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On Getting Harassed Online

On February 25, Jeannie Suk Gersen published an article in The New Yorker entitled "Seeking The True Story of the Comfort Women" (later made available in Korean & Japanese here).


The piece outlined for a US-based audience why an article published in a rather unremarkable Law and Economics journal by her Harvard Law School colleague J. Mark Ramseyer was making such big news in South Korea.


With fellow historians Amy Stanley (Northwestern), Hannah Shepherd (Cambridge U), Sayaka Chatani (National University Singapore), and David Ambaras (North Carolina State University), I devoted a large chunk of my February to fact-checking said article, and we published our results, along with our demand for retraction based on those results, here. It is clear to us that, whatever other questionable claims the article may make, it simply cannot stand as a piece of scholarship based on its lack and misuse of source.


Other notable responses by Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Alexis Dudden, Andrew Gordon & Carter Eckert were also published alongside. At the time of writing this, the open letter by "concerned economists" regarding the article, organized by Michael Chwe, also has over 3,000 signatories.


At this moment, the journal itself has not made a clear decision, and is waiting on Ramseyer's response. It has invited scholars to publish their critiques in the journal, but we decided against this. As did Jinah Kim, who wrote here about why she prefers to engage with the Ramseyer controversy on her "own terms."


While engaged in academic discussions about use (and misuse) of sources, those of us on social media soon found ourselves embroiled in other, less productive... discussions. Although we knew that criticizing the underlying scholarship of an article that was being embraced by the ultra-nationalist right in Japan put as at risk of getting online harassment, I still was not prepared for the sheer amount of time and energy it took when a journalist with 106,000 followers and a history of online libel cases also came after a colleague and then me.


Here is what I can say I learned about dealing with Twitter harassment, again, from my very idiosyncratic and limited perspective:


1) Block & lock to protect your time


At first I felt like the Twitter trolls coming after me were simply showing how ad hoc and irrational their "arguments" were, and perhaps there was value in that. But ultimately, and based on advice from people who have faced this before, blocking is *not* cowardice, it's about protecting your time. You can also get extensions to block chain the followers of the most inflammatory accounts, pre-empting harassment.


2) Screenshot before you block!


It's a good idea to document any harassment you might get, whether at a workplace or online. So taking some screenshots of harassing tweets can help you narrate your experience later. I found that writing up a narrative of the harassment I got helped me work through what had happened, and felt almost therapeutic.


3) Lock until it blows over


It also is not cowardice to lock your account for a bit. The attention span of these harassers was relatively short, so I also locked my account for a bit, and once I unlocked I found that they had moved on. This was read as some kind of "victory" by those who saw themselves as defendants of Ramseyer's "freedom of speech." But the reality is that in cases of knee-jerk dog-piles, no one is engaging in actual debate, and a consensus on history is also not established through tweets. So it's really really okay to lock your account, and step away (see #5 below).





4) Contact those who support you


I wrote some messages to colleagues and my dean, just to let them know what was going on. Their supportive responses meant a lot to me.


5) It's okay to step away from the internet


Until these events, I had really (naively) experienced Twitter as a rather friendly place, or at least a stimulating place. This began to even feel like an important place to me in socially distance COVID times. But my experience with Twitter harassment also reinforced the fact that Twitter is only one forum for discussion, and taking a break from the 24-hour cycle of information helped me reset my priorities.

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