Skip to content

Q&A with Chris Tenove on Toxic Disinformation

December 30, 2021

Originally published on November 18, 2021, by PEN Canada

Chris Tenove is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Journalism, Writing, and Media at the University of British Columbia. Together with Peter Klein (Professor of Journalism and Executive Director of the Global Reporting Centre at UBC) and Ahmed Al-Rawi (Assistant Professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University), Dr. Tenove leads “Shooting the Messenger: Credibility Attacks Against Journalists,” a research project funded by Mitacs and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

PEN Canada: Why is the Global Reporting Centre studying journalists who are targeted by campaigns of disinformation and harassment? 

Chris Tenove: Our project is called “Shooting the Messenger,” and we are looking at efforts to threaten, discredit, harass, and otherwise undermine journalists globally when they are trying to do their jobs. We are working on this project with PEN Canada and with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). For years, CPJ has been tracking murders, disappearances, and jailings of journalists. Those blunt tactics continue, but they are now complemented by information campaigns against journalists. These might include spreading false claims about journalists or news outlets, making anonymous threats, or exposing private information about journalists and their family members, and these tactics are often paired with surveillance. Prominent journalists targeted in this way include Rana Ayyub in India, Ronan Farrow in the US, and Maria Ressa in the Philippines.. 

We might think of these organized efforts to undermine journalists as “top-down” campaigns. Journalists globally also seem to be facing rising levels of “bottom-up” hostility and harassment from the public. Top-down and bottom-up attacks are often related. For instance, President Trump in the US and President Bolsonaro in Brazil are clear cases of political elites stoking anti-press sentiment and encouraging supporters to lash out at individual journalists. For journalists on the receiving end, a threat, a false accusation, or a series of sexually explicit messages can have negative impacts on their mental health, security, and ability to report, regardless of who it comes from.

PC: How are you going to study these problems?

CT: We will soon launch a global survey to investigate patterns in the harassment and credibility attacks journalists face, the likely sources of those attacks, and their impacts. We will compare the experiences of journalists in more or less democratic countries, and examine how journalists’ gender, ethnicity, religion, and other factors may shape their experiences. We are also doing some social media investigations, working with partner organizations to look at information campaigns against journalists in a few countries. 

The Global Reporting Centre focuses on solutions to the problems that journalists face, so we will be working with partners like PEN Canada to provide recommendations and resources for journalists .

PC: Isn’t this mainly a foreign problem? How does it affect Canada?

CT: Canadian journalists tend to have thick skins,  but they face increasing abuse and harassment. A recent IPSOS survey of Canadian journalists found that 72% had experienced harassment, such as violent threats and sexualized messages, in the last year. The survey came out not long after Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, called on Twitter for his supporters to “play dirty” with journalists. The Coalition for Women in Journalism found that at least 18 women journalists received vile and threatening emails following his remarks. (Twitter briefly suspended Bernier’s account.)  In a rare show of unity, many news organizations came together to publicly declare that “there can be no tolerance for hate and harassment of journalists or for incitement of attacks on journalists doing their jobs,” and observed that such attacks “inordinately target women and racialized journalists.”

Read more…

Stopping the hostile online attacks hurled at candidates

October 15, 2021

By Chris Tenove & Heidi Tworek, originally published Sept 13, 2021, in Policy Options

Right from the start of the 2021 election campaign, the political parties’ social media strategies have been in full swing. Justin Trudeau was masked and bumping elbows with children on Instagram (where he has four million followers); Annamie Paul retweeted Margaret Atwood’s tweet to demand a leaders’ debate on climate change; Erin O’Toole was on Facebook posting video rebuttals to perceived gaffes by Trudeau, and Jagmeet Singh has continued to build his popularity with younger demographic groups as the dominant Canadian politician on TikTok.

As candidates across the country push their carefully orchestrated videos and chatty posts, they often receive hostile responses. To better understand this problem, we researched online abuse in the 2019 federal election campaign. We interviewed more than 30 candidates and staff; we used a novel machine-learning model to analyze more than a million tweets directed at candidates; and we made recommendations on how to mitigate the problem. We found that 40 per cent of the tweets were negative; only 7 per cent were positive (figure 1). The more prominent the politician, the greater the volume of negative messages they received (figure 2). (For more details, including reflections on online harassment by five women in politics, see our report Trolled on the Campaign Trail: Online Incivility and Abuse in Canadian Politics, published by the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia).

YouTube video of protest in Newmarket, ON, on Sept 5, 2021. Screen capture by The Star.

Online attacks can threaten candidates’ security and undermine their psychological health. The communications officer for a very prominent candidate recounted that the candidate “received not terribly infrequent death threats.” Some candidates told us they were anxious about what online trolls might do next, or felt demoralized by insults from apparently random members of the public. (Others, it should be acknowledged, said they do not find online abuse to be a major problem.) The psychological toll extends beyond the candidate. Much of the labour of evaluating, hiding or reporting online abuse falls upon political staff, some of whom described this work as an occupational health and safety hazard.

Online abuse can also undermine the quality of candidates’ engagement with the public. “Social media abuse is designed to take energy and time away from a campaign and to demoralize,” a former cabinet minister told us. Many candidates respond by limiting their personal engagement on social media, sometimes at the behest of protective staff. They use social media as a way to broadcast messages rather than to interact with users. Furthermore, research suggests that members of the public are less likely to engage in productive discussion or seek credible information when they encounter uncivil messages on social media platforms.

Read more…

New report: Trolled on the Campaign Trail–Online Incivility and Abuse in Canadian Politics

October 29, 2020

Hot off the presses – a new report by Heidi Tworek and me on the online harassment of Canadian politicians. It’s published by UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, with funding from SSHRC, Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge, and UBC’s Language Sciences Initiative.

Here’s a little Q&A with me on this project for the UBC Political Science Research Portal.


What motivated you to investigate online incivility and abuse during the 2019 election? 

For several years I’ve been studying how the internet can be misused to undermine human rights or democracy. I’ve examined foreign election interference, and cyber-security threats faced by human rights advocates in Syria and elsewhere. Like everyone, I’d encountered media reports on the online harassment faced by politicians. There’s some good research on this topic in other countries but almost none in Canada. So, together with Heidi Tworek (Associate Professor of Public Policy and International History), I decided to try to fill that gap. The 2019 federal election seemed the right time to do it, and we got a grant from the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge to begin the project.

What did you find?

We analyzed over one million tweets at candidates in the 2019 campaign, and found that about 40% of them were uncivil or abusive. We also interviewed over 30 candidates and campaign staff, and they told us they faced similar levels of negativity on Facebook. So, social media during elections can be pretty toxic. Different candidates have different experiences, though. The national party leaders and other prominent candidates got thousands of Twitter comments, and thousands of these were abusive or uncivil. Less prominent candidates got nowhere these volumes. What’s more, some campaign teams were more or less prepared to manage online attacks, and some candidates are more threatened or disturbed by the hostility they faced than others.

Q: You categorize social media posts into uncivil and abusive. Can you explain how you came up with these categories?  

We drew on insights from the academic literature, and from our diverse team of researchers, but also from candidates themselves. In campaign offices, coffee shops and virtual meetings, we asked people to evaluate a set of increasingly offensive messages, from “Poor little misguided child” to profanity-laced insults. An eavesdropper might have thought we were testing out material for a really offensive “roast”. But our interviewees were remarkably accommodating.

Why do you think politics attracts such vitriol on social media?

Democratic politics is a mix of collective problem-solving and the non-violent management of social conflicts. Elections can bring those conflicts into high relief, so it’s not surprising they play out online. Candidates use social media to engage and mobilize people, but these platforms also make it easy for people to send hostile messages, instantly and basically from anywhere in the world. And we now that messages that evoke strong emotions – like anger and revulsion – tend to spread more quickly

The platforms remove some of this material for violating their terms of service, but they struggle to deal with the volume, speed and variety of problematic content. And of course, people have different views about what is offensive or not, and what crosses the line to such a degree that that it should be scrubbed from the platforms. 

Social media provide a new way to spread this vitriol, but they didn’t create it. I found reading hundreds of dismissive or angry messages to be illuminating, like an X-ray revealing some of the dark seams in our political culture—the angers, resentments, conspiracy theories, false beliefs,  and not infrequently sexism and racism.

Your research shows that women and non-white candidates did not get significantly higher proportions of abuse or incivility online, however, messages were focused on attacking their identities motivated by partisan animosity. How does that affect their participation in politics?

Women and visible minority candidates are some of the most effective users of social media platforms, from Jagmeet Singh to Catherine McKenna to Michelle Rempel Garner to Annamie Paul. However, they also face sexism and racism online—and these attacks can signal to other prospective candidates that they, too, will have their identities attacked. We also found that racism and sexism online often have an impact because they echo the hostility, the dismissiveness, or the fears of violence that female, racialized, Indigenous, and 2SLGBTQ+ candidates have faced offline. 

It sounds like this project brought together an interesting mix of research approaches. 

Yes, and we were only able to do it because we had a great team. We had four excellent research assistants, all recent graduates from the Political Science department: Jordan Buffie, Jaskiran Gokhal, Sonya Manuel, and Veronica Stolba. We got a great deal of help early on from Grace Lore, who got her PhD here, and who more recently went into politics herself and is now an MLA. And we had indispensable assistance from Trevor Deley, a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, who did the computational analysis of the million tweets at candidates.

We have also partnered with Equal Voice to help make our research useful to women – and especially racialized women – who are interested in running for office. 

In addition to research on online abuse and incivility, you’ve also done studies of disinformation. How are those related?

They are deeply related, because public discussions in democracies are most productive when they feature higher levels of moral respect, defensible truth claims, and the inclusion of diverse perspectives. Disinformation campaigns don’t only spread false and deceptive messages, they also promote disrespect toward politicians and democratic institutions. This is an argument that I developed with Spencer McKay, another recent PhD graduate from our department, in an article in Political Research Quarterly called “Disinformation as a Threat to Deliberative Democracy.” We looked in particular at foreign disinformation campaigns surrounding the 2016 US election, but it’s clear that the situation has only got worse in the lead-up to this year’s election. 

What solutions do you see for politicians and citizens to maintain a civil discourse during elections on social media?

We’ve got a lot of recommendations, for candidates, political parties, social media platforms policymakers. I encourage people to check them out! But citizens also have an important role to play. They can call out abuse online when they see it. They can communicate their empathy and support for people who seek office. They can – and should – criticize public officials, but without vitriol and personal attacks. And they take a deep, calming breath before hitting “tweet.”

New Article: Protecting Democracy from Disinformation–Normative Threats and Policy Responses

May 27, 2020

This is truly the lazy man’s blog. Here’s a Twitter thread!

My article surveys policy proposals and debates in 10 countries and the EU, and shows how different democratic goods are the focus of different policy sectors: national security, electoral regulation, and media regulation. (2/n) 

Its spark was a workshop with @HeidiTworek @mckelveyf and the @ppforumca in 2018. We had international experts and Canadian government officials do tabletop simulations of responses to disinfo attacks. It led to our report, published by the Public Policy Forum, Poisoning Democracy: How Canada Can Address Harmful Speech Online.

As a part-time democratic theorist, I wanted to understand the different conceptions of democracy at stake in global debates over disinfo policy. A problem: a new policy or expert study seems to come every 36 hours. Did I miss some? Undoubtedly! (4/n) 

Time for shout-outs! I can’t praise @prof_vaccari and the #IJPP team enough, including for finding the most thoughtful set of peer reviewers I’ve ever had. Thanks also for feedback from @mckayspencer @JordanBuffie @robyncaplan, and support from @peterwklein @SSHRC_CRSH (5/n)

There are a few articles at the intersection of democratic theory, disinfo and disrupted public spheres that I think deserve more attention. Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy by @henryfarrell and @schneierblog (6/n)

Jenni Forestal’s Beyond Gatekeeping: Propaganda, Democracy, and the Organization of Digital Publics @seejenspeak (7/n) 

Dave Karpf’s On Digital Disinformation and Democratic Myths @davekarpf for the impressive #MediaWell series by @SSRC_mtp (8/n)

The unedited public sphere by @BruceBimber_yu @_HGZ

And lastly, if you’re looking to do comparative work on responding to disinformation, I highly recommend Information Manipulation: A Challenge for Our Democracies by @jeangene_vilme and his @IRSEM1 team (10/n) 

Disinformation and Propaganda – Impact on the Functioning of the Rule of Law in the EU and its Member States by @JuditBayer & colleagues for the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice & Home Affairs (11/n) 

And of course, the #IJPP article by @EddaHumprecht @esserfrank_ and @petervanaels, Resilience to Online Disinformation: A Framework for Cross-National Comparative Research (12/12)

New Article: Responding to Online Disinformation and Harmful Speech in Elections

October 8, 2019

I’m happy to be one of the contributors to The Informed Citizen’s Guide to Elections: Current Developments in Democracy, a very timely issue of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law. I can’t wait to dig into chapters from the chief electoral officers for Canada, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Ontario; from leading academics in Canadian electoral law and politics, such as Mike Pal and Elizabeth Dubois of the University of Ottawa and Colin Bennett atC the University of Victoria; and from some newer voices in this area, like Brian Budd and Anna Reepschlager.

Copyright Thomson Reuters, 2019

My UBC colleague Heidi Tworek and I wrote a chapter on policy responses to online disinformation and harmful speech in elections. We clarify the risks that disinformation and harmful speech pose to political participation, and examine the current regulatory context in Canada to address them. We propose some policies that would enable the Canadian government, social media platforms and journalism organizations to better understand and reduce the threats to democracy posed by disinformation and harmful speech. These are partly drawn from policies that other countries are pursuing. We call for a three-pronged policy framework: 1) greater enforcement of existing laws, 2) regulation to encourage and help social media platforms address abuses; and 3) improved civil society measures, especially by journalism organizations.

Of course, this chapter was written long before the current election campaign begins. I look forward to a future edited collection, which assesses how Canada’s electoral framework held up to the test in 2019.

What’s happening online during this Canadian election?

September 17, 2019

It’s official: the fall and the election have truly arrived. The rain is pouring, the course I teach on digital media and politics is in full swing, and the campaign ads are coming fast and thick. 

Since Canada’s last federal election, we’ve seen countless stories about Russian disinformation, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, bots, deepfakes, and the Momo Challenge. Are these forms of digital manipulation likely to affect the current election? It’s hard to say, in part because too often we predict what will happen in Canada by extrapolating from developments in the U.S.

I’m therefore happy to be part of an unprecedented effort by researchers and journalists to study the digital media landscape in Canada during this election campaign. The Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge is helping to support 18 research projects, from Fenwick McKelvey’s Great Canadian Encyclopedia of Political Memes to a study of citizen engagement with environmental issues by Shelley Boulianne.

Together with my UBC colleague Heidi Tworek, I’m leading a study of the harassment and abuse that political candidates face online. We will be examining what kind of negative messaging they face, how it affects their work as public communicators, and what they do about it. We’re blessed with a terrific team for this project: Trevor Deley, Grace Lore, Erin Tolley, Jordan Buffie, Greg Eady and Maite Tabouda

I’m particularly keen to learn from political candidates themselves. For better or worse, many of them are already experts on this topic.

For instance, here is Calgary MP Michelle Rempel’s flowchart for dealing with inquiries and abuse she receives on Twitter.

Expect lots more from me on this topic in the coming months.