Handling Harassment, Negotiating Care
From the Series: Being @CulAnth: Social Media as Academic Practice
From the Series: Being @CulAnth: Social Media as Academic Practice
While it can be a generative and privileged position to handle an account and content that shapes the discursive spaces of #AnthroTwitter and #AcademicTwitter, it can sometimes be an uncomfortable (and vulnerable) position to be in. Given the socio-technic infrastructures of Twitter and Facebook, engagement online can result in situations like call-out tweets of the account and handlers, trolling, harassment of Cultural Anthropology and Fieldsights affiliated authors, or antagonistic engagement in the form of tweet replies, direct messages, and targeted emails. In this piece, the social media team reflects on our process for handling harassment and other challenging exchanges as the junior scholars behind the @CulAnth social media accounts. Specifically, we detail the transformation of these individual care-based and speculative processes into a group training and onboarding exercise that we continually revisit and shape as a team.
In running a large social media account, one can run into a range of responses that might make one feel uneasy. These genres of interaction can even include good-faith replies that seek to call in or transform the Cultural Anthropology journal, the Society, or even the discipline of anthropology for the better. Critiques of something the editors published or the inaction of the SCA might not be meant for us as graduate student Contributing Editors (CEs), but they are also literally addressed to us since we—and not the journal editors or SCA board—are the ones behind @CulAnth (full disclosure: your tweet replies may not get passed to the President of the SCA ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). How to engage with such critiques draws attention to our positionality as part of SCA but also not, as well as our relative lack of institutional power as proverbial interns. Like our colleagues in other sections, the Social Media Team (SMT) has carved out space to play and be creative online, but this means that the gap between us and our superiors, productive as it is, may not be apparent to readers who bundle the entire Society into one Twitter account. Meanwhile, receiving and responding to such critiques is vastly different than the array of interpersonal arguments, in-fighting, harassment, or mobbing that can sweep up an account like ours when an author or handler is tangentially or directly involved. Sometimes such conversations are fleeting, sometimes they endure, and we have to weather them either way. Even worse, innumerable trolls and bad-faith actors call the internet home, and @CulAnth handlers have had to deal with eugenicist, TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), and Nazi harassment on the accounts in the past. While our relationship with each other and the accounts gives us some respite compared to individuals who are sometimes victims of right-wing attacks, it is nonetheless tremendously taxing to navigate such vitriol and harassment. We do not wish to conflate meaningful critique with trolling and harassment; rather, these different interactions can elicit strong sensory and intellectual reactions from handlers, including anxiety, surprise, shame, confusion, and fear—and require labor to handle in distinct but intersecting ways.
“How do we handle harassment” is a recurring item on our bimonthly team meeting agenda. Harassment is frequent and can be both highly visible to the broader Twitter audience and more elusive when happening. For many years, our strategies for managing harassment have been deeply relational and informal. We created a Twitter Direct Message (DM) group in order to facilitate real-time problem-solving as needed, and this group chat has served as a space for venting, processing, and feeling when we’ve found ourselves, the account, and our peers in the line of fire. Informal venting and complaining can be a site and source of care work, both in terms of the care involved in formulating and articulating one’s frustrations and in listening to and processing those complaints together. Here, we draw on our colleague and former SCA Contributing Editor, Anar Parikh (2018), who, in thinking with Sara Ahmed, suggests that we contend “with the possibility that complaints may surface what was previously kept invisible.” For our team, it is often through these flurries of complaint and venting that we flesh out our values as a team, build solidarity, and articulate handler strategies.
We do not wish to conflate meaningful critique with trolling and harassment; rather, these different interactions can elicit strong sensory and intellectual reactions from handlers, including anxiety, surprise, shame, confusion, and fear—and require labor to handle in distinct but intersecting ways.
Like so many other parts of life, handling harassment and navigating moments of unease in community has made this work more sustainable. In Spring 2020, we determined that it was time to document some of our best practices for coping with and handling harassment as the handlers of a large public-facing account, on a social media platform routinely dubbed the most toxic, often embroiled in heated debates and discourse (i.e current events, local and global politics, higher education, research ethics, theoretical and disciplinary debates, labor rights, precarity, justice issues, etc.). In this piece, we describe the work completed by our online harassment subcommittee, including the worksheet and team activity we created, the onboarding training we provide to new SMT members related to online harassment, and some thoughts and reflections on our experiences.
In the midst of the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020, one of our #AnthroTwitter colleagues was publicly harassed. The @CulAnth account was one of many academic organizations that were tagged in tweets meant to degrade and embarrass a fellow anthropologist. Such tagging was meant to amplify and exacerbate the harasser’s actions, making our account complicit in the act. This was not the first or last time the @CulAnth account was implicated in a public attack on a fellow scholar. This instance merited a debrief at a team meeting, particularly because we had recently onboarded three new team members. After reflecting on how our handlers managed the exchange, we formed a subcommittee tasked with compiling team feedback, perspectives, and strategies for handling these kinds of online experiences. The online harassment committee met throughout the summer and fall of 2020.
We determined that a document outlining best practices and strategies for managing online harassment would best serve our team. But the task of compiling the content of that document would reflect the manner in which we have always coped with uneasy exchanges on the account—collectively. The document serves as both a training exercise and an archive of institutional memory for a particular set of caring and relational ethics among the CEs at the time. The subcommittee drafted five generic scenarios that handlers might encounter. We presented the scenarios to the team in advance of an upcoming team meeting. Each handler was asked to reflect on and record how they would address each scenario in a shared Google Doc. This method allowed us to archive the emotional and intellectual labor that informs the day-to-day decision-making on the account. Thus, while shared experiences of online harassment served as grounds for the formation of the subcommittee, our desire to archive our collectively arrived-at strategies and record the ethics of care that motivated our team helped produce the handler strategies and ethics activity.
We compiled the scenarios in a Google Doc and provided the team with the following instructions:
Below are five scenarios, with each scenario being followed by a table where SMT members can input their thoughts and actions (strategies) for how they would think through and act (or not) in response to each scenario.
Hey @culanth, a CE is sharing and promoting #ICUEugenic content on their personal page. Do you really want to be associated with that #Ableist garbage? I expect some public action ASAP! #AccessibleAnthro
This scenario has two main layers to me: 1) our Team members' actions/tweets and 2) a call to take action as an account/team and do something about 1.
I think it would be appropriate to look into our team members' content and have a discussion within the team. And 2) take internal action with that member and possibly relay that information to this user so we’re transparent.
While many things on Twitter can be unduly escalated, sharing eugenic content definitely crosses a line for me and requires some sort of action, even if it is not the public shaming that the original poster wants.
If I were the handler that week, I would try to trace the content in question and if necessary, have a discussion about it within the team. (Although I’m sure this would look different if it were one of us or a CE in another section.) I think it would probably be good to reach out to the original poster privately as well to communicate that we are looking into the issue.
Examples of other scenarios include:
I’m so sick of the #AnthroTwitter clique. All these people #OnHere performing comradery. If only folks knew that @CoolGuyAnthro at @CulAnth is actually a bro and speaks over POCs in our seminars ALL THE TIME. #SeenItWithMyOwnEyes #AnthroSoWhite
It’s Monday morning; you log into the accounts where you’re thrust into a landscape of users tweeting in response to an event/news/fallout/scandal (ex: #HAUTalk, #JessicaKrug), and you’re trying to make sense of what’s happening on the account TL and in the broader #AcademicTwitter sphere. What factors would contribute to how you handled the account, engagement, and content?
We asked the team to read through the completed table prior to our next meeting, during which we devoted the bulk of our time together to discussion. Together, we went through each scenario and our responses, drawing from our own reactions to and experiences with real-life versions of each and how we responded and would respond in the future to similar situations.
As anthropologists, our contextual awareness asks us to consider the conditions of response as reflective of the account and the cultivated politics of our team. Through the process of our discussions and this training, we mapped strategies and talked through our reasoning. In this section on negotiating response, we provide some guiding questions that invite you into the practice of negotiating your own conditions for response. Taking into account the perception of public expectations, the historical sedimentation of the discipline, and the ongoing shake-down of the social sciences and humanities, the range of engagements with the account calls into consideration the scale and genres of interaction. Across genres and scales of interactions, it is useful to ask yourself: How productive is it to engage?
Whether to engage is a speculative process, grounded in a knowledge of the platform and user actions, to imagine the intent and outcome of responding as the account. In most instances, engagements with the account comment on the academic material of SCA and the journal. However, there are genres of interactions that ask for a response of accountability, acknowledgment, or aim to discredit the social sciences and humanities through antagonistic rhetoric. Here there is the possibility to take into consideration if a response can contribute to further bringing your account and material into dialogue with a public audience. This contributes to sustaining an account as an interactive account—as opposed to a stagnant space that just posts content. Additionally, it allows handlers to share resources and information with an inquiring public, for example, if a user is asking for syllabi recommendations or clarification on the biennial conference hosted by the SCA and the Society for Visual Anthropology.
In the cultivated politics of our team, we have been intentional in following other organizations and users that engage in the radical politics of minoritized communities. We also often connect SCA and journal content that can speak to contemporary and global events and amplify resources for impacted communities. Because of the reach of the account and our own political commitments to amplify particular communities and concerns, users with harmful ideological positions often populate our notifications. Sometimes there is an opportunity to respond and bring your account into earnest dialogue with others. And sometimes, we see a notification and ask ourselves if we have the capacity to respond to antagonistic demands and replies. It is also a valid response to not respond when earnest interaction—oftentimes—does not seem possible, as demonstrated by the following activity response:
This is another situation where the handler is being dragged without being a direct party to the accusations.
Don’t immediately respond. Reach out to @CoolGuyAnthro
I think the handler is being pulled into a situation that want accountability, in some ways, but I don’t think call out tweets are actually about accountability.
I wouldn’t reach out to @CoolGuyAnthro, and I probably wouldn’t engage at all.
I feel like i’ve seen situations like this on here. i think there’s a part of my mind where i file away this type of information, where i recognise that this is a conversation that is not actually happening, but it might be worthwhile to remember what’s happening
I don’t think i’d do anything, unless the situation was escalating.
So many of the scenarios here are shadowed by the fact that people do not understand or appreciate that we are volunteer grad students, not the Culanth board. That is a tension that I don’t really know how to address, especially when the @Culanth account is specifically called out for something. While I am sympathetic to the sentiment of the post and think social media is a powerful platform for naming and identifying oppressive behavior, I don’t think it is the handler’s place to engage (especially since @CoolGuyAnthro is specifically tagged).
I would not engage.
There are optics of obligation that come with handling a large-scale account—especially with the project of anthropology engaged in responding to the contemporary moment. Working through this document and training together allowed us to arrive at a shared politics of refusal—the right to refuse to respond. While we had each individually determined what not to respond to, the training allowed us to collectively establish that opting not to respond was a valid and important ethic for us. In handling the account and managing public expectations, there is an acknowledgment that we also need to care for ourselves—and this sometimes looks like refusing to engage with users interacting in bad faith. The refusal may stem from simply not having the time, capacity, or desire to engage in an inflammatory quote tweet or reply tweet. The handler may not feel educated enough on a topic to engage in a way that is ethical and informed. Regardless of the reason for refusing to respond, it is the practice of refusal itself, as a collectively supported and valued action, that matters. Going through this activity together allowed us to identify this as a critical aspect of our collective ethics of care.
Since the initial exercise, we have integrated this activity into our onboarding process for new handlers to witness and practice how we manage uneasy situations together. By asking team members to read through the scenarios and respond with how they would react and then reviewing each other’s answers collectively, we turned an individual reflective exercise into a process of communal problem-solving and ethical response. At the meeting, we discussed our approaches and reasonings behind our answers and learned from one another about how things might be interpreted, which scenarios were best left alone, which types of interactions warranted a response, and when to escalate things to the group or beyond. While each of our handlers is empowered to manage the accounts on their own, and while we routinely use our group chat to problem-solve or share updates, this collective process was useful to establish best practices for ourselves and for future members of the team, not only to provide consistency across handlers of our account but also to better protect handlers and others in our online community.
Parikh, Anar. 2018. “On Complaint in the Face of Precarity.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, May 18.