Institutions Must Stop Caving to Abusers, Bigots, and White Supremacists
When I learned this morning that yet another colleague had been abused online, I felt simultaneously furious and sick to my stomach. Furious because I deeply respect this colleague and because their voice is important. Furious because, as I write this, it appears that their institution is censuring them, rather than the attackers. Even if the institution ultimately supports this colleague, the lack of immediate support for them in the face of such abuse is egregious enough.
The furious melded with sick to my stomach because I, too, was abused online earlier this year. I know the terrible, gut-wrenching feeling of being attacked by people you have never met. I understand how horrible it is to watch your reputation, your livelihood, your career, your future, your dreams, your fundamental well-being all threatened by people who do not know you. And I have experienced the curious cocktail of disbelief and relief when you are supported by some of your colleagues, and utterly failed by others.
Harassment, bullying, attacks, harmful speech online— we learn about more and more of these abuses by the week.And I am sure that for every case we learn about, there are multiple more cases of silent suffering. I want to emphasize, too, that this is not just a matter for universities, museums, or other institutions employing academics. We all know family members and friends who have been belittled, shunned, mocked, threatened, or worse on social media. This is an issue for all of us.
In May, I was attacked for my research about the history of gender and computing. The people behind the attacks used techniques that (I later learned) are well-known among professionals who study harmful speech online, including sea-lioning and brigading. In September, Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of English at Vassar College, was attacked for her efforts “to call out white supremacy in the classroom.” Just yesterday, the New York Times Magazine published an essay about the psychologist Amy Cuddy – known for her research on “power poses” – that chronicles “the public nature of the attacks” against her. And today, another colleague is under attack by white supremacists using doxxing. As researchers emphasize, it is most frequently people who are not straight white men who are attacked this way. Furthermore, it is most often people who are relatively powerless in their institutional and/or employment structures who are attacked this way. Kim and I are untenured junior faculty, and Cuddy had been going up for tenure when all hell broke loose for her. Here are profound imbalances of power. Social media facilitates the rapid metastasis of abuse against an individual. And right now, our brick and mortar institutions only amplify and exacerbate it in their failure to confront this abuse.
Here’s a starting point for how institutions can support and protect their students, faculty, and employees. Read it, send it to your colleagues, your department heads, your administrators and human resources departments.
Even if you don’t think your research or teaching or personal views are risky, be aware of the measures you may want to take to prepare yourself. You can find a starting point at “Best Practices for Conducting Risky Research and Protecting Yourself from Online Harassment.” The Crash Override Network has multiple resources for dealing with online abuse, as does FemTechNet’s Center for Solutions to Online Violence. Speak Up and Stay Safe prepared a guide “about how to keep yourself safe from individuals, loosely organized groups, and cybermobs online.” Just a few months ago, Lady Science addressed “how to support writers who do women’s history for public audiences,” but the suggestions are widely applicable, especially since anyone who uses social media is susceptible to this kind of attack.
We must stop this. Institutions and social media platforms must be aware of the costs to their people who are the targets of such attacks, and must step up to support them and to censure the attackers. Let us work together to call out the bullies, the harassers, and the abusers for what they are. When you see this happening, speak up against it. Support your graduate students, your junior employees, your untenured faculty. Let’s use our voices for good.