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Number 1 Shimbun

Into the Valley of the Trolls

No1-2016-01Troll

Is growing online harassment just part of the job or should it be confronted? And when does it cross the line?


by David McNeill

F

or most correspondents, it has become an unpleasant morning ritual: opening the laptop and wading through abusive tweets and mail. One of my recent articles, on Japan’s plunging press-freedom rankings provoked this response: “You’re anti-Japanese scum. Japan grows weaker because left-wing traitors here mix with the likes of you. Get out, moron.”

That’s mild compared to the slurs that percolate on the Twitter feeds of star reporters. Hiroko Tabuchi, former Tokyo correspondent for the New York Times, recalls a stream of invective laced with sexual and ethnic smears (see sidebar).Justin McCurry, Tokyo correspondent for the Guardian has been branded an “ultra-leftist North Korean spy” and repeatedly invited to “Fack off.”

Many reporters trudge the path taken by McCurry, from engagement to frustration, and resignation. “I have tried several different ways to deal with trolls, from snapping back to taking the time to dream up what, in my mind at least, is a rejoinder so withering that it will surely be the final word on the matter. It never is, of course.” Increasingly, he says, he reaches for the Twitter mute button: When trolls send an abusive message now “they are simply pissing into cyberspace.”

 

Cyber abuse is a serious issue, notes a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review. “There’s far from any kind of consensus on how to deal with it and what journalists’ roles are,” says the author

 

But McCurry says it’s important to understand the difference between legitimate criticism and trolling. “I’ve had my share of critical emails, tweets and Facebook postings,” he says. “When the point is made in a temperate manner and, more importantly, with a real name attached, I take in what has been said and, if necessary, respond. But I regard this as reader feedback, not trolling.”

Cyber abuse is a serious issue, notes a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review. “There’s far from any kind of consensus on how to deal with it and what journalists’ roles are,” says author Lene Bech Sillesen. Law enforcement struggles to deal with the proliferation of anonymous online harassment. Platform providers often “suck” at dealing with trolls, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo memorably admitted this year.

Increasingly, the consensus seems to be shifting toward confrontation. The Review cites a growing genre of stories about unmasking trolls. In the Swedish TV show Troll Hunters, journalist Robert Aschberg tracks down and confronts offenders on camera. “It’s a huge problem,” says Aschberg, “and it’s no different from exposing, let’s say, corrupt politicians, or thieves.”

THE RISE OF THE troll, and the shifting terrain it represents in our networked society, is a particular dilemma for journalists. For decades, virtually the only rejoinder available to print readers was the carefully moderated letters page, but the internet has opened up multiple channels of feedback. Many bloggers view journalists as fair game because they are public figures.

Inevitably, the result is a steady river of bile, but most journalists are understandably wary of trying to block it. As Martin Fackler, a former Tokyo bureau chief of the New York Times notes: “You’re walking a fine line. Journalists dish out criticism, and need to take it with the same grace. Otherwise, we look hypocritical. And we need to support freedom of speech, even for our critics.”

In practice, most journalists follow Fackler in not feeding the trolls, and many don’t even block them to avoid the providing the veneer of cyber-street cred. Fackler, who says he has yet to block any troll accounts, advocates only shutting down those that cross boundaries of decency. “Short of that, I think everyone deserves the same freedom of speech that we demand in our own work.”

Where, however, do these boundaries lie? Perhaps the only line everyone agrees on is the one dividing incivility from threats of violence.

 

In one of about 300 YouTube messages he declares: “Every university, every academic, every nuclear scientist will be hunted down and fucking murdered.

 

The debate is about to get a legal airing in North America in a case that involves reporting on Japan’s nuclear accident. As most correspondents are only too aware, Fukushima has triggered terabytes of outraged online commentary by anti-nuclear activists alleging a cover-up by the establishment media. Some have attacked journalists and experts, and at least one, Dana Durnford, has threatened the lives of two scientists: Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and Jay Cullen of the University of Victoria (British Columbia).

Durnford used Facebook, YouTube and other social media to reach a large audience with a disturbing – and deluded - message: much of the Pacific Ocean is dying from the impact of Fukushima’s payload. Scientists who disagreed were “mass murderers.” In one of about 300 YouTube messages he declares: “Every university, every academic, every nuclear scientist will be hunted down and fucking murdered. We want you dead.” Ironically, Buesseler agrees that governments and journalists have done a poor job of documenting the impact of radiation. But there came a point where he felt enough was enough.

“I can put up with being called a liar,” he says. “Lots of people don’t agree on radiation. But when you get these threats to thousands of followers, it became a bit cult-like. We counted four death threats.” Buesseler and Cullen called in the authorities and Durnford has been charged with two counts of criminal harassment. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he claims he is being silenced and has appealed to his followers for money to pay legal costs.

Buesseler insists that the abuse had to be confronted. Durnford has been forced to expunge his videos and commentary from the Net. “In the short term it has brought more attention to him and has taken a lot of time and energy to deal with – but it has slowed him down,” he says. “I can see the reluctance to tackling it head-on but these people need to be told that there are rules against threatening people for doing science.”

SUCH EXTREME EXAMPLES ARE rare. For most correspondents, the problem is limited to irritating but mostly harmless nitpicking. Still, popular Twitter accounts (one attacking the FCCJ and specific journalists recently boasted 18,000 followers) can creep up Google searches, leaving freelancers more vulnerable. As Michael Penn of Shingetsu News Agency says: “Anyone searching my name on Google in either English or in Japanese is going to find this garbage among the top results.”

Female journalists are particularly vulnerable, says the NYT’s Tabuchi. “Trolls elicit eye-rolling from our male colleagues and advice to ‘just ignore them,’ rather than any acknowledgement that this is a critically serious and deep-rooted problem that’s threatening to silence prominent female voices online.” Michelle Ferrier, an African-American journalist, felt strongly enough about her harassment to create Trollbusters, a platform that allows women suffering from online harassment “to type in the URL of an offensive message in order to locate the troll,” according to the International Journalists’ Network.

Still, says Ferrier, the best advice for journalists being insulted – but not threatened – is to often simply step away from the computer. Trolls are simply not worth bothering about.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT: Correspondents weigh in

Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times correspondent formerly based in Tokyo: “I talked to several journalists I respected for advice on the harassment I was receiving, and was basically advised to ignore, grin and bear it. I think the (let’s be honest, basically still white male-dominated) world of foreign media in Japan has very little understanding of how sick, personal, and sexual online attacks on women can be – in a way they usually aren’t for men. Being a local journalist also means there is little escape. I was personally very disillusioned by the lack of any collective rage or even public support among the foreign journalist community for female journalists (not just me) who were publicly harassed online.”

Julian Ryall, the Telegraph: “I’m firmly in the ‘ignore them and hope to hell they go away’ faction. I just have too much to do to start a conversation with someone who, firstly, almost certainly has plenty of time on their hands – they’re unemployed (for good reason), they’re students of the issue I’ve written about and want to nit-pick over a 300-word article that I’ve written, or they’re some sad foreigner who has lived in the middle of nowhere in Japan for 20 years and assume that gives them the right to pontificate about all things Japanese and to tell everyone how much more intelligent they are than anyone else. The desk in London tells us to basically ignore the comments section on the bottom of stories. I get the impression they’re there to generate traffic and keep people coming back.”

Michael Penn, Shingetsu News Agency: “I agree that smaller trolls should be ignored. However, certain trolls have gained large followings and can wield an uncomfortable degree of public influence. When confronted by one of these more formidable trolls, simply remaining silent can eventually become a counterproductive strategy. It is a regrettable fact that a certain percentage of people tend to view dignified silence in the face of public accusations as some kind of an admission of guilt. If you are holding a position in which public perceptions about you can have a significant effect on your career or status, you simply have to defend yourself publicly in these cases, though different opponents may call for varied strategies to counter them.”

Teddy Jimbo, Videonews.com: “I’ve been in this business for a long time so the abuse doesn’t bother me any more, unless there are physical threats to me, my family or staffers. It’s just toilet graffiti and people give it too much attention because they don’t know how to deal with it. Shutting down abusers works in one way, however: instead of sitting back and just bearing the attacks, you do something and feel better. It makes it easier to cope.”

Tim Hornyak: “Because of the endless torrent of stupidity and abuse online, comments on news sites are on the way out. They’ve been eliminated at sites like Popular Science, Reuters, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Daily Beast, CNN and others. More and more people are recognizing that there’s little value in allowing anonymous users on websites and social media. I expect the online landscape will move toward more of a Facebook-style basis of real names for dialogue as it matures.”

 

David McNeill writes for the Independent, the Economist and other publications. He has been based in Tokyo since 2000.

 

 

Published in: January 2016

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6 comments

  • Terry (Teruya) Mori

    posted by Terry (Teruya) Mori

    Friday, March 25, 2016

    I got to know about this article of yours reviewing Yahoo News. I feel deeply sorry about those naughty and shameful comments addressed to you and your colleague journalists. I trust however you know that they do not represent us, Japanese, and not a majority. Most of us appreciate fair and neutral views made about today’s Japan.

    I myself am not at all an SNS person. This is my very first time I take this kind of action. Yet I couldn’t stop doing this as I wanted emphasize that those rude guys are exceptions. I personally have a concern about “press-freedom” issue as well as “security laws”, “laws of certain secrets”, “US base in Okinawa”, “nuclear energy”, Japan’s attitude toward refugees, etc.

    If you feel like and think it interesting to talk to one of general public of Japan, I would welcome such an opportunity. Regards,

  • Steve Jackman

    posted by Steve Jackman

    Sunday, February 28, 2016

    In response to Eido Inoue's comment, "The foreign correspondent NEEDS their aggressive fifth estate (the commenters) to keep them honest.", I think a little honesty and integrity is called for. There has been a campaign of false personal attacks on me and my credibility for years in the comments sections of The Japan Times and other publications by those who consider me as having an anti-Japan bias. Case in point, in the comments section of the article, "Time to burst your bubble and face reality", dated Dec 3, 2014, in The Japan Times, the following response was originally posted by a Eido Inoue to one of my comments while using the name "Eido Inoue". What is most interesting is that inspite of having made inaccurate and unsubstantiated accusations towards me, the name on the post was subsequently changed from Eido Inoue to the pseudonym letteradegree. As you can read the comment below, I cannot help but find the hypocrisy a bit ironic.

    "I think you misunderstood my point regarding names. You're using a pseudonym. That gives you the right to privacy. I respect that. It gives you the right to express your opinion. I respect that too.

    However, this shouldn't give you the expectation that anybody is going to believe your "Steve Jackman" back-story / resume that you created because there's no way to verify it. Anyone that believes anything a 'nym claims about their real-life credentials is a fool. Clever though how you chose a real-sounding name to make your Disqus avatar sound more credible. Kudos.

    As they say, "on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog." But feel free to continue to bark away."

  • Arudou Debito

    posted by Arudou Debito

    Friday, January 29, 2016

    Thanks for the article. One thing I might add, as a longtime veteran of being targeted by trolls, is that it's worse for some of us than you mentioned above. For example, I have numerous online stalkers, who dedicate many electrons on cyberspace (even devote whole websites and hijack Biographies of Living People on Wikipedia) not only to misrepresent my arguments, but also to track my personal life and advocate that I come to harm. I've endured death treats for decades, and I can't conclude that merely ignoring trolls and hoping they'll go away is an effective answer either. After all, as propaganda masters know, if enough people claim something is true, it becomes true, as long as through constant repetition they gain control over the narrative.

    I for one never visit these stalker sites, but lots of people who should know better do look at them without sufficient critique, and (as you noted above) assume that my not commenting about their false allegations is some kind of admission in their favor. What the stalkers actually get out of all this wasted energy truly escapes me.

    So after realizing that being ignored still works in their favor, now they are going after journalists, which brings into the debate issues of freedom of the press. Plus journalists have a more amplified public soapbox and credibility to advocate for change than we activist-types do. I hope you will continue to research and speak out against this, and not fall into the mindset that anonymous threats and stalking are simply part of being a public figure.

    Thanks again for broaching the subject. Arudou Debito

  • Eido Inoue

    posted by Eido Inoue

    Thursday, December 31, 2015

    I'm not quite sure how to comment on an article that decries commenters, but here goes nothing.

    IN DEFENSE OF THE FIFTH ESTATE: God Bless the Commenters

    If there's one thing that the non-Japanese language publications of Japan need, it's the Fifth Estate (the fourth estate being the media & press, and the first three estates being government, big corporations, and those in power). Western media in Europe and America tend to fact check, cross-examine, and challenge itself better than the foreign correspondents in Japan. This is due to the common second language of the world being English and the center of the media universe being the United States. If a news outlet gets a story wrong, there will be countless other news outlets that will get it right. And there will be other news outlets that will attack and shame the other news outlets that get it wrong.

    No such natural ecosystem of checks and balances exist for foreign correspondents. Unlike the English world, questioning whether the correspondent actually understands the words written and spoken around him is a legitimate question. In fact, whether or not the FCCJ represents legitimate qualified journalism or not is also a legitimate question. Those on the outside might not know the internal politics that involved a long battle for the credentialed journalists to regain control of the organization from bloggers with vanity domains, U.S. personal home addresses listed as company addresses, and inflated LinkedIn resumes. As I see that some of the key players in that messy battle are listed in this article, I can only assume that the battle between the snobs & the slobs (my apologies to Caddyshack) will continue in 2016.

    I've noticed that in FCCJ video interviews, some new journalists (such as Jonathan Soble of the NYT, and Fackler has said this indirectly) now often introduce themselves with a promise to not focus of the "weird, wacky, and pervy" Japan article. And to that I say bravo!

    However, if I may remind the FCCJ... the backlash towards the weird, wacky, and pervy Japan article did not originally come their home base readers or editors in America & Europe. It did not come from their peers at the FCCJ. It was those pesky commenters and bloggers that outed and exposed the worst and most racist form of overseas based journalism on Japan. The foreign correspondent NEEDS their aggressive fifth estate (the commenters) to keep them honest. Their editors and readers outside of Japan aren't going to do it. Journalism needs checks and balances. Unlike domestic focused journalism, the nature of shoestring budgets, a foreign language and a foreign land, and a natural bias by their overseas editorial staff and subscribers to want to affirm their superiority by reading about how The Japanese fail or are inferior, means that the oversight of their journalism will not come from their peers. They need the Fifth Estate to help keep them honest.

    You're welcome.

  • Nancy Snow

    posted by Nancy Snow

    Wednesday, December 30, 2015

    What an excellent article to share with my diplomacy and journalism students. I'll be sure to use this for discussion this spring at KUFS. As one who has posted online commentary for nearly 20 years, I feel as Teddy does. Ignore, unless the threat rises to a level where you feel like your personal safety or that of your family is at stake. Whenever I've tried to respond, even with humor, it ends up being a cluster you know what. The trolls know each other and love to get an emotional reaction. I like the trend in getting rid of the comments section unless there is some moderation. The NYT comments section is full of well informed commentary because real human beings (imagine that?) serve as moderators. It includes an evaluative standard (reader picks, NYT picks) that helps you cull through the stack.

  • (Rev.) Paul A. Koroluk

    posted by (Rev.) Paul A. Koroluk

    Wednesday, December 30, 2015

    Sadly, we also live in a world where much trolling is performed by teams of paid, professional trolls in a coordinated effort to discredit legitimate media, or simply to confuse the public enough that readers - especially western readers suspicious of their governments and institutions - will be left with an impression that the truth is unknowable. (Sadly, much of journalism in an attempt to be balanced also feeds this confusion.) These professional trolls can only be defused by exposure.

    Please Google "Russia's troll army" for a great deal of information on how one state actor invests heavily in professional trolling, including troll centers in Russia and coordinated teams of trolls around the world. Sadly, again, some of the more active actors come from the journalism field.

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