Cyber-misogyny and the trolls behind the glass ceiling

Online trolls threatening their physical safety to silence their voices eclipse the triumph of female journalists breaking the glass ceiling.

Dr Glenda Daniels

The online harassment of female journalists is an anti-feminist backlash against female journalists who have made strides towards equality in what has traditionally been a male space: political reporting, investigative journalism and freedom of expression on social media.

The gamut of online harassment of female journalists includes defamation on Twitter and Facebook, primarily through defamation: “bitch”, “bitch”, “you’re going to be raped”, “we know where you live”, to photo-shopped images of them in sexual positions, resulting in emotional trauma and sometimes even self-censorship, or quitting journalism.

List of names of South African female journalists who have been harassed online continues to grow: Pauli van Wyk (Daily Maverick)Ranjeni Munusamy (ex-Sunday time), Ferial Haffajee (Daily Maverick), Karyn Maughan (News24)late Karima Brown (702) Lindsay Dentlinger (eNCA)Tshidi Madia (EWN)Carien du Plessis (independent), Qaanitah Hunter (News24)Marianne Tham (Daily Maverick)Slindelo Masikane (eNCA), Julia Madibogo (municipal press)Susan Comrie (amaBhungane)and more.

One of the most important findings from the largest local research on this topic to date – Genderlink’s Glass Ceilings: Women in South African Media 2018 was that trolling, or the online abuse of female journalists, was on the rise.

Women’s voices add diversity to the public sphere that deepens democracy. Otherwise, it’s just the same old elites speaking the same language, with male, liberal, white narratives dominating ideologies. As Michele Weldon, director of Medill Public Thought Leaders, has observed: “If you have a male-dominated newsroom, story ideas, source choices and how an article is presented will reflect that view. . When that happens, you get a skewed view of the world and that’s not what the world looks like.

cracking of glass ceilings

A glass ceiling is an invisible but real barrier to the advancement of women in the workplace, where they may be blocked by sexism, sexist practices, sexual harassment, patriarchal views and biases, in hiring and promotions as well as wage disparities with men, according to the International Women’s Media Foundation. There may also be wins for women as they break through the glass ceiling, and then a “backlash” against that triumph.

And so, in South Africa, women have broken the glass ceiling somewhat, while huge gains have been made by having equal numbers of women and men in newsrooms, as shown research on glass ceilings – yet, simultaneously, the anti-feminist backlash has accelerated in the form of cybermisogyny.

Trolling (online bullying and harassment), which includes some of the most horrific forms of sexism, is used to try to silence women in the media. Cybermisogyny may be a fairly recent phenomenon in the last decade but, like the speed of social media that spawned it, it is guaranteed to spiral out of control if not dealt with seriously. Global studies show that trolling affects women more than men.

Cybermisogyny, which ranges from online sexual harassment to harassment and the threat of violence, is a psychological – and potentially physical – risk when it spills over into the physical world, to the safety of female journalists. It is also a threat to the active participation of women in the public sphere and civil society debate, as well as on social media platforms.

Cybermisogyny runs rampant internationally

An international study has detailed how female journalists face “endemic” online harassment. In the Journalist’s Resource, published by Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center, Denise-Marie Ordway wrote what in-depth interviews with dozens of female journalists from around the world revealed: women in the news suffer from sexist remarks or rape threats. Ordway said researchers have found that the strategies women use to deal with such abuse can disrupt their writing routines, even prompting some to change the way they report the news.

“Regularly, journalists we interviewed viewed online gender-based harassment as a barrier to their efforts to report the news, engage with the communities they cover, or have a voice in the digital sphere,” Gina Masullo Chen wrote. , assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. The study contained vivid descriptions of the abuse the women faced, in their own words:

  • A German online editor said: “The comments (on this article) were not criticism, they were threats, they were death threats, they were rape calls.”
  • A veteran journalist in the United States has received hundreds of messages after writing about Donald Trump from the perspective of a Muslim woman. “I was shocked at the dehumanization and demonization that exploded on Twitter and Facebook as well as direct email to the point where I thought I should have security cameras.”

Journalists are often required by their editors and media companies to promote their work and interact with the public online. But public engagement can have nasty consequences, as some people use Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms to attack members of the press.

A few years ago, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) launched social media defense courses as an intervention – media strategy educator Jenna Price (who was threatened online with rape) commended, saying media employers “…need to practice responsible corporate citizenship and ensure their staff have social media skills and the emotional support required… it needs policy, strategy and action.

Some South African trolling experiences and what to do

Karima Brown once received a brinjal emoji, which features a penis – representing rape. Qaanitah Hunter was texted a photo of an ANC gun after uncovering the corruption. Pauli van Wyk was called “bitch”, “witch”, “pussy”. She was told to “go to hell with Satan” by the EFF after discovering the VBS corruption stories. During Zuma’s time, Ferial Haffajee “pictures” were all over the internet, made as they were by the Gupta troll farm factory in India.

The mastermind was Bell Pottinger, the defunct multinational public relations firm employed by the Guptas, who introduced the term “white monopoly capital” into the South African lexicon as part of their propaganda campaign. Anton Rupert became the face of the WMC. Haffajee had never met Rupert, but a photoshopped image of Rupert walking a dog, with Haffajee’s face on the dog’s body, went viral.

“The attack is patriarchal and gendered: I am the cow and bitch woman. Inventors couldn’t get more stereotypical if they tried,” was Haffajee’s response.

Tshidi Madia has been shamed on social media. Lindsay Dentlinger has been harassed and called a racist; she was accused of telling a black interviewee to put on a mask during the Covid-19 pandemic, but not with white interviewees.

These are just a few examples of local experiences. International research like that of Unesco work document: ‘The Chilling: global trends in online violence against women journalists’ confirms that women are the most targeted group and that attacks are sexualised.

In South Africa, female journalists have reported being victimized by unknown email or mobile phone correspondents making violent threats, bullying and trolling, often of a sexual nature.


Research on the subject, through interviews with female journalists, shows that this is a serious reality for female reporters working in political reporting and investigative journalism spaces. Obviously, this is the area to watch and watch. Women journalists said media houses needed to provide more support for victims and track down cyberbullies and harassers.

Another suggestion was to create a link, an online tracker that will flag such incidents and track the perpetrators. “There needs to be a way to immediately report someone we see bullying or trolling us online. Another comment included, ‘IT should create strong defensive software that will protect all employees.’

Perhaps the strongest recommendation, from most female journalists, is to raise awareness of the scourge and its impact, in order to spur corrective action. This would apply to all relevant sectors and stakeholders, including government, police, political parties, media players and big tech companies, such as Twitter and Facebook.

The problem in South Africa is that there is little recognition of the problem. The government tells the media to report problems to the police, who do not recognize this as serious violence. They laugh: “But what is cyberbullying?” remembers a female journalist. Big tech companies, which benefit from “engagement” and “traction” for their platforms, are not effectively moderating their platforms and hate speech is not being removed quickly enough, so there must be alliances to make pressure on big tech to act against trolls.

So far, the only local sectors to make their voices heard on this are civil society organizations in the media space, such as Sanef and Gender Links.

The digital world, hailed as enabling greater democracy by leveling the playing field for women, has ironically given rise to cyberbullying and misogyny. It is high time this was taken seriously and the trolls were named, humiliated and punished for this traumatic violence against women journalists.

Dr. Glenda Daniels is an Associate Professor and HOD in Media Studies at Wits University. She is the author of the books: Power and Loss in South African Journalism: news in the age of social media (2020, Wits Press); Fight for Democracy: the ANC and media in South Africa (2012, Wits Press), and co-author of Glass Ceilings: Women in South African Media, 2018 (2018, Gender Connections). She sits on the board of Sanef and the South African Press Council.


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