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Public Scholars Under Attack

At a recent book talk and discussion of public scholarship, the subject of fear came up in relation to the risks of forgoing traditional publishing venues in favor of open access alternatives. Jessie Daniels, a sociologist and expert on race and technology, responded with this reminder:

It’s usually not the thing that you’re afraid of that will get you.

As we delved deeper into the implications (and risks) of public scholarship, it became apparent that the really frightening thing that academics–particularly academics who engage with audiences or form online communities on social media platforms–have to contend with are trolls. I was marginally aware of trolls and even know a few librarians who had been harassed online to the extent that they had quit using social media. However, I was surprised to learn that online trolls who engage in misogyny, threats, and hate-speech are not just rogue individuals with personal vendettas. Trolls operate as part of a “well funded, systematic attack on progressive academic ideals”  and exploit institutional tendencies to distance themselves from controversy. In her article, Faculty Under AttackSociologist Abby L. Ferber describes how “the Right [uses] social media to purposefully advance their political agenda” and how strategic attacks on faculty often pay off since a public outcry, even a coordinated one coming from trolls, might put faculty jobs at risk, erode academic freedom, and even implicitly control academic curricula. Despite the increasing prevalence of these coordinated attacks, conversations about trolling haven’t received the attention they should in scholarly literature or institutional environments, likely because the preferred discourse of trolls “is heavily laced with expletives, profanity and explicit imagery of sexual violence: it is calculated to offend, it is often difficult and disturbing to read, and it falls well outside the norms of what is usually considered ‘civil’ academic discourse.”

What, then, should public scholars do to mitigate risks associated with sharing their work?

How should our institutions respond to attacks on members of their faculty?

Abby Farber suggests that faculty should:

  • Talk to local and campus police.
  • Forward threatening messages to police and federal authorities.
  • Save every message.
  • Deny trolls the response they seek.
  • Seek support from their community.

And that institutions should:

  • Be proactive, not reactive. Have a protocol in place.
  • Put safety first. Then ask faculty members what they need.
  • Publicly condemn the form of the attack itself. Support civil dialogue by naming abuse and harassment for what it is.
  • Provide faculty members with resources for help and information about what they might experience next.
  • Honor professors’ wishes about being kept in the loop or not.
  • Do not individualize the problem.

Perhaps the best way to begin is to have conversations with your colleagues, support those who are targeted, and work collectively to raise institutional awareness of this important issue.

Further Reading: 

Campbell, E. (2017, September). ” Apparently Being a Self-Obsessed C** t Is Now Academically Lauded”: Experiencing Twitter Trolling of Autoethnographers. In Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Vol. 18, No. 3).

Daniels, J. (2017, October). “Twitter and White Supremacy, a Love Story.” Dame Magazine. https://www.damemagazine.com/2017/10/19/twitter-and-white-supremacy-love-story

Ferber, A. L. (2017). Faculty Under Attack. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations39, 37-42.

Jane, E. A. (2014). ‘Back to the kitchen, cunt’: speaking the unspeakable about online misogyny. Continuum28(4), 558-570.

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