Female journalists in Norway between the ages of 25 and 35 are twice as likely to be bullied and threatened as male colleagues of the same age, and nearly half of all Norwegian journalists and editors have experienced bullying during the past five years.

25 percent have been threatened and the majority were men but there are clear gender differences to be found in online harassment, according to Aina Landsverk Hagen of KILDEN - Information Centre for Gender Research in Norway.

“Women experience a more sexualized version of the harassment. They are called whore instead of idiot, and the bullying may evolve into rape threats.” says Hagen, who wrote a book on the topic based on interviews and a survey.

Men are bullied more but Hagen says men are attacked for their opinions, whereas women receive comments related to their gender and appearance. There are also differences based on whether they work in television or in newspaper journalism. “Male journalists who write news commentaries receive more harassment than their female colleagues, while women who work within television receive twice as much harassment as men in the same line of work.”

Bullying was defined as personal offenses, insults or persecution by sources, interviewees or audience. Harassment was defined as repeated bullying over time. Threats were labeled as indirect and direct by way of retaliation or revenge for utterances.

According to Hagen, her interviewees were particularly affected by the sexual threats, especially the first time they experienced serious threats. “The harassment is not necessarily effective because of the bullying itself, but because of the shock you get when you realize that it has nothing to do with your opinions as a public debater. You’re hit from the side and you lose your footing.”

What to do? Obtain harassment competence

Many people have argued that we have to find and expose those who post bullying messages in the comment sections online - naming and shaming is defended by militant Americans online as well, but only when it comes to people they oppose. According to Hagen, demonizing the bullies by calling them Internet trolls and referring to the comment sections as sewage is not the way to go.

“By calling the bullies trolls, we both dehumanize them and say that they have nothing to do with us. This is problematic, since it is phenomenon we have to deal with as a society,” says Hagen.

A better solution to the problem is to obtain what she calls harassment competence, such as learning how to distinguish between various forms of bullying, as her interviewees did. They distinguished between “the angry”, “the crazy”, and “the dangerous” bullies.

“’The angry’ are people you can respond to, and perhaps even make them understand that you’re a person who might get hurt by their utterances. Many experience that these bullies apologise when they are made aware of how their utterances are perceived. Harassment coming from ‘the crazy’ and ‘the dangerous’ had better be ignored, according to the journalists, since a reply often makes the bullying even worse,” she says.

Crazy seems to be the norm. The majority of bullies, at least according to the survey, are probably men between the age of 35 and 50 beset with conspiracy theories who spout racism and sexism, though the interviewees say they can't be sure who was behind, but felt like they had become good at interpreting the tone and the patterns in the messages. 

The debates on online public harassment are often based on personal individual accounts, such as the recent debate related to a Twitter campaign where women shared their everyday life experiences of sexual harassment. A similar debate took place in the wake of the Swedish documentary Män som netthatar kvinnor (“Men who hate women online”) in 2013.

“The personal accounts certainly have a function, and they push the debate a step further. But people often raise doubt about the stories’ trustworthiness. Surveys are important as a tool to confirm the scope of the harassment that is taking place,” says Hagen, though uncontrolled surveys asking for anecdotes about harassment are not going to pass muster about their objectivity. In the US last year, an anthropologist wrote a paper claiming sexual harassment was rampant in academia, but the results were gleaned from solicited anecdotes. Still, the findings were extolled because they told a compelling story, most of the supporters hadn't actually read the paper or noticed no data was included or that the article was in a pay-to-publish journal and had not undergone peer review.

Hagen got questions about representation, because only 17 percent responded, but says the results are in line with previous surveys.