Scholar-activists and the vulnerabilities of social media

"All I want for Christmas is white genocide." Last December, this satirical tweet from political theory scholar and radical activist George Ciccariello-Maher made headlines after it was picked up by far-right blogs and cable news channels. Almost instantly, the author became the target for aggressive and sustained online abuse, while his university's administration flip-flopped confusingly on whether or not the expression of a political view via his personal Twitter account should be disciplined or supported by the academic institution that employs him.

The incident, in which one of many scholar-activists suddenly and quite unexpectedly found himself singled out for far-right criticism and online abuse, vividly illustrates how vulnerable individual academics are when they express themselves critically about political issues via social media. While commercial platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr are attractive and easily accessible spaces to express political positions and discover like-minded allies, they also offer very limited controls over what happens to the content one posts on them.

As the shameful GamerGate incident demonstrated, Twitter makes it all too easy for semi-organized radicalized groups of MRAs and "alt-right" neo-nazis to single out individual users for attack. Besides the torrents of abusive language, threats of rape and murder, and the terrifying specter of doxxingCiccariello-Maher's "white genocide" joke shows how these attacks are also organized via public and media pressure on academic institutions. Universities, themselves already nervous about being perceived as "too liberal," can be easy prey for organized negative campaigns, and often have little experience in dealing with this dynamic.

The effect of coordinated attacks like these ultimately serve to establish a culture of fear among academics in terms of their public engagement with progressive political activism. For the staggering numbers of precariously employed members of the academic community, public controversies and social media attacks can easily become acute threats to career advancement and even their direct livelihood, certainly for as long as academic institutions can ill afford to be tarred by the same brush under a US administration hostile to public education and intellectualism.

But as completely understandable as it is for progressive scholar-activists to retreat from public political debate, the alternative must clearly not be the gradual erosion of academics as public voices of criticism and dissent. For progressive scholar-activists like myself, it seems obvious that our weakness is neither in numbers nor in a lack of agreement on the most basic issues at stake in the current debate. 

Our real weakness lies in the societal epidemic of individualization that is partly the result of neoliberal reorganization, and partly of the basic design of corporate social media. It's therefore not so much a question of "breaking out of one's filter bubble," as far-right conservatives have been demanding from the supposedly myopic "academic elite." It should in the first place involve an expansion of that bubble in a way that creates and fosters a sustainable collective.

In other words: academics need to organize and unite in order to develop robust, meaningful, and long-term activist engagement. As easy as it seems to express dissent as an individual on Twitter, online groups like 4chan have the advantage of being relatively well-organized, high-tech, and mostly anonymous. As we begin to realize the scale of organized far-right trolling, doxxing, and online intimidation, the obvious way for scholar-activists to mobilize and express ourselves politically is by developing organized collectives of our own.


Although I understand the satire of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, taken in context with the rhetoric from Trump and his supporters, it seems to be a case of bad taste because of timing. I’m not religious or conservative, but common sense would dictate the timing of release was questionable. Having said that, I do think that Academics need to unite and mobilize collective action that negates the notion that critically engaged, thinking, diverse, open and inclusive environments are somehow bad. I reject the notion that being “politically correct” is a bad thing and am tired of the far right making it seem so. Academics believe that intellectual rigor demands consideration of multiple viewpoints and perspectives, and is much more “correct” than not. The far right community is the myopic one, by thinking the opposite and often claiming some measure of the moral high ground. Academics must NOT retreat in fear of retribution, but rather provoke critical conversations across many communities, including digital ones. Not only must Academics lend their voices to forums such as this, but it critically important to meet other communities where they are at, including social media and conservative media outlets. Academics can’t do that comfortably unless they have the full support of upper administration, senior leadership, and board members — in fact, they should be the ones leading the charge. Yes, some Academics live in an ivory tower, but the pursuit of knowledge and to critically examine the world around us is worth defending in all ways possible.

It is difficult in the current times to tell a harmless joke because it seems inevitable that someone/some group will be offended by it. Even worse we are in a digital age where it seems natural to want to share views and jokes on social media platforms with those in our network and the public. The online situation with Professor Ciccariello-Maher reminds me of a similar in person situation with Dr. Click at the University of Missouri where a short moment was taken out of context and her support of a liberal view resulted in her losing her job. The problem, I think, with those in academic fields engaging with the masses is professors like Ciccariello-Maher and Click are seen as a representation of an entire university/institution as opposed to one single person having an opinion or doing an action. Lots of people have told jokes that are in poor taste. That does not mean they don’t deserve to be able to earn a living. We are just in an era where a main way to communicate with others is online with a bigger audience or when you do something in person that people do not disagree with you can be caught on camera and out of context. Unlike previously where a joke in bad taste would just be heard by the few people in your vicinity, and you would just be scoffed at and everyone move on. Yes, many digital communication scholars are liberal but that does not mean all are so the group that are liberal are no means a representation of all and definitely not a representation of an entire university. Though universities do need to have some accountability of their faculty and staff, it should not lead to digital media scholars having to stifle their thoughts/opinions/actions/jokes when engaging with others in fear of coming off “too liberal” and losing their job.

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