‘Standing back to watch staff being tormented simply isn’t an option’
How Utrecht University supports academics before and after (social) media appearances
Baseless criticism, insults, intimidation and threats. Sadly they are an increasing reality for a significant number of academics around the globe and a struggle for knowledge institutes. Take Utrecht University in the Netherlands. It strongly advocates openness and stimulates academics to share knowledge, but at the same time feels a big responsibility for the wellbeing of its staff. So how can a university support and protect scholars and simultaneously safeguard the quality of the public debate?
Rector Magnificus of Utrecht University, Henk Kummeling asked himself just that and called for action. “It is absolutely appalling that academics find themselves in a position where they have to think twice before sharing the outcome of their research. Because if they do talk about their findings in a radio show, newspaper or on social media, they are at risk of being attacked by (anonymous) people who groundlessly dismiss their expertise and integrity or even wish them harm.
There are several things at stake here: the sharing of knowledge, the wellbeing of our staff and academic freedom, just to name a few. At Utrecht University we seek to do everything in our power to safeguard them all. Because they are essential. Sharing science is vital for growth, for change, for connecting with others, for collaboration across borders of academic fields and consequently for finding solutions to societal challenges. So standing back to watch our staff being tormented and leaving them to their own devices simply isn’t an option.”
Press officer and communication advisor Iris Kruijen took the Rector’s appeal to heart and dug into the issue. “First, I tried to somewhat grasp the situation by speaking to researchers, to colleagues at Human Recourses, Security, Legal Affairs, the Press Office, and to external parties like other universities and the police. Conclusion: quite a few people had encountered unpleasant situations after (social) media appearances, but support was difficult to find. There was no overview and no set way of handling things; the wheel had to be re-invented every time. So I joined forces with colleagues from across the university to set up more systematic support.”
Unsettling and frighting
‘This guy has brain damage, it’s hereditary so let’s pray he doesn’t breed.’ It is just one of the thousands of comments Assistant Professor Media and Culture Studies Dan Hassler-Forest received after publishing an article in the Washington Post in 2019. The title of the piece: ‘The Lion King is a fascistic story. No remake can change that.’ “People grew up with Disney, the films give them a warm feeling. But in my research, I look at them from a different perspective”, says Hassler-Forest. “In the article I point out that the Lion King is not as innocent as it seems. Although you see animals, in fact you are looking at power and superiority relations between humans. This way of looking at the film triggered an enormous amount of emotions.”
Hassler-Forest used to – in his own words ‘naively’ - think that responders were genuinely after a substantive discussion, but he soon discovered that this is very rarely the case. In fact most of the negative reactions on the Lion King article came from people who clearly hadn’t actually read it.
“Although I am quite an experienced user of social media - and the way these platforms work is even part of my research domain - the bombardment on Twitter startled me. I turned off my notifications; the scale was simply too overwhelming. It made me understand better why people, for instance colleagues at gender studies, are often more careful and hesitant when it comes to public statements about their work.
However, I think backing off and stopping to appear in public settings is not a solution. It would just worsen the problem. At the same time, I realize that this is probably easy for me to say. Although some of the comments I get are unsettling and even frighting at times, as a heterosexual, white male I am not among the most vulnerable.”
Nature and Science carried out surveys among scientists who have publicly commented on COVID-19 issues (Science also looks back at pre-corona times). Both studies show a considerable amount of death threats and cases of harassment and abuse, including abuse that has nothing to do with the content of research but targets personal characteristics like race, gender, sexuality and gender identity.
But if stopping (social) media appearances is not the answer to this bullying and intimidation, then what is? “Unfortunately, there is not one magic solution that will make this problem go away”, says Iris Kruijen. “But I’m happy to say that we have set up a safety-net of coaching and support at Utrecht University. Among other things we now have a central Contact Point Online Intimidation via (social) media for colleagues who feel harassed or threatened after a professional contribution in a media item or on social media. Immediate moral support and advice from an expert are offered, after which the case is further discussed with other specialists and the caller will be presented with more possible actions.
To gather extra support, we also inform people connected to the caller, like a manager or dean - but only after explicit consent, as all cases are treated confidentially. We have introduced group-intervision sessions in which people can talk to others who have had similar experiences. And we offer media trainings and a program series called ‘academics in the public arena’. The latter is an interactive series in which the aim is to show scholars which dynamics play a role in the public arena and also to give them practical tools.
The program has a session on ‘(un)suspected audiences’ and one on ‘media and vulnerability’, looking into questions like: which audiences are you likely to reach and whom can you expect reactions from? Also: what are your rights and what influence do you have after agreeing to a media interview? We prepare participants for the variety of reactions they can expect in the public arena and show them how to handle negative and intimidating response.
Remarkably enough, negative comments not seldom come from colleagues. After a media attendance women often get remarks from peers like: ‘What on earth were you wearing?’, while men are more likely to receive comments such as: ‘You didn’t highlight the right things in your interview’. Although this technically might not be intimidation, for many it does feel that way. So the third session in the program is about collegiality and recognition and rewards, targeting to learn to be more constructive toward each other and for teams to learn how to generate impact by optimally utilizing every person’s talent.”
‘It is not personal’
Sterre Leufkens, Assistant Professor in Dutch linguistics at Utrecht University, would have been grateful if more support and help from the university had been available to her when she first joined the public debate as a PhD-student.
“For my dissertation I had compared different languages to identify efficiency characteristics. One of the conclusions was that the Dutch language contains certain inefficiencies. I did an interview about my research with a language magazine, and I was happy with the article they wrote. But after a week I suddenly received a huge amount of interview requests from all sorts of media. A national newspaper had apparently published an article based on my interview with the language magazine but had reduced it to quite a simplistic version and had not interpreted the content correctly.
People widely shared nonsense summaries on social media and many negative comments followed. For instance, saying that I wanted to change the Dutch language to make it easier for immigrants to learn. Or that I wanted everyone to use English instead of Dutch. I also received personal remarks and messages from people suggesting that my research method was no good.
It was quite upsetting. I was just about to defend my dissertation and then I had all these people slashing me and my research. At first it made me cautious, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share anything about my research again. But eventually the incident, among other things, taught me that when responders involve topics like immigration while that has nothing to do with your research, it tells you more about them than that it says anything about you or your research.
I am glad Utrecht University now offers a support program. If I would have been able to share the effect these events had on me and to hear what others had gone through, it really would have made a difference to me back then. It’s important to prepare people for what could happen when they appear in the media and to have them realize that all the potential nastiness is not personal. I try to help by sharing my experiences and by making sure to talk to students about it in my lectures.”
An open invitation
Iris Kruijen: “In extreme cases like that of Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist and Utrecht University Alumnus of the Year, for whom death threats are revoltingly enough not an exception since the pandemic, police protection is available. But in cases like those of Dan Hassler-Forest and Sterre Leufkens we remain powerless to some extent. It is frustrating that we don’t always feel that what we can offer is sufficient enough, however people do let us know how much they appreciate our support and to know they are not in this alone. This strengthens our determination to continue. The cases reported to us help to gain more insight into the problems and hence to further improve our support. Hereby an open invitation to other universities: please don’t hesitate to contact us, we can achieve more by sharing and by joining forces.”
Do you have questions in response to this or any of the other UU articles? Please contact the author, Hanneke Olivier. Previous CHE articles by Utrecht University:
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- ‘The world does not benefit from one trick pony’s’
- ‘My research focus changed after talking to children’
- Innovate your education? Change the culture!
- ‘We owe it to society to make science more accessible’