Evading the hounds: online scholarly collaboration and crowdsourced harassment

The latest post in our #SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online series addresses the urgent issue of online harassment and abuse. 

Elizabeth Watts

Taking our scholarly collaborations online has opened up a world of conversation – at least for those who have the health and energy for it in a global pandemic, and those who are not impeded by barriers such as inaccessible digital materials or organisers’ time zones. Yet in grounding our collaboration in spaces which are subject to rampant organised harassment and surveillance, the well-known threats that marginalised scholars at in-person events face from individuals are exchanged for the instantaneous threat of abuse at menacing, escalating scale.

Online abuse has been an endemic aspect of public scholarship, above all for women of colour, since social media started collapsing digital communication into a handful of massive, searchable platforms. Marginalised and feminist scholars have been ever more vulnerable to forms of online violence aimed at hounding them and their knowledge out of the public sphere since the 2014 #GamerGate campaign (when anti-feminist internet users subjected them to the same tactics of doxxing and swarm harassment they were already turning on Black women journalists), which some writers argue was even instrumentalised by Steve Bannon to help elect Donald Trump.

Besides these organised campaigns, the ease with which high-profile public figures can expose individuals with much lower public profiles to a mass of followers in derogatory ways creates an intimidating atmosphere for any scholar who has experienced or even witnessed the spontaneous harassment that can result. In my own case, as a white mid-career scholar with an ongoing contract, I was privileged and secure enough that abuse from accounts that did not appear to be linked to any identifiable offline people was no big deal. Coming to the attention of individuals with a wide reach on social media, offline positions of power and the capacity to use their influence to cause me material detriment has been a different level of threat altogether, leaving me anxious that I would not be able to keep up with my core job during another episode. With consciousness that my family’s peace and privacy would also be at risk (an even greater threat for scholars whose families are not cis/heteronormatively traditional), my online life has had to become much more defensive and constrained.

While dedicated remote collaboration apps are easier to secure than open social platforms, even historians’ rush to Zoom at the beginning of lockdown needed urgently-developed security protocols to stop distressing ‘Zoombombing’ attacks by abusive users taking over screens. On Twitter, a platform where discussing my research used to enrich and expand my career, a combination of technological and legal risks make it almost impossible to openly discuss the full range of my work.

As a historian of a contentious political context, I often have to critically analyse living public figures’ words and actions. Globally, almost everyone in public life now has a Twitter presence; any user able to reply to my tweets can tag that figure’s account at once, alerting them to my scholarship in real time, whether the user wants to ‘report’ me to them or is simply a well-meaning respondent using the figure’s Twitter handle as shorthand. (Twitter’s recent ability to restrict or disable replies may alleviate the ‘snitch tagging’ problem, but not most of the platform’s other threats.)

Even avoiding direct tags, or hashtags where potentially-hostile users congregate, the ease of namesearching on Twitter and other platforms means that users and their fans can immediately discover a critical post and react: what used to be just annoying when it involved a Katy Perry video can be disastrous when it concerns far-right appropriation of the past.

Scholarship often involves criticising the work of other scholars and the premises their analyses rest on, including figures who are much more senior than ourselves. When we critique a scholar who is also on Twitter – perhaps with followers several orders of magnitude higher than ours – they or anyone else can reply to a critical tweet in their own feed, exposing us to a barrage of angry replies or worse from users with more extremist views who follow that person. At an in-person event, the venue and discipline would give us a reasonable anticipation of how likely we were to meet them there, and we could make informed choices about how to modulate our remarks if we did spot them in the room.

Online, moreover, the very size of that room is infinite. I hope it does not diminish what my colleagues whose talks have been disrupted by far-right protestors have gone through when I say that there are only so many protestors who can physically fit in a conference room; online, there are no limits beyond what the platform sets (if it chooses to). The blast of notifications during a swarm harassment episode makes Twitter unusable just on its own, let alone the panic about what the messages are going to say – all potentially overwhelming you while you are still trying to expound your thread and join in good-faith Q&A.

The intimidating consequences of critical scholarly collaboration on open platforms might not even end when we turn off our screens. In the ordinary course of scholarship we might well want to critique a living person’s phrase or act as ‘racist’ or ‘transphobic’ to explain the structures of oppression that have informed it; to do so on Twitter, at least under my home country’s defamation laws, immediately puts users at the mercy of powerful individuals deciding we have damaged their reputation and threatening legal action, as critics of trans-exclusionary remarks by certain well-known children’s authors have experienced in recent weeks. Behind the mysterious retractions it is no longer unusual for me to see on Twitter feeds, there is a legal apparatus with an increasingly chilling silencing effect.

All these factors and more press even more heavily on scholars who have to be aware of state surveillance – be that in the form of counter-terrorism programmes, immigration departments, home or host countries, or the global jurisdiction now being claimed by today’s Chinese government.

Locking scholarship away in walled gardens, or returning to even less accessible in-person settings, cannot be the answer either. Yet coming to terms with the threat level of online harassment under today’s far-right resurgence inhibits me from contributing on open online platforms – leaving me, again and again since lockdown, watching the kinds of discussions I used to thrive on go zooming by.


This post is part of our ongoing ‘#SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online’ series. For more see the Table of Contents.

3 thoughts on “Evading the hounds: online scholarly collaboration and crowdsourced harassment

  1. State surveillance is everywhere – often with access to your ISP/HEI logs . Anyone truly concerned might consider using the TOR browser. If you don’t want to download it, you can use the live Linux TAILS or Spector. A secure alternative to Zoom is Jitsi.meet – encrypted.

  2. Pingback: #SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online | the many-headed monster

  3. Pingback: Serendipties of Online Community | the many-headed monster

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