Facing hate and abuse as a woman online: Nina Jankowicz on her latest book

"Even going to a coffee shop and using my name was a disturbing and frightening thing to do," researcher and author Nina Jankowicz said.
Nina Jankowicz

Nina Jankowicz. | Credit: Wilson Center. 

25th October 2022

Nina Jankowicz is an American researcher and writer, as well as a former Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. She is the author of How to be a Woman Online, a guide on dealing with online harassment that was published this spring.

How to be a Woman Online is Jankowicz's second book and is based on her own personal experiences: she faced online abuse (mostly from men) after her first book on disinformation was featured in the New Yorker. Briefly after the new book was published, she became a target once again after being named executive director of the newly created United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS)'s Disinformation Governance Board. The creation of the board sparked widespread controversy in the United States, and large amounts of personal abuse were levelled at her. Jankowicz resigned from the position less than a month after it was announced. The board was eventually disbanded.

I spoke to Jankowicz about her experiences of being at the receiving end of online abuse, and how women and marginalised groups can protect themselves while maintaining an online presence. 

Q. Could you tell us a bit about your experience of online abuse?

A. A lot of people tend to think that online abuse is just something that affects you online, and you can very easily just turn your computer off or put your phone down and not experience it anymore. But it actually has an effect on your everyday real life.

I was appointed to a position within the Biden administration earlier this spring, at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). I was meant to be leading an internal group that would coordinate the department's activities around countering disinformation. DHS brings together a lot of really disparate agencies that deal with all sorts of things related to security. The Disinformation Governance Board, the group that I was appointed to lead, was meant to bring everyone together, and make sure that they were sharing best practices, sharing resources, and to make sure that we were all walking to the beat of the same drum.

When the board was announced, the department lamentably did this in a very opaque way, much to my dismay. And as a result of the lack of information about what the department and the board were meant to be doing, mostly the far right, but also some on the far left and mainstream conservatives, attacked the board as a "Ministry of Truth" and said that I was Biden's disinformation czar. Then that vacuum of information about the board led to intense scrutiny of my personal life and my online history. Because I was a young woman, a lot of the scrutiny was extremely gendered. I was pregnant at the time. So people were saying all sorts of things, from ‘How could anyone impregnate her?’ to ‘How could Biden give a job to a woman who is going to have to go on maternity leave so soon?’ to all sorts of sexualised and violent threats. 

It's important to note that just before this happened, I had released my book on online abuse. So I'm one of the most prepared people to deal with something like this, and yet it was still extremely difficult because I do my work online. And so to see this kind of caricature of me as this evil villain who wanted to censor her fellow Americans be what most of them knew about me was just heartbreaking. And to see them be moved to the point where they felt like wishing violence on me, some of them multiple times a day for weeks on end, it's a really hard thing to deal with. And that is still one of the things that are most disturbing to me to this day, that millions of Americans will never know anything about me, except for the fact that they think that I was going to be this "minister of truth", because of the way that not only the internet but the mainstream conservative news media depicted me.

Q. How did this affect you?

A. It had an effect on my family's daily life. As I mentioned, I was pregnant when this all started. My blood pressure shot up and my doctor was worried about me. Luckily, everything's fine with my baby and the delivery. But we think about our physical safety differently, because people have sent letters to our house, we've received phone calls, we were doxxed, and my mum has received phone calls. For three weeks in the spring, I was on almost every Fox News hourly segment, so I was highly recognisable, especially because I was pregnant. It was really scary.

Especially in those early days, even going to a coffee shop and using my name would be a disturbing and frightening thing to do. So I've become a lot more circumspect with the way that I move about in the world. And that's saying a lot, because I've already taken great pains to protect my physical security as somebody who works on Russia. That had been my primary concern for many years. My primary concern is my own country now.

Q. What do you understand to be the relationship between online abuse and disinformation?

A. I've done a lot of research into this area before I experienced it to such a large degree. Women in public life, from journalists to politicians to academics and beyond, basically any woman who has the temerity to express herself online, have often experienced this gendered disinformation in addition to the abuse. If you think of abuse like an umbrella, you have your run-of-the-mill abuse, curse words and smears at the top of the umbrella and then under the umbrella, along with image-based abuse, we could even put deep fake pornography under there, is the gendered disinformation, which I define as the use of gender-based or sex-based attacks that have the intent of pushing women out of public life, and that also have a degree of falsity to them and a degree of coordination.

So often, what we see are networks of individuals working to make some of the stuff trend. Really it's quite coordinated behind the scenes and that element of coordination is an important thing to know because it's often that coordination which will allow platforms to take some action over it because targeted harassment and coordinated harassment are often against the terms of service [of the platforms].

Q. How did platforms react to your situation? Could they have done better?

A. They could have done a lot better. From having conducted focus groups and done a lot of research in this space and from experiencing some abuse myself before, I always knew that their reactions were always too slow and very much reliant on the target of abuse being the person to make sure that action was taken.

Especially when you're dealing with such a large campaign like the one I dealt with, very little of what you report gets taken down and that is crushing: to see a direct threat be overlooked or misunderstood. The platforms either don't have the capacity or the political will to remove things. On an individual level, it might not seem ‘that bad’. But when you're receiving thousands of these messages over a short period of time, it becomes really hard to deal with. I've started blocking people en masse and proactively since I resigned from the government, and I use a plugin called Block Party in order to do that. What it allows you to do is select an abusive tweet, and anybody who's interacted with that tweet, whether they've liked it or retweeted it, you can then proactively block. 

I have now blocked 300,000 people on Twitter, and the platform is only just starting to become somewhat usable for me again. This is really sad because I've always really enjoyed interacting with people there, and now I have the sensitivity to abuse turned all the way up. The platform allows you to use Safety Mode, which shows you only reputable replies, and then along with Block Party, which in addition to blocking people auto-mutes certain mentions using AI, I really don't see as much as I used to. I also have friends who are helping me comb through mentions to look for direct threats, which are still coming in. But it's sad that I have to kind of go to such great lengths to even use and maintain my presence on the platform. 

Q. What about Facebook?

A. On Facebook, I was really shocked to discover that anybody can send you a message, and there's no way to turn off direct messaging. So I was getting messages from hundreds of different people during the height of the abuse, including one man who, multiple times a day every day for weeks, just sent me the word ‘cunt’ over and over and over again. While these messages were going into a special folder, because they were from people I didn't have any connections with, I still was looking at them because I wanted to make sure there were no direct threats. And there was no way to turn it off.

I actually brought this up with someone I know at Facebook and they turned on something on my profile that allowed me to then block all messages but I think that should absolutely be something that anybody on Facebook can turn on, and it took me weeks to even achieve that. I had to completely lock down my profile along with telling my family members to also lock down their accounts. So anybody with my last name (my brother, my nephews, my mom) they all locked down their accounts too, because people were seeking them out and targeting their public posts, which I was just shocked about. I never heard a single thing back from Facebook, whether I was reporting the direct threats that I was receiving in DMs, or whether I was reporting the stuff that I was receiving elsewhere, I never heard any information about how they adjudicated those reports. 

I actually preemptively locked my TikTok account before I went to DHS because I had started receiving abuse from Russian trolls around the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. However, the trolls still found a way to affect me there. They mass-reported my account. And when I eventually logged back into my account, after I left DHS, I found that it had been shut down for Terms of Service violations. And again, only because I knew someone who worked at the platform from years of having worked in this space was I able to get my account reinstated. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of people had reported my account, and as a result, it was permanently banned, until I got them to reverse that. 

Q. In ‘How to be a woman online’, you mention that women are often told to ignore their trolls and not engage. However, you say that sometimes, it’s healthy to have your voice heard. When is it the right decision to engage and how can women do this in a healthy way?

A. I just had a guy this morning who was saying [something along the lines of] ‘Oh, you've been quiet. I guess that's because your lies got uncovered, choke on it.’ This is a good example because I just thought this was so ridiculous, I have an infant at home and I've actually been extraordinarily busy even outside of having my baby. I'm doing multiple engagements a week, I'm building a new programme at a think tank and nonprofit in the UK and I'm teaching a class.

So I took a screenshot of what he said, and I removed his avatar and his screen name because often what's happening is these trolls really want to be amplified by you. They want engagement with you or they want you to reply to them so that they can get more oxygen. I composed a flippant response and included the screenshot, but there's no way that he can be amplified unless people go and individually seek out that tweet, which is also helpful in stopping the cycle of abuse. As much as I want to call out people's bad behaviour, I don't want people who follow me to go and abuse people right back. I don't think that that's the answer. 

One of the women I interviewed in my book, Van Badham, who's an Australian columnist for The Guardian and a playwright who's also dealt with some really horrific stuff, including physical attacks, has the adage, ‘Don't bomb the village,’ which I think is very good. So if you're an account that has even 1,000 or 10,000 followers and you're dunking on a five-follower account or even somebody with 100 followers, it just is not a good look. And so I don't do that, generally speaking. If I think that somebody is engaging with me in good faith, and they're asking me a question, I'll engage with them. But when it comes to trying to clap back, as it were, I think that that's usually very ill-advised.

Q. For several professions, including journalism, having a social media presence is almost an unofficial requirement. A lot of journalists will also have a way to get in touch on their Twitter account, either open DMs or a work email. What would you advise journalists who want to use social media to source stories or amplify their work but are also concerned about being targeted or abused?

A. A lot of the professional connections that I've made and the opportunities that I've gotten have been because I had open Twitter DMs for a long time. That's how journalists would reach out to me, and that's how I think a lot of people found my work.

I had to close them down.

What I would suggest early on, and something that I wish that I had done, is having a separate email for your inbound public requests. That way your day-to-day work is not clouded by some of the horrible things that you might get sent. Unfortunately, for me, I've long since crossed that bridge, and my inbox is just a mess. There's one man who still to this day sends me multiple abusive messages a day and I had to block him on Gmail, but blocking someone on Gmail doesn't actually stop their messages from coming to you, it just routes them to spam. So that has created a secondary problem where, since he's emailing my Wilson Center email, now a lot of the Wilson Center emails that come to me from reputable organisations, including journalists, also get routed to spam. So I need to check my spam folder once a day, and then I'm still exposed to the horrible messages that this guy is sending me.

So as much as you can, separating out your public inbox from the one that you use for real work is incredibly important. Although it can be really difficult, sometimes another option, and I know many journalists, and certainly academics won't have this option, is if you have access to an intern or an assistant who can screen messages. Obviously, that's just putting the trauma and the harm on somebody else, so if you do this, make sure they have access to psychological healthcare.

Q. Do you have any final advice for journalists operating in the online world?

A. Something that is really important and shouldn't be underestimated is the critical nature of making sure that you have support as a woman on the internet, making sure that you have colleagues that you can lean on who understand what you're going through because often, family and friends will say the typical ‘just don't feed the trolls, just don't go online,’ etcetera. And we know that's not an option, but also seek out psychological support or therapy if you can.

We often still view therapy as something that's kind of secret, and it shouldn't be, especially when you're dealing with legitimate trauma and threats to you and your family. It's quite expensive here in the States, but in my book, I outline free ways to get therapy, whether it's on campuses, in your state medical infrastructure, or through a sliding scale. I think it's really, really important. I would encourage everybody to do that.

If you want to know more...

  • Find out about TRFilter, a free tool by the Thomson Reuters Foundation to help journalists monitor abuse. | Read the piece | Sign up here

  • Read this interview with John-Allan Namu by Maurice Oniang’o for a frank discussion of the emotional toll of being an investigative journalist. | Read the piece 

  • Journalism consultant for mental health and safety Hannah Storm gave advice on how to protect yourself from vicarious trauma at the start of the war in Ukraine in a piece on our website. | Read the piece 
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