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

For 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.”

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.

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 antinuclear 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. But we counted four death threats.”

“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 deeprooted 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.


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, “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 Horynak: “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.