Trolling History: Social Media Harassment From AbroadHistorians in the News
tags: culture war, authoritarianism, teaching history, Internet Culture
Alexandra F. Levy is communications manager at the AHA. She tweets @AlexandraFL21.
The harassment takes many forms: threatening phone calls, texts with graphic images, emails and petitions sent to employers, threats of rape and murder.
Many historians have become uncomfortably aware—or targets themselves—of coordinated harassment on Twitter and other platforms. The harassers attack not just historians but scholars from other fields who write about everything from sports, to LGBTQ+ issues, to medieval history and literature. Scholars who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color or who identify with other minoritized communities, along with women, often face the most vicious abuse. A single harasser with a large platform can quickly mobilize their followers to attack a scholar whose work they feel threatens their worldview—and the onslaught can go on for months or even years.
Perspectives recently spoke with historians who have been targeted by neonationalists abroad, eliciting responses by scholarly associations defending academic integrity and freedom. But there are many others—in the United States and in other countries—who could share similar stories. This article sheds a light on the experiences of a few, in the hope that the community may better understand what colleagues who experience such attacks are going through and how best to support them. Dealing with vicious harassment takes a huge toll on a person, professionally and personally. “Most of us who chose this profession never dreamed that our jobs might entail this,” said Ananya Chakravarti (Georgetown Univ.). “Contemplating the hatred and violent language by these harassers can cause real harm.”
It’s not simply the rise in social media use that has led to such attacks. Right-wing politics across the globe have empowered neonationalists who feel threatened by scholars whose work shatters the national myths they promote. Those they attack often focus on historical violence against minorities, aligning with the neonationalists’ own prejudices. Scholars in countries governed by neonationalists, and those who travel to them, can face physical and legal harassment—even imprisonment—for pursuing responsible historical inquiry. When neonationalists can’t physically intimidate scholars, they resort to online threats.
The situation for Polish historians, especially those working on World War II and the Holocaust, has steadily worsened as Polish nationalists have taken the reins of governmental power and weaponized it against scholars since 2015. For Jan Grabowski (Univ. of Ottawa), the social media harassment he has experienced is part and parcel of broader physical and legal harassment. Grabowski’s assailants dismiss Polish participation in violence against Jews during and after World War II and promote other Holocaust denialist myths. His harassers have “quite clearly been steered, controlled, and orchestrated by institutions of the Polish state or NGOs funded by the government.” He explained, “In normal democratic countries, these haters don’t have the institutional power of the state giving them a green light. Here, they do.”