intervene” when unmasked protesters bought and drank cans of beer inside their store. 

The threaded tweets provided glimpses of life in the city’s core, where thousands of people arrived to protest COVID-19 guidelines and the federal government. Altogether they were met with fewer than 100 likes and appear to have been shared about 25 times.

A week later, as the blockade continued, Patel shared a thread of tweets about two white women refusing to wear masks inside a grocery store heckling a Black man, and the man’s recent experiences living with the protests. 

“He tells me convoy members have tried to pull off his mask as he’s (sic) walked down the street. They’ve shouted the N-word at him multiple times,” Patel wrote, closing the thread by noting she asked him to stay safe. “I’m tired of saying that. I’m not sure when ‘stay safe’ replaced ‘bye’ as the final word in all my conversations.”

The later thread was shared or liked thousands of times, and met with messages of sorrow and disgust, accusations of misrepresentation, questions about why race was mentioned and demands for video evidence.

“I was putting all of those experiences online and that was really seized on by protesters and supporters of the movement,” Patel said during a Feb. 23 interview. “There were many people unhappy with what I was posting, many people who just thought I was lying, that I was putting things out there that (were) improperly or incorrectly framing what was actually happening.”

People attacked Patel personally, emailing her employer and calling for her to be fired. “They were bringing my race and my family and my gender into the things that they were saying. And, on one occasion it just became a little bit too much for me to take care of on my own.”

For the first time, Patel said, she put her Twitter on protected mode so that only people already following her would be able to see her tweets and no one would be able to share what she posted. She took a few days away from the platform altogether. She leaned into a network of Black, Indigenous and racialized reporters who offered their support, including volunteering to monitor her email and social media accounts. 

“When things like this happen, a community really does come together to support that person who’s under attack,” she said. “People are checking in on you and checking to see what you need and what you need to feel safe, and I was very grateful for the people who reached out and did that.”

As a racialized woman, Patel said, she is “no stranger” to harmful, abusive or hateful online rhetoric. “While I never want to say I’m used to it, I had certainly experienced it before, perhaps not on such a widespread scale.”

Moving forward, she said, newsrooms need “strong protocols in place to deal with online hate that’s targeting their journalists.” 

Journalists covering the blockade on the ground in Ottawa through late January and February were verbally and physically harassed, often accused of being fake news. Journalists were also targeted virtually, demanding heightened online security, care with any private information they shared online, social media account lockdowns and reports to police.

In interviews, news managers, groups advocating on behalf of journalists, and journalists themselves, all pointed out online abuse targeting people in the media is not new and did not arrive in Ottawa with the thousands of people who took over the city core with trucks. A Canadian Journalism Foundation-Canadian Association of Journalists report released in February and based on virtual discussions co-hosted by Carleton University in 2021 highlighted the ever-presence of online abuse in journalists’ daily work, gaps in newsroom responses and areas for policy development.

But journalists’ experiences of online threats and harassment through the weeks of the blockade offer insights into how online abuse spills offline, how quickly abuse can ramp up and how — as Patel described — networks of people within the news industry can help each other. 

Every day, journalists encountered levels of online vitriol that one reporter who spent time on the ground said they had never seen before. In one case a journalist’s personal information was made public and, they revealed publicly weeks later, they had to leave their home. In interviews with J-Source, others described receiving death threats, targeted threats of harm to themselves or, one person said, their pet dog. There were insults related to journalists’ gender or race, accusations that they were biased against or ignoring the people participating in the protests and suggestions they were paid off by the federal government to drive its agenda.

Their shared experiences shed light on heightened distrust of media and point to the need for newsrooms to prepare for online attacks with the same level of detail that goes into covering in-person, large-scale conflict.

“With everyone at home during the pandemic and kind of in their media silos … the nasty online comments have just kind of grown to a whole new level, and unfortunately, we see that kind of anti-media sentiment pouring over into protests sometimes,” said Katherine Jacobsen, the U.S. and Canada program co-ordinator for the international Committee to Protect Journalists. 

“If you hear something enough online, if it’s reaffirmed by these various chatrooms and stuff, about the role that the media is allegedly playing in the pandemic, that has real consequences.”

On the streets and online

Photographer Dave Chan was on Wellington Street early in the weeks-long blockade of Parliament Hill when he saw someone carrying a Confederate flag.

On assignment for Agence France-Press, he followed them. In the photo he got, a person wearing a coat and hood has their back to the camera and the flag — a racist symbol — is propped on their shoulder. The Peace Tower is in the middle of the frame. The image later ran on AFP’s wire service and landed on websites like National Public Radio’s, with a story about how the protests against COVID-19 mandates were “rooted in extremism.” 

As Chan snapped the photo, another journalist was taking a picture of the flag being carried on the crowded street from another angle. That picture, posted to social media, captured Chan with his camera up. His face is difficult to make out. People started sharing the picture online, wrongly guessing that the photographer was a member of the prime minister’s staff trying to misrepresent the protests. 

When Chan’s photo was published, he started getting emails and social media messages calling him names. There were enough of them for Chan, who has covered large-scale, days-long protests before, to lock down his Twitter and Instagram accounts, making them private.

Chan described the onslaught of messages as “shocking,” though by the time he recounted the story to J-Source on Feb. 22, just a couple days after police forces cleared the blockade from Ottawa’s core, things had quieted down. 

“I got it lightly, it wasn’t too too bad,” he said. “Some of my other colleagues got it worse.”

For employees of the Ottawa Citizen and Sun, editor-in-chief Nicole MacAdam said, stories about the blockade brought more hateful emails and social media messages. 

“Practically any time anybody wrote a story, they were guaranteed a deluge of hateful email and hateful messages on Twitter … at least half of which was coming from the United States.”

One editor was doxxed after they shared a story online. “Some personal information (was) put out online, which was very disturbing and just incredibly damaging. That was certainly at a level that we had never seen before,” MacAdam said. 

The city paper toughened some of its email filters and shared “online hygiene” information with staff.

And, MacAdam said, “We made it clear to all of our staff that should anything happen, any kind of concerted campaign, they should make us aware of it. If there (were) any direct threats we filed a police report, or we were willing to file police reports on people’s behalf.” 

Global News online reporter Rachel Gilmore’s work crosses online and social media platforms, including Instagram and TikTok, offering many channels for audience feedback. She said she can laugh when a ridiculous comment or “poop emoji” is sent to her, and she is often able to see something good in the negative online responses she receives. 

“I don’t know if this is the healthiest method, but what’s worked for me is I’ve almost sort of manipulated myself into viewing it as good feedback,” Gilmore said. 

“If people who are spreading misinformation or espousing hateful views are frustrated with my reporting, which I work very hard to ensure is factual and is balanced and fair, if anything it’s a bit of a compliment … In providing good factual reporting, I think it challenges those biases and therefore makes them frustrated.”

Through the period of the blockade, however, she said threats had escalated and she reported those to police.

“I’ve had quite a few death threats in the course of my reporting in the last few weeks,” Gilmore said on March 1. “Obviously there’s a sort of heated rhetoric, even just with COVID and covering COVID. That was already an element that I was dealing with and had already actually had to file a police report. But unfortunately, as I covered the convoy, that police report sort of grew in terms of the number of threats.”

Strategies for the future

CBC News editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon said the public broadcaster was screening incoming emails for harmful language, providing social media training, offered counselling sessions for employees and talking to platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Google about solutions long before the convoy protests began.

“It’s a bit of whack-a-mole,” he said. “The increase in harassment has really escalated over the last number of years and it’s intensified over this period.”

Asked if there are additional skills that emerging reporters need, Fenlon said: “There’s a lot to do around resiliency and self-preservation, self-care.”

He added CBC will be providing guidance to journalists letting them know it’s OK to step back from using social media. 

“We don’t think it’s a very safe or healthy space,” Fenlon said. “We can control a lot of the safety and security of people out in the field. What some of our journalists face online and on social media is not appropriate and one of the ways to control that might be to just pull back and say you don’t need to be there.”

Global News editor-in-chief Sonia Verma also said there is no obligation for reporters to use social media, though even without that obligation online abuse still happens.

“We try to really sort of balance the need to obviously get information out through our coverage with … the real need to protect our journalists’ mental health and wellbeing,” she said. 

In addition to cybersecurity processes within the organization, Verma said the network also checks in with staff, makes sure reporters feel comfortable with the risks they’re taking and offers mental health support. Outside the organization, Global is also having conversations with social media platforms and seeking policy changes

“It’s important obviously in this country to have a free press and have journalists be able to feel safe in doing their jobs. This is central to democracy,” she said. “We need to make sure that that’s allowed to take place and take a look at some of the roots of the misinformation that’s circulating, and the roots of who and what are behind some of these attacks.”

Kiran Nazish, the founding director of the international Coalition for Women in Journalism, compared the readiness journalists need for navigating online threats to the readiness a foreign correspondent might take into covering a new place. They would go in with an awareness of phone numbers to call if they were in trouble and equipment they needed to stay safe.

“Prepare yourself for the story, and one part of that preparation is A) understanding the community, and B) understand yourself,” she said in an interview via Zoom. “What can you take, how much can you take? What are your limitations and what are your resources? What are your skills that can navigate something when it comes? 

“So when you’re prepared for it and you know that the trolling’s going to happen, or you know that people hate you and it could become risky, you have done your thinking in listing down the tools that you have to navigate that as a reporter.” 

Canadian Association of Journalists president Brent Jolly said the industry has diagnosed problems with online hate, and now journalists and journalism organizations need to work together to adapt to a changing online culture. The CAJ has launched online training sessions, but there is more work to do to treat digital security as professional development the same way journalists would be taught to conduct interviews or work with data.

“You can design a system that works for 2017, but technology is going to change. And people who have an agenda like this are going to be able to find different ways to exploit it. We need to make sure that we’re not just thinking for now, but we’re also thinking for tomorrow and be very nimble,” he said. “It’s a challenge because not everybody has the resources. … So how do we share these kinds of resources?”

Patel noted she was trained to use social media to tell stories and engage with audiences in journalism school. “But nobody was ever teaching us the other side of that equation, which is of course what happens when you put your work out there and you put your reporting out there and you get this violent blowback sometimes.”

Gilmore said it made her sad to think of young journalists coming into the field excited, then be met with abuse and hate. Constant online harassment does weigh on the people who are receiving it. 

“Just remember that if you’re making them angry, it’s probably because you’re doing something that matters,” she said.

“That said, what you’re dealing with isn’t normal and isn’t OK. So it’s important if you’re comfortable to speak out about it, to keep a record of things, to talk to management, if you feel comfortable involving the police to do so if there’s a threat involved. Just really be your own advocate.”

Trish Audette-Longo is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.