Journalists getting mean tweets

Posted on Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Phone screen with the Twitter application open

In the Twittersphere, information is shared and commented on. An ideal platform for journalists? Yes, if you’re OK with being up to your neck in mean-spirited comments.   

We spoke to Elizabeth Dubois about this present-day reality. She’s the University Research Chair in Politics, Communication and Technology, a faculty member at the Centre for Law, Technology and Society and a professor in the Department of Communication of the Faculty of Arts.  

Why did you choose to focus your research on journalists getting mean tweets? 

Online negativity is so preponderant. When I started that project, and largely still, most of the information we had was, “yeah, journalists get a lot of hate.” And I wondered, But what do they do and how do they deal with it? Does it disadvantage particular individuals or groups of individuals?   

How does data collection happen with such an evocative topic? 

We do a really cool combination of manual content analysis and interviews as deep, rich, qualitative ways of collecting and analyzing data. For the manual content analysis, we read samples of tweets mentioning different journalists and categorized them based on whether they were positive, neutral, somewhat negative or highly negative.  

Then we pair the qualitative results with an automated approach where we’re developing a machine learning model to automatically analyze tweets mentioning journalists. Harassment and hate comments can be really tough to look at over and over and can have impacts on the mental health of the readers. So, we are using our machine learning approach to analyze data more quickly and to minimize the emotional tax on the research team.  

What were the key findings of your research? 

We looked specifically at the 2019 federal election as our main kind of Twitter data source and we conducted interviews to have a broader view of the issue, all so that this research can be part of a bigger conversation. 

What we are finding is people who are at big outlets that have more support can offload some of the responsibility to an IT team or social media team, or they are less reliant on constantly being online. It appears to be easier for them to use block or mute functions and just ignore online negativity and harassment. But, if you are an early-career journalist or you are freelancing, you don’t have the resources of a huge institution behind you, and you really are constantly dependent on that online interaction in order to get your next story.  

How can journalists survive online harassment and keep their passion? 

I was interviewing Rosemary Barton, Fatima Syed and Mark Blackburn in that event (Journalists Facing Mean Tweets: What It Means for Our Democracy). I asked them, Why keep going? How do you coach yourself? And for them, it comes down to doing good journalism. And knowing that, despite how much negativity you might get, good journalism is still going to have an important effect on the larger democratic system. It’s going to have important effects on very particular people. And paying attention to and reminding yourself that those positives come out of doing your job well was a real driver for them. Now, there are also some technical solutions that have been put in place. They talked about muting and blocking functions on Twitter as being essential, about having institutional support, as being really helpful. And they talked about being able to identify when they needed to care and when they didn’t need to care.  

What next? 

One of the things that I am really excited about is the next step for this project, to look at the positivity that’s directed at journalists and to try and understand when and why positivity happens. There are anecdotal examples of negativity kind of spiralling and then members of the general public noticing the attacks happening to a particular journalist, and then jumping into those conversations and giving affirming messages and telling the journalists how wonderful it is that they are doing their job.  

If you’re curious about Dubois’s research, listen to her Wonks and War Rooms podcast. 

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