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How can academics be supported in the face of threats on social media?

'Academics who share their knowledge with the outside world on social media are often insulted or even threatened. Especially female academics and academics of colour seem to regularly be the victim of sexist and racist comments.' This is what Ineke Sluiter, Professor of Greek Language and Literature and president of KNAW, stated during her Dies lecture on 8 February.

In her inaugural lecture, Sluiter explained that threatening comments on social media are an attack on the social security of academics. That it can cause them to avoid publicity and that this seems to apply even more to female academics and academics of colour. And when these people withdraw from public debate, we miss their talent, their insights, their information and their perspectives.

Sluiter therefore makes an appeal. ‘Institutions that show off their famous academics should also take action to support their academics when this puts them in the eye of the storm.’ How can academics be supported in regards to this? Sluiter offers a number of ways in which institutions, board members, colleagues and researchers can handle these types of situations.

Offer moral support

Sluiter: ‘We are not talking about different opinions, but about personal threats. The first step is for people to be aware of the fact that this threat exists. Within the academy we talk about social safety, but in relation to behaviour in the workplace. When people go outside, they might be faced with a special kind of threat. When I talk to people about this, I notice what a slap in the face it is when it feels like you are alone in this.

As a colleague, manager and board member, you can be alert and immediately pick up the phone when you see that this is happening. Especially young PhD candidates, who are not certain of a permanent contract, must know that the university supports them. They must continue to dare to seek out the general public and to use their expertise to provide a vision on topics that are relevant to society.’

Offer practical tips

‘In addition, it is important to offer academics tangible tools. During my inaugural lecture, I showed an infographic from troll-busters.com; a practical overview of tips, for various situations, for example that you can report accounts, which results in a tweet being deleted. I have done this before, with success, by the way. Twitter neatly sent a message that the tweet in question was not in line with their guidelines.’

In her inaugural lecture, Sluiter refers to a book by Sara Polak and Daniel Trottier, Violence and Trolling on Social Media: History, Affect, and Effects of Online Vitriol’. This book contains an article (p. 233) by Penelope Kemekenidou, with a number of concrete rules about how you can protect yourself against online violence. Always take screenshots, for example, know your rights, make sure that people know that you have ended up in such a situation, look for allies and the media might help. And if nothing else works; “block, mute, report, repeat”.

Know who you are dealing with

‘It is not one type of people that is behind these threats. Some people are furious about something and send a tweet out of rage. You can tell them ‘can you imagine what it was like for me to receive such a tweet?’. Usually these people are reasonable after all and sometimes even say ‘sorry’. But there are also confused people. Just ignore those. Finally, there are actual dangerous people out there. You should report these threats. It is thus important to differentiate because your response should be appropriate’, according to Sluiter.

Sluiter: ‘I borrow the distinction between ‘the angry, the crazy, the dangerous’ from Beate Sletvold Øistad.’

Do thorough research and develop smart policies

‘First, we need to know what kind of discriminating processes are occurring in society. We also need to know what helps. How do you make sure that signalling is done right and that the right help is offered. There is only foreign literature available on this topic. I would like for the Dutch situation to be mapped. Nice research for the social sciences and humanities. And we are a university, we are pretty good at doing that’, says Sluiter.

‘It should, however, not be the case that every university is going to invent its own wheel, so a little bit of coordination regarding this theme would be useful, because it reduces the amount of work and improves communication and consultation between universities. It would make me so proud if Leiden University took the initiative, perhaps in collaboration with VSNU, to set up a task force on ‘social safety online’, which would collect tips for all of us.’

About Ineke Sluiter

Ineke Sluiter is a Professor of Greek Language and Literature and president of KNAW. Her research concerns language, literature and the public discourse on values in the ancient world. She connects topics from that time with current themes, such as freedom of speech, courage, education and cultural identity. With her research, she won the Spinoza Prize in 2010 and obtained a Gravitation grant in 2017. 

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