The aim of the abuse is to silence the women and discredit their critical coverage of China according to the non-partisan Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
The ASPI identified hundreds of spam accounts that appeared to be created with the sole purpose of targeting Asian female journalists and human rights researchers, including those in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Many repeated China’s narratives on issues such as human rights in Xinjiang, and mainly posted content during Beijing business hours, researchers found.
The harassment “illustrates how online attacks can be used by authoritarian governments beyond borders to intimidate and silence journalists,” Nadine Hoffman, deputy director of the Washington-based International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), wrote in an email to VOA.
According to June and November reports from ASPI, a network popularly dubbed Spamouflage is likely behind the harassment.
“Spamouflage” refers to an extensive network of Beijing-linked accounts first identified in 2019. Activity from the network has been focused on Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, as well as Taiwan, COVID-19 and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
But embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told VOA in June that “China condemns the harassment of female groups and opposes linking it to the Chinese government without evidence.”
Twitter first attributed a “significant state-backed” operation to China in 2019 when the social media company identified over 900 accounts it said were linked to Beijing.
And in June 2022, a Twitter spokesperson told VOA that the activity ASPI identified was part of the “Spamouflage” network, and the company had suspended more than 400 accounts in response.
The latest report from ASPI determined that graphic online depictions of sexual assault, as well as homophobia, racist imagery and life-threatening intimidation — like telling targets to kill themselves — “are a growing part of the Chinese Communist Party’s toolkit of digital transnational repression.”
“People like you who betray the motherland, smear and slander at will, are really inferior to dogs,” one tweet cited in the report said. Another read, “I advise you not to run around. Stray dogs are easy to kill.”
Journalists and researchers who concentrate on China are familiar with the pattern of abuse.
Yaqiu Wang, who focuses on issues including internet censorship for Human Rights Watch (HRW), has experienced online harassment over her work.
“Although I generally don’t read Twitter, I know people are harassing me,” Wang told VOA Mandarin. “Sometimes there are 200 comments on Twitter.”
In the eyes of the Beijing, Wang said, it is viewed as especially unforgivable if women are perceived as betraying China.
Journalists who also have experienced abuse told VOA that triggers are often coverage of U.S. foreign policy on China, as well as reporting on Hong Kong, Taiwan or human rights.
Some of the world’s top China analysts and reporters have faced harassment over the past year, including journalists from The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Quartz, according to ASPI.
Tracy Wen Liu, a U.S. correspondent for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, is among those targeted. She told VOA Mandarin she regularly received abusive direct messages on Twitter before restricting who could message her on the platform.
“At a glance, I can tell that some of them are bots,” she said. “They call you shameless things and say you are a bitch.”
Online threats and harassment of female journalists is not restricted to China.
A 2022 report by the International Center for Journalists found nearly three-quarters of women journalists it surveyed had experienced online threats.
Of those, 30% said they self-censored on social media and 20% had quit posting entirely. Some said the harassment led them to quit their jobs or even their profession altogether.
The IWMF has found similar results in its research. As well as self-censorship, the IWMF has seen negative mental health repercussions for those targeted, Hoffman said.
“Online violence is a tool intended to silence women’s voices in public spaces, whether by misogynists, authoritarian governments or other kinds of trolls,” Hoffman wrote. “And, it works.”
Liu said the harassment is likely part of Beijing’s broader efforts to delegitimize Western media in general and quell criticism of China.
Organizations including the International Federation of Journalists have reported on Beijing’s efforts to enhance its global reputation by influencing coverage in its favor and silencing criticism.
The reporters who come under attack “do good reporting on China. Attacking these journalists is part of their broader attacks against Western media,” Liu said.
Hoffman told VOA that “preventing harassment of journalists is simply not possible.”
But she pointed to the importance of separating personal and professional online presences, practicing good digital hygiene and device security, and conducting regular digital risk assessments.
Hoffman believes that platforms should do a better job responding to reports of abuse of journalists, including by disabling trolls’ accounts and providing better safety tools for users.
“China is not going to stop trolling journalists because of an advocacy campaign,” Hoffman wrote. “What we can do is put in place strong digital safety measures and online abuse policies in newsrooms that will help to mitigate the impact of these attacks.”
This story originated in VOA’s Mandarin service.