Scholar-activists and the vulnerabilities of social media
by Dan Hassler-Forest — Utrecht University
February 15, 2017 – 10:16
"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 doxxing, Ciccariello-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.