Public Scholarship and the Stakes of Engagement
by Sarah Florini — Arizona State University
February 12, 2017 – 18:27
As I considered how scholars could or should engage with the commons, I kept returning to one answer: carefully. Digital and social media offer scholars the opportunity to participate in public discussion more than ever before. But, they also increase the risk of doing so, especially for continent faculty and scholars from marginalized groups. The same technologies that make our contributions and analysis more readily accessible also provide powerful tools for those who wish to decontextualize and misrepresent our ideas in an attempt to delegitimize us. Combine this with the context collapse that accompanies social media, a deeply fraught political landscape, and the perennial harassment that occurs in digital networks. The resulting terrain requires understanding and caution on the part of those wishing to engage as public intellectuals.
Increasingly, as we navigate what many have dubbed the “post-truth” era, statement of empirical fact can provoke charges of political bias. For example, media scholars concerned with media literacy who want to address the ways misinformation circulates through social media networks face backlash by those who see such work as a politically motivated. Take the recent case of Dr. Melissa Zimdar, Assistant Professor of Communications and Media at Merrimack College, who created a list of fake, biased, and click-baity websites for her students. The list, which is over fifty pages long and contains sites ranging from across the political spectrum from far-left to far-right, quickly went viral because many were searching for media literacy resources in the wake of the 2016 election. As a result, Zimdar was attacked, ironically by many of the sites on her list, with a series of misleading ad hominem attacks designed to belittle her and delegitimize her work rather than critique her ideas. Headlines about her work included, “Meet the Leftist Prof who Wrote ‘Hit List’ Of ‘Fake’ News Sites” and “Meet the LEFTIST Assistant Professor Who Made Up Bogus List of ‘Fake’ Conservative Websites That Went Viral.” These attacks mined Zimdar’s social media accounts and professional bios for statements that could be used to undermine her credibility, with 100percentfedup.com using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to find old posts. The site suggested that Zimdar’s list could be motivated by “wanting to pay back the sites who helped to topple Hillary.” It then went on to present screen captures documenting her “Trump bashing” and her support for Bernie Sanders and the Movement for Black Lives as evidence of her political agenda.
This strategy of mining the social media accounts of those you seek to discredit is standard practice in our digital society. It remains common because the context collapse of social media makes it exceedingly effective. In offline contexts, we often tailor our performance to the context. We are the most appropriate version of ourselves for the setting – our professional selves at work, our fun and goofy selves with friend and family. Social media brings those audiences together (Marwick and boyd, 2011), causing us to blur our performances. Thus, as scholars we use our Twitter accounts to tweet links to our latest work and make professional commentary, but also to express our personal opinions or live tweet our favorite TV shows. Zimdar and many other scholars have deployed social media in this way, leaving their critics a rich backlog of statements they would not have had access to in the pre-digital world. The highly publicized “Professor Watchlist,” a website that aggregates “pre-existing news stories” about professors they assert “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom” is replete with scholars who made statements made via a digital medium.
On their own, such blog posts and watchlists would be relatively trivial. But, they are invariably accompanied by a deluge of harassment that has become commonplace in the digital world. Targeted scholars face social media harassment, doxing,1 death threats, a steady stream of graphic threats of violence and rape, and campaigns for them to be fired. (You can see examples compiled by Zimdar here and by Dr. Anthea Butler, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, here.) I know many scholars – particularly those who study race, gender, and sexuality – who must take ongoing measures to secure their personal safety after being targeted in this way. The personal and professional toll of these tactics can be damaging for any scholar. But, they are particularly dangerous to junior faculty, contingent faculty, and graduate students. Junior faculty on the tenure track lack the protections of tenure. But, Adjuncts, Lecturers, and graduate students are by far the most vulnerable as they often lack the institutional support and protection often afforded track faculty.
This reality should not cause scholars to shy away from contributing to public discourse and engaging in healthy debate, particularly given this is the very clear goal of such practices. Academics have long understood that challenges to our ideas are necessary to push the bounds of our thinking in important ways. However, it is crucial to recognize that it is often easier to for our critics to launch a campaign of harassment than a substantive counter-argument. Those undertaking public scholarship should understand the risks. Senior faculty, administrators, and those with institutional power must commit to supporting scholars who find themselves at the center of these campaigns of harassment and delegitimization. If we fail to engage thoughtfully and carefully, both as individuals and as a profession, we simply aid those who would rather our analysis be absent from public discussion.
 Doxing is the publication of private information such as home addresses, social security numbers, or other identifying information.
“Meet The LEFTIST Assistant Professor Who Made Up Bogus List Of ‘Fake’ Conservative Websites That Went Viral.” 100percentfedUp.com. (2016, November 17). Retrieved February 12, 2017, from http://100percentfedup.com/meet-leftist-assistant-professor-made-bogus-l…
Marwick, Alice and boyd, danah. (2011). “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media and Society 13(1), 114-33.
Schilling, Chelsea. “Meet the Leftist Prof who Wrote ‘Hit List’ Of ‘Fake’ News Sites.” WND.com. (2016, November 17). Retrieved February 12, 2017, from http://www.wnd.com/2016/11/meet-leftist-prof-who-wrote-hit-list-of-fake-…