‘Uncharted Territory’: For Historians Navigating Online Hate, a Scholarly Association Offers a MapHistorians in the News
tags: social media, historians, Twitter
Honor Sachs talks to her peers constantly about online harassment. The conversations they have, she says, are all questions.
What do we do? they ask one another when unhinged emails fill their inboxes. Whom can I turn to? Whom should I talk to?
There’s an informal network of collective knowledge around trolling, doxxing, cyberstalking, and other forms of harassment that plague scholars online that Sachs, an assistant professor of early America at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says she appreciates. Her colleagues can proffer advice, or empathy. But it’d be helpful to have a more formal way of handling the hate, she says. Because the boundary between the online world and the world of physical violence is becoming “way more porous.”
“We’re really in uncharted territory,” Sachs says.
In June the American Historical Association offered its members a kind of map for such territory. The association’s council adopted a guide with bullet points outlining how to prepare for harassment and what to do when it begins.
The guide will be useful to historians who become targets and are totally unprepared, said Jim Grossman, the association’s executive director. It’s one way that academe is adjusting to a world in which scholars are encouraged to engage in the public square, and being harassed is not a bug, but a feature, of existing online. Whether the academy can come up with formal protections may determine how comfortable scholars feel working in public.
‘Trial and Error’
Mike W. Hankins, an assistant professor of strategy at the U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College, thought his tweet was innocuous. He offered advice to graduate students about when to address someone as “Dr.” in an email. Then came the responses — 200 to 300 within a couple of hours, Hankins recalled.
You’re scum, you’re a horrible person, strangers told him. “It was such a surprise,” said Hankins. “Like, why would anybody care what I’m saying on Twitter?” For about 15 minutes, he had no idea what to do. Eventually, he deleted the tweet and blocked the worst offenders, after figuring out the difference between muting and blocking.
A guide would have been helpful, he said, because “I kind of figured it out through trial and error.”
To prepare for harassment, historians should first strengthen the security of their email and social-media accounts, computer, and phone, the association’s guide says. Regularly monitor your online information, it says, and build a community of friends and colleagues you can turn to for help, should you become a target.
When it happens, block the harassers. Report the harassment to the platforms on which they appear. Immediately report credible threats to the local police department, and ask that community of friends and colleagues to do things like screen emails.
Many scholarly organizations seem “too timid” to deal with online hate, said Audrey Truschke, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University at Newark who researches early modern and modern India. Truschke said she’s received generalized death threats and threats of violence from members of India’s extreme right wing. Now she has armed security when she gives talks there. (“Who ever thought you’d need a person with a gun outside the door to talk about ancient history?”)
Truschke said she counsels other academics who don’t want to be as visible as her. When considering becoming a public scholar, especially in her field, “you have to do an honest evaluation of what you can take,” she said.
Unlike her male colleagues, many of the messages Truschke receives have an “overcurrent of sexualization.” She’s called a whore and a slut, and is told whom she is or is not sleeping with. There is no equivalent for attacking men, she said. A Pew Research Center poll found that women are twice as likely as men to say they’ve been targeted online as a result of their gender. Similarly, a quarter of black Americans say they have been targeted online due to their race or ethnicity, as have one in 10 Hispanics, compared with just 3 percent of whites.
Lora Burnett noticed the gendered aspect of her online harassment when she switched her Twitter avatar from a stack of books to a picture of her face under a sunhat. Random, low-level harassment from men ratcheted up, she said, as did the number of bots following her that claimed to be lonely widowers.
Burnett, a historian and an editor at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s blog, said she thinks the American Historical Association’s guide is a “really good start.” It’s important for large professional organizations to raise awareness about the problem and understand that scholars can experience not just the occasional brusque exchange but be stalked online. That’s “a dangerous and intimidating reality that we live with,” she said.
But Burnett thinks the guide isn’t geared toward historians who aren’t employed in that role, who exist without the institutional support of a university or academic organization. Those people need guidance, too.
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