In recent weeks, journalists Erica Ifill, Rachel Gilmore and Saba Eitizaz have been speaking out about the wave of violent and hateful messages they’ve received. This is not the first time journalists, especially women and racialized journalists, have been on the receiving end of such a coordinated and targeted hate campaign. If you exist in opposition to the status quo, whether by virtue of the things you write or simply the identity you hold, you become a target for a specific kind of harassment.
When I was involved in student activism, it was routine for our office to receive hand-written notes with horrifying comments, sometimes with newspaper clippings and words scrawled across faces, targeting the Black women who led our organization. Scary, but routine.
That was 15 years ago, and things have gotten far worse. The one positive is that there are new, and more, voices leading the charge against harassment. And yet, we’re still having the same conversations while things are backsliding.
If we have any hope of meaningfully addressing online harassment and violence, we have to be honest about who is causing the harm and what needs to change to make things better. Unfortunately, that kind of honesty is hard to come by.
Don’t Focus On The Police
Each of the news organizations these journalists do work for has condemned the harassment they’ve received, and called for the government and police to get involved to stop it.
Earlier this month, Global News (where Gilmore is a reporter), Hill Times (where Ifill is a columnist), the Toronto Star (where Eitizaz is a podcast host) and the Canadian Association of Journalists co-authored a letter to several federal politicians, the RCMP’s commissioner, and the police chiefs of Toronto and Ottawa.
The Toronto Star’s public editor, Donovan Vincent, notes that, “The lengthy letter includes demands that the chiefs and safety minister take steps to address the incidents and work with the media organizations to combat the abuse of journalists, and fight online hate and the harassment of all victims.”
After massive defund the police movements swept North America, after RCMP violence toward journalists covering Wet’suwet’en, after endless stories of police failing to take the far right seriously, these media outlets again fall back on asking law enforcement to address online harassment?
It’s a cop-out for journalism higher-ups to look outward at police and politicians to fix this. Sure, there are things politicians could do. But journalism plays a fundamental role in fostering the hate that it condemns. By externalizing the solution, they avoid looking inward to see how mainstream journalism is failing to confront racism, sexism and a political status quo that is driving people to the edge, thereby missing the story completely.
Mainstream Journalism Is Complicit In The Hate
Last week, the mayor of Peterborough, Ont., Diane Therrien, reacted to a QAnon gathering in the city by tweeting: “fuck off, you fuckwads.” The next day, on CBC Radio’s As It Happens, guest host Susan Bonner grilled Therrien for her choice of words, barely even mentioning the far-right gathering she was responding to, and blamed her for the harassment she’d be sure to receive. For example, she asked, “Do you think they keep coming back to Peterborough because of the way you react?” and, “[Was the tweet] a stunt? Is it a way to get more attention for yourself?”
By the end of the interview, Bonner asks Therrien if this minor controversy has made her reconsider her decision not to run for another term. Therrien says no, explaining that, “Part of it is the misogyny I’ve had to deal with, which is exemplified by some of the conversation we’ve had today.”
The interview is a textbook example of how mainstream journalism in Canada refuses to take the far right seriously, and blames its victims by suggesting the harassment they face is due to their conduct. Canadian media, in its aggressive defence of the status quo and in all its WASPy decorum, isn’t only failing to stop harassment, but often actually justifies it by ignoring it or by blaming the people who experience it.
In 2019, I wrote this in the National Observer for the 30th anniversary of the shooting at École Polytechnique: “Politicians and corporate media are actively making things worse. They have failed to understand that men are radicalizing online; and, worse, many have found ways to exploit it, diminish it or simply ignore it.”
This kind of thing happens all the time, and there’s a direct connection between how the industry polices decorum of notable individuals in society and how it polices its own journalists. Looking to the people who control Canadian media to make online harassment stop is a dead end, as they’re directly implicated in the problem.
There’d need to be a massive change within the industry before it could be able to fight back against these threats. That’s unlikely to happen, as management at so many mainstream outlets rely on the same tactics as those behind email harassment campaigns: they use fear to keep journalists in line.
We saw that at the CTV this month, when news broke that longtime anchor Lisa LaFlamme was fired, and many journalists reported that there’s a “culture of fear” in their workplace. But management also uses the tactics of silence and marginalization when journalists fly too close to the truth, a playbook I know oh so very well.
The Threats Aren’t The Real Issue
What’s most confounding about the issue of online harassment though is that the real problem isn’t the violent threats, as serious as they are. Instead, it’s that harassing strangers is often the first of a series of escalating violent acts. And in Canada, history shows that the people with a public profile who receive the threats are rarely the ones who experience the violence.
As I wrote in 2019, “modern radicalization requires a bogeyman to whip up anger. Key actors within the far-right are turning those of us who speak and write critically into demons in their own vision. They construct a fake reality where we want all men to die, or at least be deeply unhappy. They aggressively promote this fantasy on message boards and on far-right blogs. If this is believed and internalized by a man somewhere who has easier access to a gun than he does to social services, it becomes a violent problem that places everyone at risk.”
This might sound surprising, but it’s true: there have been far more acts of violence against strangers, or people who have had a relationship with the killer, than there have been against people like me, the folks who receive the threats. The reference implicit in my 2019 piece is to Marc Lépine, the man who had a hit-list of high-profile feminists, including journalists, but who directed his violent act against strangers before killing himself. Or, to add a very recent example, one individual who used to send me harassing emails and has since been accused of murdering his father.
When I’ve emailed friends and family of the people who send me violent messages, I ask: Should I fear for my life? The answer has always been no, the family or employer is aware of the volatile anger of the individual, and they’re at a loss about what to do. One mother I communicated with in 2018 said she’d exhausted all avenues to get her son help and that she was, as she could imagine I would appreciate, desperate but out of options. I never heard from her or her son again.
This cuts to the core of what’s really happening here. Racist and misogynistic threats of violence are a symptom. For the target, they’re horrifying and damage notions of safety and security. But these individuals have, in the past, turned out to be more violent to bystanders than to any public person with whom they took issue.
Focusing On The Symptoms, Not The Illness
Targeted harassment campaigns seek to scare journalists to keep us in line — there’s no question about that. At best, they are meant to silence us and, at worst, they try to push us to self-harm. But we also need to keep our eyes on the fact that these threats are symptoms, not the illness itself, which is the increasingly organized and volatile far right.
As I argued in an article about lone-wolf terrorism in 2019, “Fascist violence is violence that keeps people in a state of fear and helps to prime a population to accept public policies that would represent a radical right-wing break with the status quo […] The fact is that it is much easier to do so with terrorized and destabilized voters.”
This violence is exacerbated by a crumbling healthcare system, as well as affordability, food security and personal debt crises driving people to the brink. At the same time, far-right organizing is trying to bring community to this messed-up group. They pick common targets for sport and delight in the attention they get when they’re called out. They try to arrest police officers in Peterborough; they occupy border crossings and cities demanding that policies that don’t exist be changed; they think they’re in a holy war against the United Nations. And it’s all made worse by a political status quo that refuses to budge from its collision course with fascism.
Despite all of this, no mainstream media organization in Canada is effectively pressing politicians to explain how they plan to deal with these issues. Possibilities like expropriating properties from real estate holdings, giving land back to Indigenous nations, implementing different forms of democracy, defunding the police and using the money to fund social services, seizing corporate profits, and hiking corporate taxes to help pay for the services we all need are non-starters. Instead, we get interviews that blame a politician’s use of the word “fuck” for the harassment she receives.
And so, while some people are pushed further to the extreme, they’ll continue to lash out in harmful and frightening ways against those of us who are easy targets. Violence, whether relationship-based or random, will continue to happen. Media managers will wring their hands, call on the police or politicians for help, and miss the real story sitting right under their noses.