Report on the State of Resources Provided to Support Scholars Against Harassment, Trolling, and Doxxing While Doing Public Media Work
and How University Media Relations Offices/ Newsrooms Can Provide Better Support
by Alex Ketchum, PhD
This summer, we sought to understand the kind of resources Canadian universities actually provide to support scholars doing public facing media work. We wanted to know: what information universities make available to scholars for dealing with trolling, doxxing, and harassment when they do public facing scholarship and media work; the availability of that information online (on the Media Relations Offices’ websites); and the information that Media Relations Offices/Newsrooms make available to scholars that might not be on their website (plans, policies, advice). The goal of this research is to establish what practices already exist, what information and resources are missing, and to encourage all Canadian universities’ Media Relations Offices to develop a best practices plan.
After looking at the Media Relations Offices’ websites of every Canadian University, we found that no information directly related to the topic of trolling, doxxing, or harassment on any Media Relations Office website, with the exception of one university. Even if information regarding trolling, doxxing, or harassment was not available on the university websites, we wanted to know if university Media Relations Offices had internal materials, protocols, or plans. From May to mid-July 2020, the research team contacted every Canadian university’s Media Relations Office via email, using the same English or French script explaining the research project and asking what materials the office had for scholars regarding what to do, the risks, or the protocols of trolling, doxxing, or harassment that a scholar might encounter while doing public facing scholarship. If offices did not respond within a few weeks to the first contact, they were contacted a second time, leading to a response rate of 41%. For the Media Relations Offices that acknowledged the threat of trolling, doxxing, or harassment, most offices dealt with the issues on a case by case basis. We found that no Media Relations Offices had explicit protocols or documents, with the exception of one university. Two Media Relations Offices already incorporate discussions about trolling in workshops and three want to begin to include this material in future workshops. The most optimistic findings from our research is that since this project began in May, several universities have already begun to work on creating protocols, documents, or workshops related to these topics. We were buoyed to hear that while some Media Relations Offices had never considered creating protocols or assembling resources in case scholars experienced harassment, some have used this project as inspiration to create these resources on their own campuses. We hope that with the release of this study’s results, more offices are inspired to create policies, protocols, and workshops.
This research project does not exist in order to shame any specific institutions. Rather, this project seeks to encourage universities to create policies and protocols in order to support their scholars who are doing media work and who may experience harassment. It is our wish that Media Relations Offices across Canada can establish a set of guidelines, resources, and policies, which can be customized on the needs of each university and scholar. The end of this report has suggestions for policies, protocols, and workshops.
A copy of the full report is available at https://publicscholarshipandmediawork.blogspot.com/p/report.html)
Universities often claim that they are committed to community engagement via publicly engaged scholarship and media work. Radio, television, podcast, and newspaper interviews are options for communicating one’s research to the public, yet they are not without drawbacks. This summer, we sought to understand the kind of resources Canadian universities actually provide to support scholars doing public facing media work.
There is a cost to doing work in public spheres that disproportionately is paid by marginalized scholars. It is not rare for women academics, Indigenous scholars, and scholars of colour to face harassment online. Especially for scholars who engage with the public through media work, a writer’s ideas are not the only thing attacked; threats of death and sexual violence can fill a scholar’s inbox (Mulcahy 2017 and Megarry 2014). Racist trolls and gendertrolling can intimidate scholars and dissuade them from doing this work (Mantilla 2013, Veletsianos 2018, and Worth 2020). Doxing, the act of broadcasting private or identifying information about an individual for the purpose of harassment, and particularly racial and gender based harassment, has been well documented (Harmer 2019). Women, gender non-binary people, queer people, and racialized peoples are more likely to not just have their ideas attacked, but their identities attacked. As journalist Amanda Hess explains:
‘Ignore the barrage of violent threats and harassing messages that confront you online every day.’ That’s what women are told. But these relentless messages are an assault on women’s careers, their psychological bandwidth, and their freedom to live online. We have been thinking about Internet harassment all wrong. (Hess 2017)
Online harassment diminishes free speech of women and racialized scholars (West 2014). This kind of harassment or threat of potential harassment curtails the desire to participate in public facing work, especially with the media.
Furthermore, even when harassment has not yet occurred, the fear of harassment can lead to self silencing. In Gender and the ‘impact’ agenda: the costs of public engagement to female academics, gender studies professor Heather Savigny notes how many female academics that she has interviewed have talked of how they had taken a conscious decision not to engage with the media for fear of abuse. She argues that this silencing “becomes a form of symbolic violence; an expression of underlying relations of oppression and domination, which as Bourdieu suggests, becomes so normalized and routine that it occurs almost with the subordinate’s own complicity,” and thus, “women then are structurally positioned to be complicit in their own silencing” even when this can affect their career trajectories” (2019). Online harassment also comes with increased anxiety and long term health effects (Finn 2004).
We wanted to know:
- What information universities make available to scholars for dealing with trolling, doxxing, and harassment when they do public facing scholarship and media work
- The availability of that information online (on the Media Relations Offices website)
- Information that Media Relations Offices make available to scholars that might not be on their website (plans, policies, advice)
The goal of this research is to establish what practices already exist, what information and resources are missing, and to encourage all Canadian universities’ Media Relations Offices to develop a best practices plan.
This research project does not exist in order to shame any specific institutions. Rather, this project seeks to encourage universities to create policies and protocols in order to support their scholars who are doing media work and who may experience harassment. It is our wish that Media Relations Offices across Canada can establish a set of guidelines, resources, and policies, which can be customized on the needs of each university and scholar.
This research will develop in more formal contexts but due to the ever-evolving nature of these resources, there is an urgency in releasing these initial findings.
- Trolling: is an act of harassment, which primarily occurs online. It is a form of cyber bullying that can include posting rumors, threats, sexual remarks, violent comments, or hate speech.
- Troll: a person who intentionally antagonizes others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content (Merriam Webster, 2020)
- Doxing/Doxxing: the act of broadcasting private or identifying information about an individual for the purpose of harassment, and particularly racial and gender based harassment
- Media Relations Offices: These offices have a variety of names: Media Relations, Newsroom, Media Relations Offices, Institutional Communications, and Communications. However, despite the variety of names, they all serve a similar function. The offices are a university’s central point of contact with the media. Representatives from the media can contact these offices to connect with a university’s scholars. The office will also often work with journalists to promote newsworthy stories about a university’s research discoveries and events, serving as a public relations office. It is not uncommon that the Media Relations Office will also produce its own materials. For example, the McGill University Media Relations Office, The Newsroom, will manage and promote, news, events and announcements, including the McGill Reporter, McGill Dans la Ville, What’s New e-newsletters as well as via their social media channels (https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/contacts).
- Scholars: For the purposes of this research, we include Tenure-track faculty, Non-tenure track faculty, Adjunct/ Sessional professors/ instructors, and graduate students. While these individuals are affiliated with the university, they deserve support from the university in their public facing work.
- Public Facing Work: This report primarily focuses on the kind of media work that scholars are called upon to do such as radio, television, podcast, newspaper and magazine interviews. It is worth noting that similar issues can arise when scholars do other forms of public scholarship. However, this report focuses on the Media Relations Offices’ response to harassment that occurs when scholars engage in media work.
Step 1 Methods and Initial Findings:
Between May 1 and June 24, 2020, my research team began by looking at the websites of the Media Relations Offices at every Canadian university (see Appendix 1). We wanted to see what information, resources, and materials the Media Relations Offices had on the topic of trolling/ doxxing/ and harassment.
The team of 6 research assistants divided the list of Canadian Universities and searched the Media Relations Offices’ websites for any information related to what scholars should do in case they are trolled, doxxed, or harassed. The search terms used included “trolling” “doxing/ doxxing,” and “harassment.” For the francophone universities, the search terms were “trolleur/trolleuse,” “doxxing” (because even though you can translate it to “traçage de document,” the term doxxing is used as an anglicism), “harcèlement sur les médias sociaux,” and “harcèlement par internet.”
After the first round of checking the websites, the research team found no information directly related to the topic of trolling, doxxing, or harassment on the Media Relations Offices websites of any Canadian universities.
The closest example that the research team found was that Acadia University does have a Public Relations Guide on their website. In their “Social Media Primer”, on pages 10 and 11, there is a section on “not lowering your standards” when people are “inappropriate.” However, it does not specifically address trolling and doxxing. It also does not mention harassment based on gender, race, or sexual orientation.
As slight variation in search terms and different preferences of how one navigates a webpage could reveal different information, the team of research assistants double checked all of the websites. Within the spreadsheet that we used to keep track of results, each research assistant indicated which universities she or he looked at. For the second round, which concluded on July 10, 2020, the research assistants had to look at universities that they did not look at the first time. We then went through the information and checked for inconsistencies.
After this second round of searching Media Relations Offices webpages, only one other example was found, apart from the earlier example from Acadia University (see Appendix 1 below).
In the Social Media Guide from the University of Fraser Valley, in the section entitled “Reply to messages and posts,” there is the note that states, “If you receive a comment you feel could be harmful, you may wish to connect with the UFV Communications team before responding. They can assess the possible impact and help you come up with an appropriate response.” This was the most explicit example the research team found of information relating to harassment on a Media Relations Office website or affiliated website.
This is not to say that no resources or policies exist from the universities at all — rather that the research team looking particularly for search terms related to “trolling” “doxxing” and “harassment” could not find any documents, statements, resources, policies, or procedures.
We considered that documents may be circulated internally. Media Relations Offices may host workshops.
However, it is significant that there is/was not any information regarding trolling, doxxing, or harassment of scholars on Media Relations Offices’ websites through July 10, 2020.
Universities are places of constant flux. Each semester university campuses welcome visiting scholars, graduate students, and new hires. In addition, even long time faculty may become interested in doing public facing scholarship. Even if a Media Relations Office has held a workshop in the past, the present group of scholars doing media work at your university might not know about it.
Having readily available information about what to do in case a scholar is trolled, doxxed, or harassed while doing public facing media work is important. As a scholar doing public facing work, it is important to know that one’s institution has a plan in case harassment occurs. Scholars may feel more confident in doing media work if they already know that one’s institution has clear protocols in order to give support and guidance if harassment occurs.
In addition, if scholars do experience harassment, they will already be under emotional duress. It is important that materials be readily available to support them during this difficult time and that they do not have to spend time searching for assistance, likely without finding any information.
It is understandable that for various strategic and legal reasons a Media Relations Office does not want to post their documents or their entire plan for supporting scholars in case of harassment online — especially as individual cases may require individualized responses. However, having a notice on the Media Relations Office website that acknowledges the risk of trolling, doxxing, and harassment is useful.
Consider a simple statement such as:
“Our university is committed to public facing scholarship and media work. We are also committed to supporting our faculty, instructors, and graduate students who do this work. If you are harassed, trolled, or doxxed while doing this work, please contact us at: ______. We have procedures to support/protect you.”
The office should, of course, not just say this, but actually have a plan in place that they can explain to their scholars when asked. It is helpful to have information about things scholars can consider ahead of time before beginning media work.
It is also helpful to include general information about the procedures (suggestions below in the section “Best Practices”) and links to other useful resources (suggestions below in the section “What Exists Outside of the University Context in Case You Are Trolled, Doxxed, Or Harassed”).
Please note, telling scholars to ignore trolls is not a sufficient plan.
A single mean comment can be ignored. A deluge of insults, death threats, threats of sexual violence, and similar forms of harassment cannot be ignored. Trolling, doxxing, and online harassment can have serious implications for the person being harassed, including but not limited to: lowered self esteem, lowered productivity, feeling unsafe, and more (Veletsianos 2018).
Step 2: Methods and Initial Findings
Even if information regarding trolling, doxxing, or harassment was not available on the university websites, we wanted to know if university Media Relations Offices had internal materials, protocols, or plans.
From May to mid-July 2020, the research team contacted every Canadian university’s Media Relations Office via email, using the same English or French script explaining the research project and asking what materials the office had for scholars regarding what to do, the risks, or the protocols of trolling, doxxing, or harassment that a scholar might encounter while doing public facing scholarship. If offices did not respond within a few weeks to the first contact, they were contacted a second time. If emails bounced back or email addresses were no longer in use, we tried another email address.
Summary of the findings:
We received responses from 40 universities out of the 98 universities that we contacted. We therefore had a 41% response rate.
Of the 40 Media Relations Offices that responded, here is what we learned:
The University of Calgary was the only institution to have an explicit document dedicated to the topic of trolling, doxxing, or harassment, although the document does not use those exact words to describe the attack. The document provides scholars with a list of resources including campus security, the local police, and the media relations office, as well as resources on campus such as Staff Wellness, Sexual Violence Support, the Women’s Resource Centre, and Employee Assistance.
In addition to the document from Acadia University discussed earlier, Concordia University, OCAD, UBC, UBC Okanagan, and McGill University Media Relations Offices have information related to social media best practices that recommend engaging with comments, particularly rude comments, respectfully, and the University of Manitoba asks for scholars to be respectful and dignified. While these documents do provide practical tips for social media, they do not address racist, sexist, homophobic, or abelist comments or what to do about ongoing harassment. Furthermore, the emphasis of many of these documents, such as the ones produced by Algoma University, Brescia, or University of Ottawa, is on scholars or employees using official university social media accounts. Those documents do not address what to do about trolling or doxxing attacks that can occur on a scholar’s personal social media accounts after doing public media work.
None of the Media Relations Offices that responded had any explicit policies. Most of the Media Relations Offices who had protocols would deal with harassment on a case by case basis.
It is important to make clear that the kinds of policies we are discussing are not the same as the occupational health and safety workplace laws that require employers to have policies against harassment within the workplace. University Human Rights Offices will often deal with those cases of internal harassment. For this report, we are looking explicitly at the kinds of protocols, policies, documents, and workshops Media Relations Offices within Canadian universities have to support their scholars who are doing public media work and who are trolled, doxxed, or harassed while engaging in this work. So unless harassers are from inside of their university, the occupational health and safety workplace protocols do not apply.
While a few Media Relations Office representatives did not think trolling, doxxing, or harassment were things to be concerned about or thought that these were not issues that affected their university’s scholars, several representatives said that they had heard concerns from their scholars and have had to deal with cases of harassment. Two Media Relations Offices already incorporate these discussions in workshops and three want to begin to include this material in future workshops.
The most optimistic findings from our research are that since this project began in May, several universities have already begun to work on creating protocols, documents, or workshops related to these topics. Several representatives said that our research has made them interested in developing policies within their institutions.
Online availability of resources: Extremely limited as of July 10, 2020
Availability of internal resources: Limited but potentially increasing
If Canadian universities are truly committed to community engagement via publicly engaged scholarship and media work, there is large room for improvement. At present (July 2020), with the exception of the two sentences from UFV, we could find no materials available on any Media Relations Offices’ websites regarding policies, procedures, or protocols that exist to explicitly support scholars who are trolled, doxxed, or harassed. Of the university Media Relations Offices who responded to our inquiries, few had materials readily available to support scholars. While working with scholars on a case by case basis can be useful for that individual, other scholars may not know what kind of support is available to them.
We strongly encourage universities to put information regarding a university’s protocols for supporting scholars who are harassed while doing media work in a readily accessible place on the Media Relations Office’s website, even if the protocol is that the harassment will be dealt with on a case by case basis. Providing tips and resources for scholars beginning this work can also help guide the media work scholars do in the first place. No scholar deserves trolling or doxxing for deciding to do public media work and scholars who experience this harassment are not to blame. However, knowing in advance what to do in case a troll storm descends (such as immediately making all social media accounts private) can help a scholar avoid some suffering. Media Relations Offices can offer to deal with large waves of attacking tweets and posts for their employees. These communications officers can also document the harassment by taking screenshots if legal action becomes necessary.
Furthermore, scholars may enter into media work with more confidence and enthusiasm if they know that resources exist to support them if something goes wrong.
While conducting this research, we were buoyed to hear that while some Media Relations Offices had never considered creating protocols or assembling resources in case scholars experienced harassment, some have used this project as inspiration to create these resources on their own campuses. We hope that with the release of this study’s results, more offices are inspired to create policies.
The aim of this report is not to critique or embarrass, but rather to encourage the development of these resources.
We are not alone in suggesting that it is vital that universities “have a responsibility in the prevention and protection of harm. In addition, there is a need to equip individuals with the skills and strategies to self-protect and tackle the harm they may be exposed to while actively engaging in online scholarship” (Kavanagh, 2019). Similarly in their Ethical Research Guidelines, the Association of Internet Researchers argued that “another essential measure is that institutions develop policy detailing support procedures for researchers experiencing online threats or harassment related to their work” (Association of Internet Researchers 2019). Tressie McMillan Cottom, professor at UNC Chapel Hill, has been calling on universities to develop protocols since 2015. It is because of these reasons, we have assembled a list of resources and suggestions below.
What Exists Already in Canada:
Outside of Media Relations Offices, resources do exist for scholars interested in doing public facing media work. At the University of British Columbia Okanagan, the Public Humanities Hub (PHH) initiative coordinates and amplifies the work of humanists on the Okanagan campus so that colleagues across the disciplines and citizens in the Southern Interior can see what they bring to the table. Their work focuses on public scholarship more broadly for the humanities. At the University of British Columbia Vancouver campus, the Public Humanities Hub is a three-year pilot project established in 2019 to foster and support collaborative research and to highlight and develop public-facing research in the Humanities in Arts, Law, and Education, at UBC-V. They also host a speaker series. The Public Humanities at Western, housed within the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, is a program designed to promote innovative forms of public scholarship, experiential learning, and community collaboration. These programs are laudable, however they are limited in their scope. They are directed primarily at scholars in the humanities and do not address the concerns of scholars in the sciences, social sciences, and other faculties. Even if the topic of harassment is raised at a public humanities event, these hubs are not responsible for scholars in the case that they are trolled, doxxed, or harassed. Furthermore, Media Relations Offices do not necessarily know about these public humanities hubs. When asked about information about support for scholars experiencing trolling, doxxing, or harassment while doing media work, a representative from a Media Relations Office responded that they had no resources on their campus even when there was a Public Humanities Hub. It is not surprising: offices, programs, and departments within universities often exist within siloes.
Public scholarship, especially public media work, requires collaboration across the university — especially if universities want to actually support the scholars doing this work.
Best Practices Shared Across Institutions:
We hope that Media Relations Offices across Canada (and beyond) will take up these practices and apply them within the context of their specific university.
Media Relations Offices should have dedicated space on their web pages devoted to the topic of online harassment, trolling, and doxxing. Include a statement of how you will support your scholars doing public facing scholarship and media work.
Provide contact information for who scholars should contact in case they are harassed, trolled, or doxxed while doing this work.
Provide a list of resources (such as the one below) for tips scholars can take ahead of time, such as how to lock down your digital identity.
Provide a list of resources (such as the one below) for scholars to use in case they are experiencing harassment, trolling, or doxxing related to their media work.
Explain, or at least state, that you have policies to support your scholars in documenting the harassment (and actually develop those policies).
Include information about harassment, trolling, and doxxing during workshops that your office holds on public media work.
Hold specific workshops, at least once a semester (since universities are states of constant flux) about harassment, trolling, and doxxing.
What Exists Outside of the University Context in Case You, and/or Someone You Know, Are Trolled, Doxxed, Or Harassed:
Override provides additional support. Cyberbullying.org offers lists and suggestions. Cyber Civil Rights Initiative provides information about online removal of offensive images, including non-consensual pornography. Although most advice is targeted at individuals, universities can assist scholars in undertaking necessary steps to mitigate
these situations. By having this information readily available on universities’ Media Relations Offices websites, scholars can more readily access this information if or when they need it. While historically most scholars have faced this harassment alone, or with the help of a few peers, universities must assist their employees. Each university’s Media Relations Office can tailor this information for their scholars.
FemtechNet has created and aggregated some of the most useful resources:
IF YOU ARE IN NEED OF IMMEDIATE SUPPORT/HELP (Via FemTechNet)
Crash Override Network has an email helpline. Heart Mob can help you create a safety plan and offer support. You might also look into TrollBuster’s new Pilot Monitoring Services. Their infographic of what to do in specific situations is particularly helpful. The Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women (OCTEVAW) and the Purple Sisters Youth Advisory committee have developed Tech Without Violence, a set of resources to help prevent, respond to and support individuals experiencing online gender-based violence or harassment — known as cyberviolence.They have site-specific for social media platforms as well as some excellent online safety tips.
1. Document the harassment
2. Block the harassers
3. Mitigate the Internet Trollstorms: A Step By Step Guide via Geek Feminism
There are many challenges to public scholarship and media work already — a lack of sufficient institutional support against harassment should not be one of them. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) instructs employers that they should pay attention to online harassment. Unfortunately scholars often face cyberbullying and harassment alone. Researchers deserve to have institutional support from their institutions’ Media Relations Offices.
If universities and grant agencies are going to encourage their researchers to engage with public scholarship, there must be support for scholars doing this work in the form of detailing support procedures for researchers experiencing online threats or harassment related to their work. Furthermore, as the Canadian Tri-Council encourages scholars to do public scholarship and connect with the public, including media work, we encourage the Tri-Council to create a dedicated document for guidelines related to online harassment, trolling, and doxxing on their SSHRC, CIHR, and NSERC guidelines pages.
At the moment, women and non-binary scholars, Indigenous scholars, scholars of colour, queer scholars, scholars with disabilities, and other marginalized scholars are underrepresented in media work (Worth 2018). Creating workshops, developing protocols, and providing information to scholars about harassment, trolling, and doxxing can empower scholars, especially scholars with marginalized identities, at your universities to actually want to do public scholarship and media work. Knowing that resources exist to support them, scholars will not have to worry about facing harassment alone. We hope to encourage universities, particularly Media Relations Offices, to support this work.
More information is available at the project website: https://publicscholarshipandmediawork.blogspot.com
Thank you to my amazing research team: Kari Kuo, Dominique Grégoire, Mohammed Odusanya, Thai Hwang, Amy Edward, and Astrid Mohr. Thank you to Stefanie Duguay, PhD and Hannah McGregor, PhD for your feedback on an earlier draft of the report. Thank you to all of the folks at Media Relations Offices in Canada who responded to our research team. We hope that these findings and this report will be useful resources for your work.
My research is supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant.
Author Bio: Alex Ketchum, PhD, is the Faculty Lecturer of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies of McGill University. She organizes the SSHRC funded, Feminist and Accessible Publishing and Communications Technologies Speaker and Workshop Series (feministandaccessiblepublishingandtechnology.com). This research is supported by her multi-year SSHRC Insight Grant: Disrupting Disruptions: The Challenge of Feminist and Accessible Publishing and Communications Technologies 1965-present. For more, see alexketchum.ca
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This spreadsheet shows the list of every Canadian university studied for this report. The name of their Media Relations Office or Newsroom is included, as there is some variability in how these offices are named or situated within each university. Please note that some universities listed are part of a university system that shares a single Media Relations Office. This chart indicates whether or not the Media Relations Office website includes information related to trolling, doxxing, or harassment.
Canadian Media Relations Offices Spreadsheet (click to see the spreadsheet)