How outrage mobs silence academics — and what we can do to stop them
When the protection of academic freedom is compromised, scholarship and greater society suffer the effects.
- Social media has made it easier than ever to succumb to mob mentality and let our worst instincts and impulses run rampant. Outrage mobs pose a new and unique threat to professors' academic freedom.
- Although expressing moral outrage can feel good, bad actors can use outrage mobs to further their own specific agendas, leaving careers ruined and productive discourse even further out of reach.
- University leaders should stop caving to outrage mobs and start standing up for academic freedom, both for students and professors.
Academic freedom is a protection that's long enabled students and professors to make the most of higher education by facilitating the free exchange of ideas. But today, outrage mobs are chipping away at this freedom by trying to silence what professors can teach, research, and express in their private lives.
Outrage mobs are aggressive groups of people who temporarily band together online – and sometimes in real life – to denounce people whose ideas they disagree with. While outrage mobs can arise in other contexts – celebrities are frequently targeted, for example – given the importance of academics' ability to explore difficult ideas freely, they are particularly problematic in the university context. Without open academic pursuit and scholarship, imagine the extent of society's missed opportunities in regard to scientific discovery and technological innovation.
It usually happens like this: A professor expresses a view or conducts research that someone finds offensive. The offended people — who may or may not be affiliated with the university — express outrage on social media. Others join the mob. The mob then demands that the professor be punished or fired. in some cases the mob harasses the professor online or in person. Far too frequently, particularly if the professor is in a part time role, the administration gives in to these demands.
Angry mobs are nothing new. But social media has made it easier than ever to succumb to mob mentality and let our worst instincts and impulses run rampant. Outrage mobs pose a new and unique threat to professors' academic freedom, which depends on their ability to question conventional wisdom. And the threat isn't only that professors might lose their jobs, but also that academia might become less intellectually dynamic.Outrage can be useful to society. It is, after all, a strong moral emotion that spurs us into action when we witness injustice, and it encourages people to come together to right wrongs in their communities. But not all outrage is created equal. Outrage is often disproportional. Further, the impact of networked outrage can often be far beyond what any outraged individual imagined or desired. This makes it all the more important to be aware of its often-corrosive and unintended effects.
Academic freedom: What it is, what it isn’t and why there’s confusion
Outrage mobs' chilling effect on academic freedom
Rebecca Tuvel, a philosopher and assistant professor at Rhodes college, in 2017 published an article in the peer-reviewed feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. Her paper addressed the question of trans-racialism, a timely topic given the recent news coverage of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who famously claimed a black identity. In the paper Tuvel examined if the arguments used to defend a transgender identity apply in a similar fashion to the question of transracialism. In this she adopted a technique common among philosophers – testing if reasoning used on one issue would apply equally on a different issue that appeared a close parallel.
While the article was not meant to be controversial, it generated a sizable negative response, particularly on social media. This was closely followed by an open letter signed by over five hundred academics to the journal's editors alleging (falsely) many ethical lapses and harms– this resulted in the article being retracted (an unprecedented move).
For Tuvel, a junior scholar who has not been tenured (and for whom publications are crucial) this decision directly impacts her future career. It is worth noting the irony that the ancient female philosopher Hypatia, the journal's namesake, is believed to have been murdered by an angry mob of zealots.
It is true that since then Tuvel also received a sizable amount of support within philosophy, and the event has led to important conversations. Yet, it does show that in this era of online outrage young academics looking to speak on any contested topic of the day risk their career.
While the outrage focused on Tuvel came largely from the left of center and inside the academy, that is not always the case. For example, in 2017, Sarah Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, published an article describing how modern technology has revealed that many statues from the ancient Western world were painted. Of course, the paint faded over time, and the marble Greco-Roman statues we have today appear in a shade of white.
But art historians had mistakenly believed that ancient Greeks and Romans intended for their statues to be white, and therefore they equated white with beauty. This has long shaped the way we view the antique world, Bond argued.
"The assemblage of neon whiteness serves to create a false idea of homogeneity — everyone was very white! — across the Mediterranean region," she wrote for Hyperallergic. Bond suggested that this misconception has over time indirectly supported racist views, and she noted that white supremacist groups like Identity Europa often "use classical statuary as a symbol of white male superiority."
A handful of right-leaning media outlets picked up the story. Campus Reform, for instance, published a piece with the headline: "Prof: 'white marble' in artwork contributes to white supremacy". Soon enough, Bond became the target of an outrage mob, which threatened her, harassed her with anti-Semitic references, and called for her termination.
"What they want to believe is that there is a liberal professor that is so sensitive to race issues that she will make race issues out of anything," Bond told ArtForum. "They want to make me an example of the hyperliberalization of the academy."
The university defended Bond. John F. Finamore, Bond's department chair, called members of the outrage mob "internet trolls" who "did not understand her argument.""Free exchange and criticism of ideas is central to academic research, and attempts to shut down anyone by threats and bullying are detrimental to free speech," Finamore said. "We in classics support [Bond] and the need for a humane atmosphere of productive exchange of ideas."
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) before the Holy Office in the Vatican. The astronomer was condemned by the Tribunal of the Inquisition for having defended the theories of Copernicus, 1632. Painting by Joseph Nicolas Robert-Fleury (1797-1890), 1847. Louvre Museum, Paris.
Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images
So, what motivates outrage mobs?
Expressing moral outrage can feel good. That's because the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate pleasure, when we punish others for violating a moral norm. Social media can multiply this effect. Outrage mobs are usually motivated by political ideology, and people on both the left and the right engage in them. But recent research has also revealed other motivations, beyond mere political point-scoring.
It also helps to develop a sense of group solidarity and establish our moral identity within a peer group. Sometimes this can go further, with outrage being a means to signal superior moral status. By saying what we are against we define who our friends and enemies are. In the noisy world of social media outrage is a loud and clear signal of where you stand (and get likes and retweets).
This is especially true in an era of political polarization where expression of outrage can be a vent for frustration. But it's important to remember that outrage mobs are emergent phenomena that only exist because individuals choose to participate in them.
After enough individuals jump into the fray, a mob forms that can seem greater (and louder) than the sum of its parts. Worse, bad actors can use outrage mobs to further their own specific agendas, leaving careers ruined and productive discourse even further out of reach.
What can universities, students, and faculty do?
University leaders should stop caving to outrage mobs and start standing up for academic freedom, both for students and professors. When a controversy emerges and an outrage mob forms, leaders should clearly and publicly declare their commitment to academic freedom.
A good example comes from California State University, Dominguez Hills, where Professor Brooke Mascagni was targeted by an outrage mob for expressing political views in her classroom. The university stood by her, issuing a statement that read:
"Part of an education is exposing students to differing positions and opinions on a topic, in an effort to encourage critical thinking. At all times, students at California State University, Dominguez Hills are encouraged to exercise their right to free speech, free inquiry, and freedom of expression."
Students and faculty can protect academic freedom by not succumbing to the mob when a controversy emerges on campus. First ask: Do I know all of the facts behind the story? Is the alleged offense really that bad? What was likely the intent of the professor? Is the best course of action to shut down dialogue and force others to agree with your position?
Outrage mobs lose their power when calmer heads prevail. Besides, who wants to be part of a mob? The value of higher education is not learning what to think, but rather how to think for yourself. And thinking independently requires the freedom not to follow the herd. As the American Association of University Professors wrote in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure:
"Genuine boldness and thoroughness of inquiry, and freedom of speech, are scarcely reconcilable with the prescribed inculcation of a particular opinion upon a controverted question."
As a form of civil disobedience, hacking can help make the world a better place.
- Hackers' motivations range from altruistic to nihilistic.
- Altruistic hackers expose injustices, while nihilistic ones make society more dangerous.
- The line between ethical and unethical hacking is not always clear.
The following is an excerpt from Coding Democracy by Maureen Webb. Reprinted with Permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2020.
As people begin to hack more concertedly at the structures of the status quo, the reactions of those who benefit from things as they are will become more fierce and more punitive, at least until the "hackers" succeed in shifting the relevant power relationships. We know this from the history of social movements. At the dawning of the digital age, farmers who hack tractors will be ruthlessly punished.
Somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that hackers are engaged in a whole range of acts, from the altruistic to the plainly nihilistic and dangerous. On the altruistic side of the continuum, they are creating free software (GNU/Linux and other software under GPL licenses), Creative Commons (Creative Commons licensing), and Open Access (designing digital interfaces to make public records and publicly funded research accessible). They are hacking surveillance and monopoly power (creating privacy tools, alternative services, cooperative platforms, and a new decentralized internet) and electoral politics and decision making (Cinque Stelle, En Comú, Ethelo, Liquid Democracy, and PartidoX). They have engaged in stunts to expose the technical flaws in voting, communications, and security systems widely used by, or imposed on, the public (by playing chess with Germany's election voting machines, hacking the German Bildschirmtext system, and stealing ministers' biometric identifiers). They have punished shady contractors like HackingTeam, HBGary, and Stratfor, spilling their corporate dealings and personal information across the internet. They have exposed the corruption of oligarchs, politicians, and hegemons (through the Panama Papers, WikiLeaks, and Xnet).
More notoriously, they have coordinated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to retaliate against corporate and government conduct (such as the Anonymous DDoS that protested PayPal's boycott of WikiLeaks; the ingenious use of the Internet of Things to DDoS Amazon; and the shutdown of US and Canadian government IT systems). They have hacked into databases (Manning and Snowden), leaked state secrets (Manning, Snowden, and WikiLeaks), and, in doing so, betrayed their own governments (Manning betrayed US war secrets, and Snowden betrayed US security secrets). They have interfered with elections (such as the hack and leak of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the 2016 US election) and sown disinformation (the Russian hacking of US social media). They have interfered with property rights in order to assert user ownership, self-determination, and free software's four freedoms (farmers have hacked DRM code to repair their tractors, and Geohot unlocked the iPhone and hacked the Samsung phone to allow users administrator-level access to their devices) and to assert open access to publicly funded research. They have created black markets to evade state justice systems (such as Silk Road on the dark web) and cryptocurrencies that could undermine state-regulated monetary systems. They have meddled in geopolitics as free agents (Anonymous and the Arab Spring, and Julian Assange and his conduct with the Trump campaign). They have mucked around in and could potentially impair or shut down critical infrastructure. (The notorious "WANK worm" attack on NASA is an early, notorious, example, but hackers could potentially target banking systems, stock exchanges, electrical grids, telecommunications systems, air traffic control, chemical plants, nuclear plants, and even military "doomsday machines.")
It is impossible to calculate where these acts nudge us as a species. Some uses of hacking — such as the malicious, nihilistic hacking that harms critical infrastructure and threatens lives, and the hacking in cyberwarfare that injures the critical interests of other countries and undermines their democratic processes — are abhorrent and cannot be defended. The unfolding digital era looks very grim when one considers the threat this kind of hacking poses to peace and democracy combined with the dystopian direction states and corporations are going with digital tech.
But somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries, less corrupt and unfair economic systems, wiser public uses of digital tech, more self-determination for the ordinary user, fairer commercial contracts, better conditions for innovation and creativity, more decentralized and robust infrastructure systems, and an abolition of doomsday machines. In short, some hacking might move us toward a digital world in which there are more rather than fewer democratic, humanist outcomes.
It is not clear where the line between "good" and "bad" hacking should be drawn or how to regulate it wisely in every instance. Citizens should inform themselves and begin to consider this line-drawing seriously, however, since we will be grappling intensely with it for the next century or more. My personal view is that digital tech should not be used for everything. I think we should go back to simpler ways of running electrical grids and elections, for example. Systems are more resilient when they are not wholly digital and when they are smaller, more local, and modular. Consumers should have analogue options for things like fridges and cars, and design priorities for household goods should be durability and clean energy use, not interconnectedness.
In setting legal standards, prohibiting something and enforcing the prohibition are two different things. Sometimes a desired social norm can be struck by prohibiting a thing and not enforcing it strenuously. And the law can also recognize the constructive role that civil disobedience plays in the evolution of social norms, through prosecutorial discretion and judicial discretion in sentencing.
Wau Holland told the young hackers at the Paradiso that the Chaos Computer Club was "not just a bunch of techno freaks: we've been thinking about the social consequences of technology from the very beginning." Societies themselves, however, are generally just beginning to grapple with the social consequences of digital technology and with how to characterize the various acts performed by hackers, morally and legally. Each act raises a set of complex questions. Societies' responses will be part of the dialectic that determines where we end up. Should these various hacker acts be treated as incidents of public service, free speech, free association, legitimate protest, civil disobedience, and harmless pranksterism? Or should they be treated as trespass, tortious interference, intellectual property infringement, theft, fraud, conspiracy, extortion, espionage, terrorism, and treason? I invite you to think about this as you consider how hacking has been treated by societies to date.
It could lead to a massive uptake in those previously hesitant.
A financial shot in the arm could be just what is needed for Americans unsure about vaccination.
On May 12, 2021, the Republican governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, announced five US$1 million lottery prizes for those who are vaccinated. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, younger citizens are being enticed to get the shot with $100 savings bonds, and a state university in North Carolina is offering students who get vaccinated a chance to win the cost of housing. Many companies are paying vaccinated employees more money through bonuses or extra paid time off.
The push to get as many people vaccinated as possible is laudable and may well work. But leading behavioral scientists are worried that paying people to vaccinate could backfire if it makes people more skeptical of the shots. And ethicists have argued that it would be wrong, citing concerns over fairness and equity.
As a behavioral scientist and ethicist, I draw on an extensive body of research to help answer these questions. It suggests that incentives might work to save lives and, if properly structured, need not trample individual rights or be a huge expense for the government.
In the United States, incentives and disincentives are already used in health care. The U.S. system of privatized health insurance exposes patients to substantial deductibles and copays, not only to cover costs but to cut down on what could be deemed as wasteful health care – the thinking being that putting a cost to an emergency room visit, for example, might deter those who aren't really in need of that level of care.
In practice, this means patients are encouraged to decline both emergency and more routine care, since both are exposed to costs.
Paying for health behaviors
In the case of COVID-19, the vaccines are already free to consumers, which has undoubtedly encouraged people to be immunized. Studies have shown that reducing out-of-pocket costs can improve adherence to life-sustaining drugs, whether to prevent heart attacks or to manage diabetes.
A payment to take a drug goes one step further than simply reducing costs. And if properly designed, such incentives can change health behaviors.
And for vaccination in particular, payments have been successful for human papillomavirus (HPV) in England; hepatitis B in the United States and the United Kingdom; and tetanus toxoid in Nigeria. The effects can be substantial: For example, for one group in the HPV study, the vaccination rate more than doubled with an incentive.
For COVID-19, there are no field studies to date, but several survey experiments, including one my group conducted with 1,000 Americans, find that incentives are likely to work. In our case, the incentive of a tax break was enough to encourage those hesitant about vaccinations to say they would take the shot.
Even if incentives will save lives by increasing vaccinations, there are still other ethical considerations. A key concern is protecting the autonomous choices of people to decide what they put into their own bodies. This may be especially important for the COVID-19 vaccines, which – although authorized as likely safe and effective – are not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
But already people are often paid to participate in clinical trials for drugs that have not yet been approved by the FDA. Ethicists have worried that such payments may be “coercive" if the money is so attractive as to override a person's free choices or make them worse off overall.
One can quibble about whether the term “coercion" applies to offers of payment. But even if offers were coercive, payments may still be reasonable to save lives in a pandemic if they succeed in greater levels of immunization.
During the smallpox epidemic nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of states to mandate vaccines. Compared with mandating vaccination, the incentives to encourage vaccines seem innocuous.
Exploitation and paternalism
Yet some still worry. Bioethicists Emily Largent and Franklin Miller wrote in a recent paper that a payment might “unfairly" exploit “those U.S. residents who have lost jobs … or slipped into poverty during the pandemic," which could leave them feeling as if they have “no choice but to be vaccinated for cash." Others have noted that vaccine hesitancy is higher in nonwhite communities, where incomes tend to be lower, as is trust in the medical establishment.
Ethicists and policymakers should indeed focus on the poorest members of our community and seek to minimize racial disparities in both health outcomes and wealth. But there is no evidence that offering money is actually detrimental to such populations. Receiving money is a good thing. To suggest that we have to protect adults by denying them offers of money may come across as paternalism.
Some ethicists also argue that the money is better spent elsewhere to increase participation. States could spend the money making sure vaccines are convenient to everyone, for example, by bringing them to community events and churches. Money could also support various efforts to fight misinformation and communicate the importance of getting the shot.
The cost of incentives
Financial incentives could be expensive as a policy solution. As in Ohio, lottery drawings are one way to cap the overall cost of incentives while giving millions of people an additional reason to get their shot.
The tax code could also allow for a no-cost incentive for vaccination. Tax deductions and credits are often designed to encourage behaviors, such as savings or home ownership. Some states now have big budget surpluses and are considering tax relief measures. If a state announced now that such payments would be conditional on being vaccinated, then each person declining the shot would save the government money.
Ultimately, a well-designed vaccination incentive can help save lives and need not keep the ethicists up at night.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
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