An increasingly volatile online environment is affecting our society, including members of the academic community and research they pursue.
Graduate students are especially vulnerable to online hate, because cultivating a visible social media presence is considered essential for mobilizing their research, gaining credibility and finding opportunities as they prepare to compete in an over-saturated job market.
Our research has examined the experiences of graduate students who have encountered online hate while conducting their research or disseminating it online, and a wider landscape of university protocol and policies.
This research suggests faculty supervisors and university staff responsible for students’ development and well-being are often ill-prepared to support students through online harassment experiences. This means graduate students are left frightened, discouraged and with nowhere to turn for help.
New policies needed to support researchers
Research by communications scholars George Veletsianos and Jaigris Hodson, who are part of the Public Scholarship and Online Abuse research group, finds that scholars online may be targeted for a range of reasons, but “women in particular are harassed partly because they happen to be women who dare to be public online.”
New frameworks and policies are required that protect and care for increasingly diverse academic communities to foster equity and diversity.
Impacts and inadequate support
Online harassment restricts which research projects are able to proceed and who is able to pursue them. It affects not only researchers’ well-being and career prospects, but by extention, their fields of study and members of the public served by it.
Institutions have yet to develop adequate supports for both faculty and students, even as the pervasiveness of online harassment in academic life has begun to receive greater attention.
Research by Hodson and Veletsianos with Chandell Gosse finds university policies designed to protect community members have not evolved to address the complex forms of harassment that unfold via social media.
Lack of clear and accessible structures, procedures
Research from 2020 by Alex Ketchum of McGill University’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies on resources provided by media relations offices at Canadian universities indicates that universities’ publicly accessible information about doxxing, trolling and scholarship is scarce. Ketchum addresses challenges related to public scholarship in her book Engage in Public Scholarship!: A Guidebook on Feminist and Accessible Communication.
Without clear structures and procedures for reporting harassment and supporting community members at an institutional level, harassment is treated by universities as isolated incidents without grasping the scale of the issue.
We have facilitated a number of workshops and events that foreground experiences of online harassment among graduate students. This work has been done with support from the Institute for Research on Digital Literacies, under the direction of Natalie Coulter.
As part of a multi-stage project titled Bearing Witness, we conducted one-on-one interviews with seven York University students who have encountered hatred in response to sharing or conducting their research online.
To protect participants from further harassment, we invited student artist-researchers to interpret the anonymized interview transcripts and create original artworks that reflected upon and echoed the stories of their peers.
These stories formed the basis of an exhibition and panel discussion at Congress 2023, a national conference of academic researchers held at the end of May and beginning of June 2023, and will inform a symposium on Nov. 7 and a a pop-up exhibition in the Media Creation Lab in the Scott Library at York University.
Researcher experiences of harassment
In our study, participants described receiving threats of physical and sexual violence, directed not only towards them, but to their families and research participants. These encounters severely impacted students’ mental health and led them to fear for their physical well-being on campus and at conferences.
Each student we spoke with described feeling under-supported by the university, in particular struggling to access mental-health services. Participants also said research methods seminars, research ethics board certification courses and conversations with supervisory committees had not addressed the possibility of encountering online harassment.
The online harassment students encountered also derailed or significantly curtailed their research projects. Students reported that the effects of the harassment forced them to drastically alter, if not entirely halt, their course of study and degree progress.
Resources to help protect from harassment
There are many online resources graduate students can consult to protect themselves from online harassment. Resources from PEN America and gaming communities provide cybersecurity tips to prevent doxxing, assess threats and report harassment to platforms and law enforcement.
However, universities must take steps to lessen the burden for individual victims.
Media relations and knowledge-mobilization offices must develop clear protocols for protecting community members and supporting them in the wake of encountering hatred online. It is equally essential that these policies are readily available and easy to locate for scholars in distress.
Important work begins with witness
Faculty must be made aware of the realities of online harassment and available university resources — including campus security, legal clinics and mental health services.
Supervisors should be prepared to have frank discussions with graduate students about the potential risks associated with their research and develop a pre-emptive action plan that can be implemented quickly.
This important work must begin with institutions bearing witness to graduate students’ experiences. University staff and faculty must listen to individual voices so that the issue of online harassment can be understood in its full scale and complexity.
Alex Borkowski, PhD Candidate, Communication & Culture, York University, Canada; Marion Tempest Grant, PhD Candidate, Communication & Culture, York University, Canada, and Natalie Coulter, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, and Director of the Institute for Research on Digital Literacies, York University, Canada