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Online abuse against journalist Marion Reimers: When misogyny becomes a sport

Like other pioneers in her field, the prominent Mexican reporter and TV host has been forced to confront male resentment, this time in the form of coordinated digital attacks

Qatar World Cup
Sports journalist Marion Reimers poses for a portrait at her home in Mexico City, August 22, 2022.Hector Guerrero (EL PAIS)

Misogyny remains a key element of sports in the 21st century. The Mexican sports journalist Marion Reimers knows that only too well. She is a frequent victim of people who do not tolerate the presence of women – much less lesbians – in the world of athletics.

“Reimers awakens my most misogynistic instincts,” wrote Adrián Marcelo, a well-known television host, at the beginning of November following a televised debate between the commentator and another analyst. Marcelo’s message betrays the rationale of such detractors: hatred for women because they are considered weak; misogyny disguised as an instinct – something natural and intrinsic – and not a cultural feature.

Reimers has spent more than seven years enduring such abuse every day. But now it has accelerated into coordinated bot attacks by people who have invested time and money in harassing her simply for doing her job: talking about soccer.

A study by the social media analyst Alberto Escorcia discovered that in just two months – from September 4 to November 4 of this year – Reimers’ Twitter account (@LaReimers) received 53,099 replies, 2,666 of which were bot attacks: a bot is a social media account that acts automatically, according to pre-programmed criteria.

Gabriela Warkentin, Marion Reimers y Alma Delia Murillo
Marion Reimers (center) speaking during an EL PAÍS forum at the Guadalajara International Book Fair. Hector Guerrero

During the first three weeks of the study, for every soccer game that the journalist commented on, Escorcia discovered an average of 160 bot attacks. The operation against her was so aggressive that one of its hashtags became a trending topic on Twitter for three days during the fourth week of the study. In mid-August 2022, Reimers was not even commentating on the European Super Cup final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt when the bot army began to activate, demanding that the journalist be “silenced.”

Escorcia, who has spent more than a decade analyzing and denouncing political manipulation on social media, notes that such accounts share similar characteristics. They have no identity or digital history of their own. They share content during coordinated times to generate a narrative that then spreads to the accounts of real users. Carrying this out requires a lot of money: no bots exist without a budget to sustain them. Escorcia calculated that an operation like this costs each operator – the person who creates and programs the bot accounts – between 7,000 and 19,000 Mexican pesos ($350-$970). He estimates that the attacks on Reimers require about 50 operators at a cost of between 350,000 and 950,000 pesos ($17,800-$48,000).

The most common demand is for Reimers to be silenced. The bots call for her to be fired, “put on mute,” for her to “go to sleep” or “shut up.” The context around each attack is interchangeable: a tweet, commenting on a soccer game or an analysis of the UEFA Champions League.

Escorcia has analyzed in detail the activity around Reimers’ tweets, but also what happens when she is mentioned by the broadcaster where she currently works, TNT Sports. The misinformation operation occurs on several fronts. “Based on my analysis of previous cases, a trending opinion on Twitter comes from the capacity to create a conversation with a rhythm of at least 150 tweets per minute. Generally, that kind of operation needs an army of troll and bot accounts with at least 50 members,” the analyst explains.

For Escorcia, the attacks against the Mexican journalist contain a degree of malice that is difficult to comprehend. Along with the cases of Delfina Gómez, Mexico’s former Minister of Public Education, and the journalist Andrea Noel, who was assaulted on the street in Mexico City, Reimers’ is one of the most serious attacks he has ever seen.

Marcelo’s comment alone, and the subsequent conversation, sparked 179 news articles in just 11 days. Most of them focused on Reimers’ performance and not on the radio presenter’s misogyny. Does this betray a conspiracy against women, or anyone who could threaten ratings, within Mexico’s sports press? Or does it have more to do with the cowardice of men who have always dominated a physical and digital space, particularly in sports, and feel threatened by the presence and participation of women?

Reimers is a pioneer in her field. She was the first Hispanic woman to broadcast a UEFA Champions League final. As with similar cases of women who have broken into male-dominated fields, the history of the sport is full of rejection for figures like her.

A tweet by television host Adrián Marcelo. “Reimers awakens my most misogynistic instincts."
A tweet by television host Adrián Marcelo. “Reimers awakens my most misogynistic instincts."

Breaking through

When it comes to Mexican women in sports journalism and analysis, her name comes up immediately. Reimers created a job that did not previously exist for women in Mexico. Her work has been key to opening a path to other young women who can now consider such a career as a real possibility.

A technical director for the Mexican Football Federation, Reimers, who holds a master’s degree in journalism, was a pioneer in several sectors. She was the first Mexican woman to be nominated for a Sports Emmy, and she has won the Ondas Globales del Podcast award, in addition to writing for outlets including EL PAÍS and The New York Times. She is a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women Mexico, and she received the Hermila Galindo medal for her activism in favor of the inclusion of women in sports. In 2017, she founded the NGO Versus, which works to eliminate violence against women in sports.

Rebelling against the roles assigned to women, and being the first woman to do so, has provoked a wave of negative and violent reaction. Beyond the why and the how, we must also ask who is willing to pay significant sums of money to create such defamatory campaigns, which are a form of digital violence. It also begs the question of what platforms like Twitter are doing to create safe spaces for women who exercise their right to freedom of speech.

Studies about women in sports provide a possible explanation for the obstacles and the malice that Reimers is facing. Hortensia Moreno, who holds a doctorate in social science and specializes in gender studies and the role of women in sports, published a paper on the topic, entitled “Sports, Gender and Media.” In it, she emphasizes that due to their association with a restrictive ideal of hegemonic and dominant masculinity, sports “are one of the most brutal settings for homophobia, transphobia and even intersexphobia.”

Because sports are linked with values traditionally associated with manliness, Moreno notes, women are presented as “the other”: the inferior being, subordinate, fragile, sensual and heterosexual. “In this way, not only hegemonic masculinity is constructed, but also the [sort of] femininity emphasized in sports,” she observes.

Moreno’s explanation could shed light on the attacks on Reimers. The media’s message for women and girls is that they have a “subordinate or highly sexualized role, where coverage is framed within stereotypes that emphasize appearance and attractiveness instead of athletic ability.”

A global problem

Paradoxically, the World Cup in Qatar has had unprecedented levels of female representation, both on the field and in journalism. Despite being held in a country criticized for its religious fundamentalism – which translated into a lack of civil liberties for women and the LGBTIQ+ community – the tournament will go down in history as the first time that a trio of women refereed a World Cup finals game. The Germany-Costa Rica match was officiated by Frenchwoman Stephanie Frappart, Brazilian Neua Back and Mexican Karen Díaz.

Broadcast companies across the world chose to send women to cover the Qatar World Cup. In addition to Reimers, there are well-known international names such as Majo González, Amelia Valverde, Natalia Astrain and the UK-based quartet of Jacqui Oatley, Vicky Sparks, Robyn Cowen and Pien Meulesteen, who recently told Fortune magazine that she also receives misogynistic attacks on social media because of her work. “I turn off all notifications on my phone just because there are so many negative comments from all over. You don’t want to see something that is going to affect you,” Meulesteen said.

Lesley Wesser, the first female reporter to cover an NFL game and the first to win a Sports Emmy for Lifetime Achievement, has said that in her time, press rooms did not even have women’s bathrooms. She recalls having to wait for players in stadium parking garages to conduct interviews, as if undercover. Wesser had to create her own work manual to be accepted in a traditionally masculine industry.

Another example is Oatley, who in 2005 became the first woman ever to broadcast an English Premier League game for BBC Radio. At that time, neither male soccer fans nor the press received her with open arms. On the contrary: one sports analyst amplified the misogynistic opinion of his listeners, arguing that the general distaste for Oatley’s presence was because men already had to listen to women complaining all day. In a country where soccer is practically its own religion, they did not want to hear a woman’s voice during soccer games. The analyst gave free reign to derogatory comments about the journalist’s voice, with adjectives like “annoying” and “uncomfortable,” even going so far as to speak of the “male ear.”

With the passage of time, Oatley, who continued doing the work in which she is a pioneer, also began receiving abuse on social media. In 2016, she reported a harasser who sent her explicitly violent messages. The police found the perpetrator, a teenager who, although he offered an apology, excused himself by saying that he had been the victim of a hacker.

The difference between Reimers’ case and those of Wesser and Oatley is the speed and strength with which social media magnifies hate speech today. The issue is aggravated by accomplices both near and far. One one hand, responsibility lies with the administrators of platforms like Twitter, a company that has provided a podium for hate speech, explicit violence, pornography and fake news. On the other, the public and the authorities have normalized the phenomenon of bots in Mexico. The strategy has become a tool of attack among the political classes, including even the institutions in charge of security. For those who resort to digital attacks, impunity is guaranteed: the authorities will do nothing to eradicate their violence.

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