Threats and Trolls Online
by Manuel Mogato, Reuters
“After three online attacks from President Duterte’s die-hard supporters in a span of two months, I have learned to deal with these social media influencers, trolls and bots. I ignored them, blocked them and deleted hateful messages. I avoided engaging them because I found them useless and a waste of time because these people are irrational and illogical, They cannot accept any sound and logical argument.'”
THIS IS not a good time to become a journalist.
Journalists in some Western countries are losing their jobs due to falling revenues and technological advances. In the Philippines, it is more difficult as journalists face greater risks, threatened online by people whose reality is shaped by algorithms and by politicians who attack news organizations as purveyors of false news.
Journalists’ credibility is questioned and under attack by people who do not tolerate dissent and would only like to promote propaganda. Social media, whose goal was to reconnect friends and families, share experiences and exchange ideas has been taken over by vested interests, filling up FB news feeds with hate messages, attacking not only news organizations but individual journalists.
That is the sad reality and many journalists in the Philippines continue to experience cyberbullying, verbal attacks and threats. It is not amusing, it is very scary and it is a new risk that they have to live with.
More than a year ago, I was on a trip to Antipolo when a friend sent through Messenger a screenshot of an FB page attacking Reuters and its two journalists for shaming the president. The Philippine Daily Inquirer carried a Reuters story on President Rodrigo Duterte, who had likened himself to Germany’s Adolf Hitler, who killed six million Jews during World War II, by “slaughtering” three million drug addicts in the country.
The FB post showed my picture and that of my colleague as in a rogue gallery, urging punishment for reporting accurately and truthfully what the president had actually said in a speech because the news story had generated a lot of negative reaction abroad, particularly from the Jewish community.
In just hours, the FB post went viral. It was shared and “liked” more than 1,000 times and the comments were threatening and unprintable. In an instant, we became the country’s public enemy number 1.
It was the first online attack on a foreign news agency in the Philippines. Local news agencies, like ABS-CBN, Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler had been getting online threats, but this was the first time for Reuters, anywhere in the world.
Reuters editors decided to pull us out and give us an early vacation, acting to take down the FB post and sending a security expert to look after and review safety precautions at work and at home.
Luckily, the cyber attacks died down after a week when those behind them moved on to the next target. The scary FB post was removed. The experience was a reality check, allowing us to take our security seriously, shattering any belief in invincibility and immunity of a foreign news agency to the threats and risks which our local media colleagues face.
The scary episode gave us first-hand experience on how a few social media influencers backed by an army of trolls and bots can actually shape and sway public opinion and create a distorted reality. It becomes more dangerous when a government takes control of these social media influencers and “keyboard” army to suppress dissent, malign political opponents, discredit mainstream media and promote its own agenda.
I thought the “Hitler” episode was the last of it. After all, Reuters makes it a point to always practice good journalism. Reuters’ reports are accurate, based on facts, fair and free from any bias. In all its drug war stories, the government was given the right of reply and the stories are bullet proof in terms of verification, telling readers what we know and what we do not know.
More than a month after the online attack, I was shocked to see my picture again on FB news feeds when blogger RJ Nieto, aka Thinking Pinoy, blamed me for a faulty headline posted by Global News, a Canada-based news website, a subscriber of Reuters.
The Global News headline was: “Philippines’ police chief breaks down after drug kingpin accuses cops of corruption.” Thinking Pinoy said it was a false story.
However, the original Reuters headline was “Philippines police chief fights back tears on TV, pledges loyalty to Duterte.”
Thinking Pinoy was holding me responsible for Global News’ faulty headline as if I had editorial control over the Canadian news site. Many readers called the attention of Global News, which corrected its headline. No apology was made by Thinking Pinoy even after it was proven Reuters was not responsible for the faulty headline.
Two weeks later, Duterte’s supporters hacked into my FB account, changing the cover and profile photo with Mocha Uson’s blog logo after Reuters ran a special report on Duterte’s drug war, written by Andrew Marshall and Clare Baldwin. There was no explanation for the attack.
Hours later, I regained control of my FB account but it was an eye opener. Duterte’s die-hard supporters can easily target any journalist who they think would criticize the president or would report against his drug war policy. I was advised to change my privacy and security settings on all social media platforms, not only FB and Twitter.
After three online attacks from President Duterte’s die-hard supporters in a span of two months, I have learned to deal with these social media influencers, trolls and bots. I ignored them, blocked them and deleted hateful messages. I avoided engaging them because I found them useless and a waste of time because these people are irrational and illogical, they cannot accept any sound and logical argument.
Ignoring, blocking and deleting comments from these trolls lessen stress. It also avoids increasing traffic in their accounts, which can be monetized.
A year after the harrowing experience, I am at peace with like-minded friends and with my news feeds free from any hateful messages. I still get those hate messages and get attacked every now and then. I continue to ignore, delete and block online threats and attacks.
I continue to do my job. The best defense against these online attacks is good journalism.