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The growing problem of online harassment in academe

October 28, 2019
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Article originally appeared in University Affairs (date: October 23, 2019) and features comments from Dr. Wanda Cassidy.

The first indication of something amiss arrived via email. The contents struck Misao Dean, a University of Victoria English professor, as odd: Why would an American right-wing talk show want to ask about her work on the Canadian symbolism of the canoe?

In the next hour more emails followed. They came from around the world bearing a variety of messages, none of them kind – threats to her safety, obscene insults, calls for her to be fired. By 10 a.m., she sat, shocked, in her office. “I really didn’t know what to do or how to react.”

Dr. Dean didn’t know it then but she’d become the target of an organized campaign from the alt-right. Months before, in March 2016, she’d given an interview to CBC Radio about her book, Inheriting a Canoe Paddle: The Canoe in Discourses of English-Canadian Nationalism (University of Toronto Press, 2013). The book explored the symbolism of the canoe in Canada, arguing the canoe is widely accepted as a symbol of Canadian heritage but is overlooked as an emblem of colonial power. During the radio interview, she asked canoeists to think twice about the way they identify as Canadians when they talk about their pleasure in canoeing. “I was trying to be careful not to be offensive to canoeists, among whom I place myself.”

Nothing unusual followed the interview. But a few days before the emails began, in the fall of 2016, Dr. Dean uploaded her work to website Academia.edu, hoping to reach a broader audience. Soon after, a U.K.-based writer wrote about her research for a right-wing website called Heat Street, now defunct, quoting the CBC interview. Times Higher Education followed up on the story, as did Fox News. The cyber-harassment started almost immediately afterwards through emails to Dr. Dean and the university administration, and posts on social media.

“I was traumatized by it. My daughter (who’d come across a video on Facebook of far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos mocking her mother) was traumatized by it,” she said.

Dr. Dean told the associate dean of her department about the situation, who in turn enlisted the help of the university administration and the public relations team. Dr. Dean says she couldn’t sleep and grew nervous when she stood in front of a class to teach. Eventually, the university’s IT team took over Dr. Dean’s email to filter out the abusive messages and campus police added her classes to their regular security checks.

Cyber-harassment, or cyberbullying, is a growing phenomenon worldwide. According to the Pew Research Center in the U.S., in 2017, roughly four in 10 Americans had experienced online harassment and 62 percent considered it a major problem. Overall, men are somewhat more likely than women to experience any form of harassing behaviour online; however, women – and young women especially – are far more likely to encounter sexualized forms of abuse.

It comes in many forms: private messages sent via email, texts and social media, or public campaigns on online platforms. Insulting, abusive and inaccurate posts spread virally on the internet, and sites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit are notoriously slow at responding to concerns about bullying and harassment – if they respond at all. The sources can be anonymous or known, a single person or an organized campaign. In the postsecondary sector, students, faculty and staff at all levels may be targets. Bullies may be motivated for any number of reasons: personal vendetta, political leanings, sexual motivation, displeasure over grades and more.

In an effort to examine this issue in the higher-education setting, Wanda Cassidy and colleagues surveyed faculty and students at four unnamed Canadian universities. Dr. Cassidy is a professor in the faculty of education, and director of the Centre for Education, Law and Society, at Simon Fraser University. The researchers found that about one-quarter of respondents had experienced cyber-harassment in the past year – a rate equal across faculty and students. For faculty, just over half the cyber-harassment came from students and the rest from their colleagues. For students, the picture was different: strangers were the most frequent sources of harassment, followed by friends and acquaintances at the university. Instances of faculty harassing students were rare.

Dr. Cassidy, who’s led similar studies of cyber-harassment among elementary and middle-school students, says the effects are the same, regardless of the age of the victim: “Generally, they’re quite devastating.”

Victims describe a long list of mental and physical health consequences: stomach upset, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression and social withdrawal. These effects linger long after the last email or text is received. Professors talk about fears of walking into a classroom not knowing if their anonymous harasser is seated in the class in front of them. Many victims say it has harmed their careers. Students report quitting university and faculty say they have lost teaching assignments due to comments on professor-rating websites or have left institutions because of harassment from colleagues.

Dr. Cassidy and her team conducted their interviews in 2014 and published their findings in multiple sources, including the book Cyberbullying at University in International Contexts (Routledge, 2018). In the five years since their initial survey was conducted, people have become even more dependent on their smartphones, email and social media platforms as methods of communication. The result: more ways for abusers to attack their victims. Says Dr. Cassidy: “When I first started studying it, it was Facebook and Messenger. Now I have to ask my daughter, who is 26, to update me on these opportunities people use to bully each other online.”

At the same time, academics feel more pressure to disseminate their research in public forums – indeed, funding agencies may even stipulate that scholars communicate their results to the wider public. Many academics use Twitter to share their research and participate in media interviews, and their contact information is generally listed on a university’s website.

There’s no easy way to balance an academic’s public obligations against the risks that come with exposure, says Dr. Dean. Scholars have a responsibility to share their research but should feel no obligation to remain in the crosshairs of people who wish to create controversy by misrepresenting their views, she says. “My work was mischaracterized in order to become a dog whistle.”

Read the rest of the article via University Affairs