The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Dealing with the Digital Mob

August 2, 2021

Recent attacks on US humanities and social sciences scholars have reignited discussions of digital harassment in academia. These events, including Rep. Mark Green’s attack on Lynne Chandler García and Virginia GOP Chairman Rich Anderson’s attack on Larry Sabato highlight the barrage of online harassment some scholars experience.

Pew Research defines online harassment as “offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, or sexual harassment” via the internet.

Although these recent attacks have centered on the topics academics teach and work on, we argue there are three types of scholars who are primary targets of digital harassment campaigns: public-facing scholars, scholars who teach controversial subjects, and women/BIPOC scholars.*

Who gets targeted?

Public-facing scholars can receive a significant amount of backlash to their work. Higher education institutions in recent years have placed increasing emphasis on public engagement by their researchers. For instance, UK universities operate under the Research Excellence Framework, which integrates public engagement as a key point in its 2021 consultation. More academics publish in blog-like outlets, such as the Monkey Cage and the Duck of Minerva, to translate their research for a public audience.

But with greater exposure comes an increased likelihood for targeted online harassment. Academic Matters sums up the core problem for this group of scholars:

“When faculty appear on radio or TV, produce Tik-Tok videos, or write for mass media to engage broader audiences, they go beyond institutional spaces. Without finding ways to address the multiplatform and multimodal nature of academic work, harassment policies risk leaving scholars unprotected from online harassment.”

Organizations have created  “watchlists” of professors who hold certain beliefs or who teach certain courses

Scholars who teach and research controversial subjects often face digital harassment campaigns. Recently, this has meant teaching mainstream, popular subjects like race and ethnicity. In another example, a professor who studies ancient history of relationships between men and boys was accused of pedophilia and received harassment. Even questioning meritocracy in education has triggered harassment campaigns.

Some organizations have created  “watchlists” of professors who hold certain beliefs or who teach certain courses, which have spread to the UK and elsewhere. Attention to critical race theory (CRT) on the right has fueled attacks on US higher education and K-12 professionals alike. Dozens of groups, like Turning Point, PragerU, and Young America’s Foundation, have received funding from Thomas W. Smith Foundation to sustain coordinated attacks on perceived CRT crusaders .Attacks on US higher education in general intensified during the Trump administration and show no signs of abating.

Women and BIPOC scholars face regular harassment online for even the most mundane commentary – ranging from asking for people to spell their names correctly to simply sharing their research findings.

When one of the authors of this piece offered a workshop on the topic of strategies to protect yourself from and during digital harassment, 100% of the participants identified as women or non-binary. This anecdotal observation is also supported by multiple publications discussing organized harassment campaigns against women faculty and receiving sexually harassing emails from students.

BIPOC scholars, especially those who publish on controversial issues, are also frequently subjected to online harassment.

Unfortunately, while this is one of the most disturbing patterns with digital harassment of academics, it has received the least amount of attention and study among institutions and organizations.

It’s not going away anytime soon

The scholarly community is likely to experience more frequent and more intense targeted online harassment for the foreseeable future.

The coronavirus-pandemic induced shift to online learning produced new forms of online attacks such as Zoom-bombing, but infrastructure to support these attacks has existed for years. The Chronicle of Higher Education and other outlets have documented the existence of many websites attacking professors, often backed by expansive networks and significant financial resource. These have caused harassment strategies to escalate over time, from sending threatening messages to university email accounts to doxxing individuals. Scholars have been forced to adopt a wide variety of security measures, move to a different home, and even to relocate to another country.

Many colleges and universities still don’t have a plan.

Coordinated online attacks toward academics are nothing new. Yet many universities still are not prepared to deal with these attacks.

We solicited academics on Twitter to informally share their experiences regarding digital harassment. Those who responded stressed that their schools were unprepared and unsupportive. Some blamed institutional failures to develop standard operating procedures – which remained nonexistent even after multiple prior episodes of harassment. 

These experiences would seem to reflect a general pattern. According to a Spring 2021 AAUP survey, less than half (45.3 percent) of respondents who were targeted online said their administration provided support. Some respondents (12.4 percent) said their administration responded by taking punitive action toward them.  Even in the “best case” scenarios of academics receiving support, academics experiencing these attacks report major tolls on their well-being. It’s not difficult to find online accounts detailing ineffectual and unsupportive university responses to harassment.

There are prominent exceptions. The University of Iowa, the University of Illinois, and Penn State have all developed detailed plans and guidance to support faculty through targeted attacks. Plans like these offer valuable blueprints for other universities in developing response strategies to support their faculty.

Attacks from politicians… are becoming commonplace

At the same time, future shifts in the nature of harassment may complicate such planning. Most respondents in a Spring 2021 AAUP survey reported being attacked for information shared through their social media accounts (78 percent) compared to their teaching (9 percent) or their research publications (8 percent). Furthermore, scholars in the AAUP survey reported receiving threats mainly via email (89 percent), social media direct messages (57 percent), or phone calls (45 percent).

This harassment is not just from the fringe. Attacks from politicians, like those of Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Doug Lamborn on Lynne Chandler García, are becoming commonplace. In cases drawing attention from politicians, academics may be more likely to see doxxing, followed by attacks at their home or workplace. Such threats are likely to disproportionately affect historically excluded scholars – women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ individuals.

Recommendations

In response to this growing threat to scholars – especially those who are public-facing – we offer suggestions for both institutions and individuals about how to address targeted online harassment.

Institutional Solutions

Institutions (including professional organizations, universities, media outlets, and departments) must develop proactive policies and practices around digital security for academics. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: having policies in place may discourage online harassers.

Some of the policies and priorities institutions should consider include (depending upon existing legal restrictions):

  • Drafting and releasing strong public statements in support of academic freedom and firmly declaring support and resources for faculty, staff, and graduate students.
  • Allocating funds to help pay for digital security services (such as digital protective services like DeleteMe or other security equipment).
  • Offering straightforward procedures for faculty, staff, and students to remove information from employment directories and public listings.
  • Creating institution-wide policies regarding recording of presentations, courses, meetings, and sessions.
  • Revising and strengthening policies to allow for HR and IT to assist faculty, staff, and graduate students in protecting themselves against harassment originating from both internal and external sources.
  • Hiring victim-survivor advocates who specialize in addressing digital harassment issues and can work with faculty, staff, and students affected by digital harassment to create safety plans.
  • Establishing stricter general guidelines about sharing employee information (including confirmation of employment) with individuals without the explicit consent of the employee.
  • Defaulting to general buildings and department phone numbers for publicly listed information for faculty, staff, and graduate students instead of specific office numbers or direct phone lines.
  • Offering webinar licenses for products like Zoom for faculty, staff, and graduate students to use for panels or public scholarship events as a strategy for reducing the likelihood of Zoom bombing or live harassment during online events.
  • Modifying HR policies to allow for remote work or allowing employees to use sick-time, sick-pool leave, or another source of leave when dealing with digital harassment. If your campus or employer has policies around IPV/DV leave, those existing policies could be expanded to also include these instances.
  • Studying past experiences of employee or member harassment and do regular retrospective analyses as to policies, procedures, and resources that should be modified to prevent harassment campaigns and protect academics.
  • Developing standard operating procedures for how the campus, organization, or publication will handle harassment to ensure there are not equity gaps in support or protection provided to faculty, staff, or graduate students.

Individual Solutions

Because institutional solutions can take a significant time to implement, we also provide strategies for individuals to protect themselves. Many online attacks are enabled by opportunism; even implementing a few of these strategies goes a long way to deterring future harassment and to minimizing the harms caused to individuals. Again, the applicability of some solutions may depend upon existing legal restrictions in one’s state or country.

  • If you know that you will be publishing a public-facing source of scholarship (especially if it is controversial), consider using this checklist we developed to help create pre-emptive protections.
  • Set up two-factor authentication on all of your important websites (social media, e-mail, banking, etc.).
  • Use different passwords for all important websites (at minimum) and use a password manager to help you set more secure passwords and differentiate passwords.
  • Enable message filtering on websites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
  • Speak with your department leadership and campus IT to discuss removal of your contact information from the campus directory – if you know that you may be particularly vulnerable to digital harassment due to your identities, areas of research, or the scale of your public-facing work.
  • Set up a “public facing” email separate from your daily-use personal or professional email. Use it for documents that are openly circulated to the public. This email should not be used as a retrieval e-mail for other important websites. Check this email less frequently and, if possible, have a trusted friend or colleague filter through that e-mail account for you – and archive or document more threatening emails.
  • Set up filters on your email for keywords that may be disturbing or upsetting for you; send the emails to a designated folder where you don’t have to look at them but where they can, if necessary, be accessed in the future.
  • Discuss with your Human Resources, IT, and department team about not sharing any information about you as an employee in response to email and phone inquiries. More serious harassers may try to socially engineer information, such as your office hours, contact information, or whereabouts on campus.

Institutions and individuals need not be completely vulnerable to the impacts of online harassment. We have tools, resources, and policy options at our disposal, as well as the gift of knowledge for how prevalent and serious these attack campaigns can become. Now is the time to mobilize ourselves and our workplaces to ensure that all scholars are able to do their jobs safely, without threats.

* We recognize that scholars worldwide face violence, wrongful detention and prosecution, restrictions on their movement, unwarranted firings and removals, and other violations of academic freedom. Organizations like Scholars at Risk both track these violations and support scholars through them. Here, we specifically focus on digital online harassment, which unfortunately often leads to academic freedom violations.

Devon is a Ph.D. student at the University of Ottawa and a 2021-2022 Fulbright Research Fellow to Vietnam. Her research studies approaches to climate change adaptation and mitigation policies in cities and countries that have legacies of colonization and exploitation, including Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Seoul, and Ho Chi Minh City

Elizabeth is a Ph.D. candidate and NSF GRFP Fellow at the George Washington University. Her research examines the politics of policymaking around transparency and anti-corruption laws, with a focus on beneficial ownership transparency. She is also interested in the politics of expertise and of data access and auditing in various organizations. Her research has been published in Regulation and Governance and Law and Inequality.

Rosalie Rubio is a Ph.D candidate at the George Washington University. Her research focuses on the influence and autonomy of coercive institutions in the Middle East with a special emphasis on Jordan. Rosalie aims to conduct policy-relevant research in the areas of security sector reform, counter-terrorism policymaking and enforcement, and civil-military relations in the MENA region.