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Online Trolls Pose Growing Threat to Free Press

RSF says those "press predators" take various forms: 1) drowning legitimate news in fake news or pro-government content; 2) amplifying pro-government content via paid commentators on social networks or through bots, and 3) outright intimidation via insults or threats to try to silence them.

The cyberattacks on journalists are disproportoinately targeted at women, the report found.

Related: White House Bans CNN Reporter Over Tough Questions

Online harassment is a phenomenon that is spreading throughout the world and now constitutes one of the gravest threats to press freedom,” said RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire in releasing the report. “We have discovered that information wars are not just waged between countries at the international level. Journalism’s predators also deploy troll armies to hunt down and harass all those who investigate and report the facts honestly. These despots let their mercenaries train their guns on journalists on the virtual terrain as others do in actual war zones.”

The report includes a section on President Donald Trump, identifed as a "champion of media bashing on social networks." Trump has waged a Twitter campaign against the media, which he calls the "enemy of the people," "disgraceful," and "fake," and tells his supporters to ignore stories critical of him because they aren't true.

"Since succeeding Barack Obama, the American president has been haranguing journalists nonstop, heaping abuse on them as purveyors of 'fake news' every time that a news story doesn’t reflect his views," says the report. "In a series of tweets posted in April, Trump targeted New York Times correspondent Maggie Haberman, accusing her of being a “third-rate reporter” working for “dishonest media," the report cites as an example. "This type of behaviour clearly encourages online harassment."

The report points out that threats to press freedom in the U.S. have become so commonplace that it joined with other groups in August of last year to launch the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

The report was compiled over six months and looking at 32 countries and included interviews with cyber-crime experts, editors, lawyers and journalists in the field.

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.