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Writers, journalists, and human rights activists are increasingly targeted online by state-sponsored abusers who push the agendas of governments, including efforts to discredit the work and reputation of those who try to hold them to account. While it seem like dealing with state-sponsored online abuse is insurmountable, there are steps that people can take to better protect themselves. 

This page provides guidance and strategies for managing online attacks instigated or sponsored by states, politicians, and interest groups aligned with specific government policies or agendas. 

If you are a writer, journalist or human rights activist looking for immediate digital security assistance, we recommend you reach out to Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline. 

What is state-sponsored online abuse?

State-sponsored online abuse has the backing, officially or unofficially, of a government, a regime or even of strong political militias. These attacks can come from the accounts of official government bodies, of their supporters, of bots, and of paid employees, including public relations firms. State-backed harassment is a global phenomenon, with many democratic and authoritarian states using similar tactics, including: creating memes or modified images of the person; amplifying attacks using bots; and making death threats or threats of sexual violence. 

Frequently, this type of abuse involves large numbers of accounts are mobilized to attack a specific person online. Sometimes, the attacks are publicly incited by the government or its leaders, as happened in 2015 when former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa encouraged citizens to reveal the identity of an anonymous cartoonist who was posting subversive memes. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actually hires citizens to spam government dissenters, paying the equivalent of fifty cents for each nationalistic post. State-sponsored attacks can also cross borders, targeting not only people based within the country, but those living abroad too. According to The Financial Times, the CCP arms its trolls with memes prior to coordinated online attacks and hosts secret Facebook groups where people share ways to visit “other foreign sites blocked by Chinese censors.” 

The primary objective of such attacks is to censor alternative and independent narratives, and to suppress freedom of expression—and, in extreme cases, to encourage physical violence, intimidation, blackmail and/or coercion to the end of suppressing independent speech. The attacks do this in a number of ways: these attacks discredit the targeted person in order to undermine their work, often by sowing distrust through disinformation; in turn this distrust and loss of reputation can make them more vulnerable targets to physical violence. This coordinated abuse can also intimidate the targeted person into self-censorship and silence or make it difficult for the targeted person to use their social media accounts to reach their audience. 

State-sponsored online abuse is often accompanied by other digital threats, such as the hacking of accounts and the use of spyware to obtain personal information. For example, Pegasus, a surveillance software tool created by the NSO Group in 2016 was sold to roughly 20 governments and used to spy on citizens—but especially journalists and activists—in at least 45 countries from Mexico, to Azerbaijan, to the occupied West Bank. Not only are many countries using the spyware, but, given the United States’ blacklist of Pegasus, governments like India’s are looking for surveillance alternatives to Pegasus that are lower-profile. 

State-sponsored online abuse can also involve significant physical security threats, such as surveillance outside a person’s house or place of work and the use of cameras or bugs within the home as a way of gathering information that can be used for intimidation or blackmail. Note that these threats can extend to family and friends even if the targeted individual is in diaspora. 

Steps to better protect yourself 

Assess the Risk

If you are planning to—or already do—write or speak out online in a way that challenges the state, it’s critically important to understand the technological capabilities of the political groups and state you are dealing with. For example, Myanmar’s military has used Cellebrite forensic technology to track live locations, listen to real-time conversations, and collect data from encrypted devices. Through the use of Cellebrite, police gathered data to convict two Reuters journalists who uncovered evidence of the Rohingya massacre in 2017.

Given examples like this, you should talk with other writers, journalists, activists, and colleagues to learn about the technology an adversarial state you write about uses. You can also carry out a threat analysis (i.e., a series of questions to help you think through risks and ways to mitigate them). Below are some examples that may be helpful.

Secure your online data and accounts

Coordinated attackers will dig through your online data or try to hack your accounts to find information, including images, that they will try to use against you. Take steps to secure your online information before an attack. 

Manage your personal and professional data online

  • Create separate accounts for your professional and private life online. Wherever possible, this includes having separate work and personal emails and phone numbers, as well as separate professional and personal accounts for social media. See PEN America, ONA, and IWMF’s Digital Safety Snacks (step-by-step videos to help you defend yourself against online abuse) for guidance on Cell Phone Hygiene.
  • Regularly review your online accounts and delete content that you no longer need.
  • Review your social media privacy settings and ensure you are comfortable with data that is public-facing. If you can, speak with trusted family and friends about the data you are comfortable with them sharing online. See PEN America, ONA, and IWMF’s Digital Safety Snacks (step-by-step videos to help you defend yourself against online abuse) for guidance on how to tighten your settings on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn
  • Review your social media privacy settings and see what data the platform is collecting and storing about you even if it is not publicly available to users. This information could potentially be obtained by a state actor through legal means. Where possible, limit the data the platform collects about you, especially your locations and contacts.
  • Review what data is available about you online. Where possible, try to remove any content that you think could be used to target you, including information on personal websites or online CVs as well as photos and videos. 
  • Set up Google alerts for your name
  • Scrub metadata from your photos by installing tools such as ImageOptim for iOS devices and Scrambled Exif for Android devices. Metadata is data that is automatically attached to digital photos that can expose location, date, time, etc.
  • Consider blurring your house on Google Maps, and blur profile photos of yourself on apps like Waze, ridesharing apps and your phone’s contact profile. 

Secure your online accounts

  • Use two-step authentication for your accounts. We recommend using apps such as Duo Mobile, Google Authenticator, or Authy rather than SMS. Those who have previously been hacked or consider themselves at high risk of an account breach by a government should invest in a physical security key like a Yubikey, which is the safest option.
  • Create long passwords (at least 16 characters). These should be a mix of numbers, symbols and letters and should contain no personal identifiable information, such as your date of birth. Do not reuse passwords; instead create a new password for each account.
  • Consider using a password manager, such as 1Password, which provides free accounts for journalists or Dashlane
  • Always log out of your accounts and devices when possible, especially if you are at risk of being detained. 

Protect against spyware

Governments may try to target you with spyware as a way to obtain more information. The data they find in your accounts could be used to blackmail you or it could be posted online to try to discredit you. It is increasingly difficult to protect against sophisticated spyware, but there are steps that you can take. If you have concerns about Pegasus or other highly invasive spyware, we encourage you to reach out to a digital security expert, who you can access through helplines run by Accessnow and Reporters Without Borders

  • Research whether the government you are writing or speaking out about uses spyware against journalists, activists, and dissidents.
  • If you have an iPhone, activate Lockdown Mode, if you are at high risk of being targeted with spyware. This extreme protection feature strictly limits some functionalities of your device for security reasons to restrict the means of being infected with zero-click attacks like Pegasus.
  • Update your devices, apps, and browsers regularly (because updates are often pushed to quietly address security vulnerabilities that tech companies discover).
  • If you think your device may be compromised, perform a factory reset of your phone daily to remove malware and spyware from the device. If the device is rebooted daily, the attackers will have to re-infect it over and over again. Here are instructions for a factory reset on iOS and Android devices. 
  • While Pegasus can be installed without you clicking on anything, other spyware requires you to click on a link sent in emails, SMS, or messaging apps (a tactic known as phishing). Learn more about how to protect yourself from phishing by reading the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Digital Safety Kit.

Learn more strategies for protecting against Pegasus spyware by reading the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Pegasus Safety Advisory. For more detailed guidance on an array of digital security safety strategies, check out our Manual’s section on Preparing Against Online Harassment

Build your support network

Talk to your friends and family, and, if you feel comfortable doing so, cultivate an online  support community. 

If you think something that you post or write online could garner attention or retaliation from the state, you should set up a community of support prior to speaking out. By doing this in advance, you will have a support system that can be mobilized quickly the moment you need it. If you’re reading this and haven’t done so already, it’s never too late to reach out to a few trusted friends or family members who can help you. 

Respond: what to do in the midst of an online attack 

A targeted online attack sponsored or instigated by the government can be terrifying and overwhelming. Knowing in advance the steps you need to take will help you navigate what can be an extremely difficult situation and manage the risk.

Take deep breaths. Deep breaths can help us regulate our nervous system during stressful moments and return to a state of calm and clarity. Know that you are not alone; these types of attacks are increasingly common and happen to journalists, activists and dissidents around the world.  

Assess the severity of the attacks. Do you suspect your physical safety is in immediate risk? If so, here are some questions you need to ask yourself, in addition to the following: 

  • Is your physical safety threatened? Your physical safety can be endangered if you have received explicit online threats such as “we know where you live, we will come find you.” If yes → consider changing your physical location and seek temporary housing if possible or reaching out to an international organization that can provide legal assistance or even temporary housing or additional support if needed. 
  • Are you targeted by malware, including spyware? If yes → immediately reach out to a digital security helpline by digital rights organizations listed here
  • Is your professional reputation at risk? If yes → call on your cyber-support community to back you up and help drown out negative messages spread by trolls.

Get help. Reach out to trusted friends, colleagues, and civil society organizations who support writers, journalists, and human rights activists. You can learn more about organizations that can help in this page of our Manual, or this overview by The Global Investigative Journalism Network. If you’re a woman or non-binary person, you can find more resources at the Coalition Against Online Violence’s Response Hub.  

Document the abuse. Take screenshots, archive links, and keep track of your online harassment. Safely document as much evidence as you can. 

    • Report online harassment to platforms. Make sure to archive the link and take a screenshot first. 
    • Go private. If possible, switch your public social media accounts to private (at least temporarily) and turn off all location settings (permanently!). 
  • If you need help with documentation, call on your allies.

Seek Support from: trusted employers, colleagues, friends, and organizations supporting freedom of expression 

Online harassers want to isolate and intimidate you so it’s important to get support. You are in the best position to know who you feel safe with and can turn to.  

Tell someone you trust what is happening. You may want to tell friends, trusted colleagues or organizations supporting journalists. For more information, read our Guidelines for Talking to Friends and Allies

Ask a trusted colleague/friend to handle your social media accounts (temporarily) by having them monitor the situation, report comments, block /mute harassers, and document the abuse. Only do so if you feel comfortable. 

Consider whether you will feel empowered by practicing counterspeech. Speaking out about your online abuse can be empowering, but it can also escalate abuse and increase risk. Only you can decide what’s right for you. Counterspeech can be especially effective if you are combating a specific disinformation campaign launched by electronic bots or online trolls because it gives you an opportunity to debunk disinformation by: 

  • Distinguishing what is fake from what is true;
  • Asking your community to report abusive content; 
  • Asking your community to publish accurate and constructive information about you; 
  • Focus on the abuse rather than the abuser or government policies or authorities. 

Consider whether your employer would be willing to support you. Some employers are starting to understand the ways in which online abuse is a tactic to suppress free expression and criticism, but others still have a long way to go. Keep in mind your employer’s position on criticizing the government and their risk tolerance. You are best positioned to know whether you can rely on your newsroom, publishers, organization, etc. For more information, you can check out our manual’s page on Guidelines for Talking to Employers and Professional Contacts. 

Remember, sometimes other journalists or activists can be the problem too. It’s not uncommon to see journalists or activists leading campaign smears against members of their own field. Often the perpetrators are mainstream media journalists working with state-backed news agencies, seeking to discredit opposition or independent media outlets as seen in this case study found in Egypt. 

Reach out to civil society organizations for support. Here are a few: 

Legal Awareness 

Only you can decide whether to pursue legal action against your harasser. Unfortunately, pursuing justice can be complicated, time-consuming, and costly because online attacks cross borders and state-affiliated harassers may be the very people and institutions responsible for the legal process in your country: As the MENA human rights scholar Afsaneh Rigot described at a 2023 RightsCon session, “broadstroke authority for law enforcement to act in the way they want to discourages people from seeking legal support.” If you are uncertain about whether to take legal action, the following steps will help you. 

Document the harassment safely. As mentioned above, collecting evidence of your online abuse can help support your case. Save this information somewhere safe like an external hard drive you can easily encrypt. Avoid storing data in the cloud as anything connected to the internet can be hacked. You can find more information on how to do this in our Documenting Online Harassment page.

Be aware of your local freedom of expression and cybercrime laws. Often, state authorities in the region use arbitrary laws to silence journalists and activists who are working on issues perceived as a threat to national security. 

Why do you need to know this? The benefit of having legal awareness can be twofold: 

  1. You’re better able to assess the potential threats you may face when deciding to publish your work on social media, as social media posts have been used to incriminate other journalists and human rights activists;
  2. You are aware of the possible justifications used by authorities to target you and;

Find support. Reach out to an organization to help you to find a lawyer in the U.S. or internationally. Organizations like Access Now can also help journalists and activists with legal aid and other forms of support.

Take care of yourself and of your loved ones: well being is also a priority

Take care of yourself. No one is ever prepared for large scale online harassment. Having a self care plan can help you better navigate the abuse. Read more on how to care for yourself in our Manual:

Safely speaking up for yourself 

Speaking out against a state-sponsored attack can come with benefits and drawbacks. While counterspeech may draw international interest to your situation, it may also lead to increased harassment and heightened risk, including legal harassment and physical safety issues. Only you can decide what’s right for you. 

Before speaking out, consider doing the following:

Speak to others. Investigate whether other journalists, writers, and human rights activists have spoken out against abuse by your attacker. If possible, reach out to them to find out if there were any consequences as a result of speaking out and what those consequences were. 

Be aware of your personal risk and the potential repercussions for your loved ones. Everybody has a different risk profile depending on which country they live in, their identity, whether they are a legal citizen of that country, what kinds of work they do, past experiences of repression, and whether they have already been identified as a person of interest by a government. If you are based in the country of the attacker, then your risk profile is significantly higher. Attackers may also try to identify your loved ones and harass or harm them to retaliate against you. 

Understand your attacker. Different governments deploy different strategies of attack writers, journalists, and human rights activists. Research what tactics your government uses to suppress freedom of expression. Consider whether speaking out will protect you or heighten your risk based on the possible actions of the government. 

Carry out a risk assessment. As stated above, before speaking out, think about all the possible risks you could face and the steps you will need to take to reduce those risks. 

Gather support. Speak with local and international, regional, or local civil society organizations, as well as other writers, journalists, or human rights activists to see what support they can offer and whether they would be willing to lead an advocacy campaign with or for  your. 

Understand the process. If an organization offers to lead a campaign on your behalf, speak with them to see how they run an advocacy campaign, how long the campaign will run for, and whether they offer any follow up support. Ask to review any text or images before they are published and ask for final say on all content produced. Make it clear from the beginning that you are free to withdraw from the process at any time. 

Increase your advocacy skills by checking out the following guides and tools:

Tighten your digital security. Being the subject of an advocacy campaign may lead to increased levels of online abuse. Before engaging in online advocacy, review the guidance above about how to protect your accounts and navigate online attacks.  

Be mindful of your mental health. Being the focal point of an advocacy campaign can be inspiring and empowering, but it can also come with a huge emotional and psychological burden, especially if your name reaches an international audience. 

Page written by the National Democratic Institute and PEN America, with the support of Mohammed Al-Maskati and reviewed and edited by Ela Stapley of Siskin Labs. 

 

Case Study 

By PEN America 

“Keep speaking”: How the CEO and co-founder of Rappler, journalist Maria Ressa, launched an international campaign to defend herself from relentless state-sponsored online abuse. 

Nobel laureate and acclaimed journalist, Maria Ressa, has spent the last decade facing relentless abuse and intimidation, online and offline, at the hands of the government in the Philippines. To protect herself and fight back, Ressa has chosen to speak out openly and publicly about what she is facing and why it matters, including through an international advocacy campaign

Maria Ressa at the Internet For Trust UNESCO Summit, in Paris in February 2023. 

  • Wielding the power of journalism: Ressa responds to the harassment she faces by reporting on it, which she refers to as “throwing sunlight” on her abusers. In 2016, Rappler published a series of feature stories on coordinated harassment and disinformation campaigns  and their effect on democracy in the Philippines.
  • Employing her online community: On many occasions, Ressa has reached out to her online audience, cultivated through social media, to call for action. When active and former members of the Philippines military abused her online, she called on her online communities for help. One of her supporters wrote an open letter to General Eduardo Ano, chief of the Armed Forces, who issued a formal apology and opened an investigation.
  • Creating global awareness: Global awareness of the legal cases against Ressa, and public support of her, applies pressure on the governments threatening her with those charges. In 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Center for Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders launched #HoldTheLine, an international campaign to rally international support for Ressa. 
  • Bolstering digital security: Rappler has upgraded security on their site, provides extra protection for their journalists facing the most abuse, and documents every online threat their journalists receive. “What happens on social media doesn’t stay on social media,” Ressa said in her 2021 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “Online violence is real world violence.” 
  • Holding platforms accountable: Publicly holding platforms accountable can be a safer option than speaking out against governments. Ressa, both publicly in speeches and directly to social media companies, has spoken about their responsibility to uphold democracy, combat misinformation, and mitigate the abuse journalists face online. 

To read more about the strategies Ressa has deployed to protect herself, check out this series of initiatives and case studies published by UNESCO and ICFJ.