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I Didn’t Defame You — I Just Used You: On Hashtag Activism

April 26, 2014, 10:30 am

twitter-bird-1Earlier this week, I retweeted a link to a media report about a personnel issue at another campus. A friend of mine subsequently wrote to say that I ought to have investigated the report further, as what had occurred was far more complex.

Let me say: personnel matters usually are complex, which is why I rarely write about contested tenure cases at Tenured Radical. I receive many requests to do so, usually from angry students distraught at the loss of a beloved professor. I refuse all of them. I know from personal experience that whatever the truth of the matter, most of the relevant documents are not public. When actual discrimination occurs, it is very rare that you have the documentation to write a plausible and fair story unless the case goes to court. In other words, even if I were inclined to write about people in trouble, I would not do so since I do not have access to the facts.

But I do not always hold myself to such a high standard on Twitter. My retweet included a link to a report written by someone who relied on second-hand testimony and speculation, and who may (or may not) have failed to include available evidence in what s/he did write. When my friend reminded me to proceed with caution, I responded that retweets are not endorsements, even though they can be taken as such. In fact, I had hoped I would learn more about the issue in question by retweeting the original link and inviting responses. Although the situation was a familiar one (non-renewal of a visiting position, when the scholar had hoped to be kept on) I was curious about the details. It is a standard, if lazy, form of investigative reporting to encourage people to include your Twitter handle on future tweets.

However, because there is something called Social Media Cosmic Justice, later in the week, a self-described hashtag activist* broadcast a tweet, containing a derogatory quote about her, presented as having been drawn from something I had published online.

Here’s the problem: it wasn’t true. The quote simply did not exist. I had never written it.

The hashtag activist’s followers then re-tweeted my imagined sin; subsequently, they retweeted three other tweets in which the activist extended her original post, each time repeating the false quote. At least one of these followers, later in the day, tweeted that I had exploited said activist as “click bait,” when in fact, the opposite had occurred. This is called “gas lighting.” One persistent follower, a scholar, then tweeted this statement about me: “since you have been known to not give other academics adequate citation, I shouldn’t be surprised.” (Note: despite the fact that this was tweeted publicly in an account that clearly identifies the author, since this person is on the tenure-track, I am not attributing the quote. I realize that this is a Hobson’s Choice, given the original charge, but if the author wishes to claim the tweet in the comments, go right ahead.)

When asked for a retraction, the hashtag activist refused; when asked for evidence of my poor citation habits, the follower of said activist responded with more insults, but ignored my request. Meanwhile, both tweets, and numerous others, were disseminated widely by others who gleefully and uncritically retweeted everything — except my assertions of fact.

So here’s what I learned this week:

  • As my friend warned me, retweeting can be seen as an endorsement, whether you intend it or not, and it can be viewed as an endorsement even if you have a disclaimer on your Twitter profile. Part of how hashtag activists become prominent is by generating online conflict, and followers who retweet uncritically are essential foot soldiers in this strategy. One popular version of producing conflict is  declarations of the harm they are suffering from their enemies, real and imagined, which underlines the personal sacrifices they make for their activism. At its best, this is a form of consciousness raising, in which people realize they are not alone in suffering bigotry, personal insults and microaggressions. At its worst, when nothing remarkable has happened lately, a hashtag activist may feel utterly justified in making something up that could have happened, but didn’t. Later in the day, after a grudging tweet in which she acknowledged in a passive voice that I had been quoted “out of context” (but not misquoted, and not necessarily by her), the hashtag activists tweeted that she “was not defaming, was simply using you as a vehicle to make a larger point about consent/academic vultures” (emphasis mine.)
  • If there is no link to evidence, don’t retweet, particularly when someone’s reputation is involved. Had the activist linked to the origin of her complaint — the Storify I had created for a class on hashtag activism — it would have been clear to anyone that I had not written what she said I had. It would have been clear that there was no information about her that she had not made public herself. It also would have been clear that the Storify was predominantly made up of violently racist and misogynistic tweets about her. A few of her own tweets were interspersed to demonstrate that she had tried to manage the situation with dignity and restraint.
  • When there is a link, click on it and read the story before retweeting. The OP may, or may not, be characterizing the story in a way you agree with. You might even want to retweet, with a hat tip, and your own commentary. But retweeting something false, or acting aggressively, out of racial, gender or labor solidarity cannot be justified by claiming that the only thing that matters is pushing a radical struggle forward.
  • Vulnerable faculty need to have their right to free and open debate on social media honored, but they also need to hold themselves accountable for respecting the reputations of others. We have all seen examples of people unfairly attacked by university administrations and politicians because of their work on social media: Erik Loomis and Bill Cronon immediately spring to mind. But ask yourself before tweeting or retweeting: do I want to be responsible for the claim to truth I am making  in a way I would expect to be held responsible for such a statement in a professional context?
  • On social media, be suspicious of cults of personality. Regardless of the rightness of the cause, charismatic leaders in academia deserve as much critical scrutiny as charismatic leaders anywhere else. This means not accepting their opinions about, and the charges they make against, others (particularly when expressed in 140 characters or less) as factual unless you can look at the evidence yourself. If you are tweeting, Facebooking, or writing blog posts about scandalous things that happen in academia, make sure you have documentation. Satisfy yourself that this thing actually happened and that you can fairly attribute responsibility for the event or opinion to the correct person.
  • There is no firewall between your reputation on social media and your reputation as an academic colleague. Lie on social media and you are still a liar. Insult someone on social media based on that lie, or on unsubstantiated gossip, and you have shown a lack of judgment that cannot be separated from people’s view of you as an intellectual and colleague. Is this fair? Yes, I think it is. Purposely spreading false information that is harmful to another person’s reputation, deliberate lies, and repeating defamatory statements are not activities that fall under the umbrella of academic freedom.
  • You don’t get to set the rules on social media. Sure, you get to have an opinion; you get to make requests; you get to make ethical statements about how a particular space is used. Really interesting debates are developing about what responsible practices on social media are (and you know what? They don’t include attributing false quotes to others.) But you don’t own what you write on social media: Twitter owns it, Facebook owns it, tumblr owns it, and — more importantly — once you have published, it is public just like the newspaper is public, and you aren’t in control of it anymore.

Final bit of irony? As it turns out the quote attributed to me by the hashtag activist was located by one of my Twitter followers somewhere else — in an online bio this person had written about herself.

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*Note: I have not identified the activist or the retweeters here (one apologized, which I appreciate) but they are free to identify themselves in the comments if they like. My Twitter feed is also public.

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