Threatened scholars: online harassment risks academic freedom

Two academics who were bombarded with death and rape threats after they were selected by Twitter to research communication on the platform have warned that such incidents will make scholars afraid to speak to the public. Times Higher Education speaks to the academics.

Rebekah Tromble, assistant professor of political communication at Leiden University, and Patricia Rossinia postdoctoral researcher at Syracuse University in New York state, said that they had feared for their safety during an onslaught of tens of thousands of hostile tweets, comments and emails last July. Police were forced to step up patrols around Dr Tromble’s house.

The online storm broke just hours after the research into civility and tolerance on Twitter was announced, as critics dug up tweets attacking US President Donald Trump made by Dr Tromble, Dr Rossini and other members of the team.

The attacks, on Twitter, online forums and in the comment sections of news articles, ranged from some “legitimate criticism” of the project and plain insults – “you’re ugly” – to threatening emails, explained Dr Rossini.

In the early hours of the online storm, “I tried to view this with my professional, academic researcher hat on, thinking that I could keep a distance”, recalled Dr Tromble.

“But I watched for far too long, and it had a really deep effect on me,” she said. Both researchers soon turned over their Twitter accounts to others to shield themselves from the abuse and report the nastiest comments.

The online backlash blew up despite the fact that the research project seeks to measure how intolerant debate is about, for example, immigration, or to work out whether users are simply inhabiting echo chambers of left- or right-wing views. It does not aim to develop ways to flag or censor tweets.

But given the “overwhelming” amount of criticism that came flooding in, it became “impossible” to explain the nuances of the project to critics online, said Dr Rossini.

Such online harassment cannot “silence” academics, argued Dr Rossini, but the danger is that such a backlash makes it harder to speak to the public.

“It runs the risk of pushing us back behind our walled garden,” said Dr Tromble, who warned: “If we can’t talk to the public, it diminishes academic freedom, it diminishes the work itself.”

Read the full article Threatened scholars: online harassment risks academic freedom

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