Content note: The following article contains descriptions of sexual harassment and violent threats.
Rachel Greenspan didn’t expect to be doxxed in her first month at her new job as a digital culture reporter at Insider. The former Time reporter had pivoted from writing about internet influencers, entertainment, and Tik Tok trends to covering the darker side of the internet, including how right-wing conspiracy theories and misinformation proliferate online. Within a few weeks, she discovered how quickly her reporting could make her a target.
In spring 2020, Greenspan published a story about false medical information being shared on Twitter by conservative political commentator Candace Owens. Greenspan reached out to Owens’ team for comment, but didn’t hear back and ultimately ended up pushing the article live a couple hours later. Not long after the article was published, Owens tweeted a screenshot of Greenspan’s email to show the short time span between the time she reached out and the time the article was published. The email also revealed Greenspan’s personal cell phone number.
“My phone would not stop ringing,” Greenspan said. “I was getting these terrifying voicemails and text messages with creepy Trump memes that were saying things like, ‘You better watch out,’ and ‘Who the fuck do you think you are messing with Candace?’ It wasn’t just mean stuff. I was genuinely scared.”
Less than one hour after being doxxed, Greenspan changed her phone number. By then, however, she had already received hundreds of harassing texts, emails, phone calls, and social media messages. Twitter eventually removed Owens’ tweet, but the damage had already been done. Greenspan said being doxxed was one of the scariest moments of her life. Given the pervasiveness of doxxing and online harassment and how easily it can be triggered, Greenspan found it hard to believe Owens’ tweet showing Greenspan’s personal phone number was accidental.
“It was all in bad faith,” Greenspan said. “[Owens] knew what she was doing.”
Greenspan is one of the countless women working in media who have been harassed online. At a time when an increasing number of journalists are gaining a massive following on social media, more women are speaking out about the harassment they face for doing their job or voicing their opinions. Greenspan’s experience is one of the many reasons she’s been fiercely protective of other women coming up in the field. She was one of the several journalists to speak out last month in defense of Brenna Smith, an intern at USA Today who posted her first article with the outlet about the rioters at the Jan. 6 Capitol attack trying to crowdfund for their legal defense. Greenspan’s defense of Smith prompted a wave of online backlash once again—this time by Donald Trump Jr.
“I just thought, ‘Here we go again,’” Greenspan said. “I was insanely harassed.”
Smith is still digesting the online backlash and declined a request by Prism to comment. Greenspan, however, received a flood of messages—some of which were anti-semitic and sexually suggestive. She says she’s starting to get used to the online vitriol but it still has an emotional impact.
“I don’t think I’ll ever not be sad when someone threatens to kill me,” she said.
‘It’s part of the job’
Online abuse of journalists has been accelerating at a disturbing rate, especially in recent years. Criticisms and negative feedback by readers are an expected part of any journalist’s experience, but white women, women of color, and people who are perceived as women in media are subjected to abuse on a level that goes far beyond the subject they’re covering. Women working in media are targeted by criticism that is often hyper-focused on their sexuality, ethnicity, appearance, or religion. A growing number of newsrooms have started preparing for potential online backlash before controversial pieces are published, but a limited number are actively taking steps to address everyday harassment, such as resources to manage a journalist’s personal information online, monitoring article comments and social media, or support in processing trauma resulting from the online abuse.
Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News columnist Helen Ubiñas has been vocal on social media about the racist and sexist harassment she’s received for years. She has always faced some level of backlash, but the amount of harassment has been amplified by the anti-media movement led by former President Donald Trump.
“At this point, I can write about anything and it’ll be turned into some weird sort of attack,” Ubiñas said.
Ubiñas was doxxed while covering the Women’s March on Washington in 2017. While heading home from the event, she saw that her home address was revealed in the comment section of one of her articles. Since the comments section wasn’t being regularly monitored at the time, the comment with her address had been left up for more than 10 hours.
“I remember I panicked because my husband was home and it was late at night,” Ubiñas said. “Thank god nothing happened. Things have been much worse for other reporters out there.”
Ubiñas has received messages over the years calling for her to be hurt, killed, maimed, and raped. The harassment in the comments section on Ubiñas’ articles eventually became so severe that the newspaper decided to shut off comments for her columns. However, getting rid of the comments section didn’t resolve the broader issue since she still receives harassing and threatening comments on social media. In February, The Philadelphia Inquirer made the decision to remove the comment section from most of the articles on their website.
“People are talking about this now, but before when I’d bring this up people would just say, ‘Well, it’s part of the job. At least they’re reading,’” Ubiñas said. “Only now are people in newsrooms asking themselves how to deal with this. Now we’re talking about this and now we’re trying to figure out what to do about it, but it’s an incredibly delayed reaction to a very real problem.”
By being vocal about her experience, Ubiñas said she hopes more publications will take additional steps to protect their reporters and establish protocols that are not just reactive, but proactive in addressing the ongoing daily harassment that women journalists are disproportionately subjected to. While she stands by her decision to share her experiences publicly, she says being honest and open about the harassment has resulted in her being labeled as someone who can’t handle the stressors of the job.
“Journalists of color, especially women journalists of color, already have to deal with so much,” Ubiñas said. “Too many people view this as something that I should quietly take. We’re expected to just be quiet about it so that we don’t come across as having thin skin or that we can’t take it.”
The ‘instinctive feeling of wanting to hide’
Long before newsrooms and the public started taking online harassment seriously, Black women in media were sounding the alarm that the abuse they were being subjected to online wouldn’t be limited to Black women for long. Bitch Media Editor-in-Chief Evette Dionne has been dealing with a steady drip of online harassment for years. Since Twitter didn’t have the “Quote Tweet” function when her private information was leaked a few years ago, Dionne has never been able to identify the source. Both times she was doxxed she received multiple phone calls and hundreds of harassing messages. She said emails she receives are typically the most threatening since it’s easy for people to hide behind a fake email address.
“It creates this instinctive feeling of wanting to hide,” Dionne said.
Dionne said there have been several instances where people have tried to hack into all of her social media accounts at once. She even came across YouTube videos denigrating her and her character. She says about three-quarters of the harassment she receives is racist and the rest of it is rooted in misogyny. To avoid seeing those comments on Twitter, she filters out certain words and offensive terms so that she doesn’t have to subject herself to all of it.
“If I were a white dude arguing the things that I argue online or making the points that I make online, I wouldn’t deal with any of this,” Dionne said. “It very much is because I’m a Black woman and doing this work.”
As the leader of a feminist newsroom, Dionne said she takes extra precautions to ensure her staff is protected from potential harassment. When editors anticipate some backlash on an article, they give the writer an option to be tagged in the social media post and occasionally shut off comments. Since Dionne knows what it’s like to be doxxed and harassed online, she takes the issue seriously. She said no one has been doxxed under her leadership, but she is always looking to find new ways to do more to protect the privacy and safety of her staff.
“The platform that comes along with being a journalist is not something that I ever really wanted,” Dionne said. “I just wanted to do good work. I feel a lot of pressure to model what it looks like to go through those sorts of situations with as much grace as possible for myself and for other people, but it absolutely takes a toll.”
Steps for protection
When newsrooms don’t step up to protect their journalists, reporters have to take action to shield themselves. Jean Guerrero, an investigative journalist and the author of HateMonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda, knew to protect herself ahead of her book launch last year. She was aware her book would receive some blowback and that getting in the crosshairs of the far-right can be problematic. To get ahead of the problem, her publisher recommended taking extra precautions by reaching out to PEN America, an organization that works to protect free expression through the advancement of literature. Guerrero was encouraged to create long, complex passwords to all of her online accounts. She also paid to erase her phone number, address, and other identifying information from search engines.
“I was very, very worried about what could happen, and luckily [taking precautions] ahead of time protected me,” Guerrero said.
Though she didn’t receive too much online harassment from her book, she did have to deal with some public criticism from well-known conservatives. She was called “insane,” a “pathological liar,” and received a series of “intimidating” text messages by Chad Wolf, the former acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. However, Guerrero was confident her reporting was solid.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Wow. I wonder if the Bob Woodwards or the Joshua Greens of the world get messages like this,’” Guerrero said.
One of Guerrero’s scariest moments came recently after she wrote a recent Daily Beast article about Anthony Aguero, an ally of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, being involved in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. Not long after the article was published, Aguero posted a Facebook Live video telling Guerrero to “come to the border” to meet him.
“It was just inappropriate and it was creepy and weird,” Guerrero said. “He said, ‘I’m going to continue to kick your ass,’ or something like that. Obviously he’s speaking metaphorically, but this is a man with a history of criminal violence. He’s not a stable person.”
Aguero urged his followers to tag Guerrero on social media and comment on her accounts. She said her Instagram was inundated with comments and messages calling her a liar and telling her to meet Aguero at the border.
“It was scary and I’d definitely say that was harassment,” Guerrero said. “I made my Instagram private because it disturbed me to think of those individuals looking at pictures of my family.”
Guerrero took some steps to protect her personal information to prevent herself from getting doxxed, but experts say there are additional precautions journalists can take to protect themselves from having their personal information leaked. Changing the privacy settings on your accounts, using a virtual private network (VPN), and being careful about sharing personal or identifying information on social media pages can all create barriers for potential hackers.
For harassment that goes beyond criques of their work, there are some steps that can be taken to reduce exposure to toxicity online. Blocking or muting certain accounts can be helpful, but for people who don’t feel like constantly moderating their social media pages, some social media platforms have “word blocker” functions that can hide comments with certain words or phrases. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have found that women in media who are regularly harassed have found solace in commiserating with colleagues in the same situation.
Though there are small steps that can be taken to minimize the threats and vitriol women journalists experience on a daily basis, the problem won’t be solved with a single action. Until more media outlets take aggressive action to address and prevent the online harassment of their journalists, the problem will persist and women in media will have no choice but to consider threats and abuse as “part of the job.”