Guidance to Support Faculty and Staff Targeted by Online Attacks
Michigan State University encompasses a diverse community of scholars. The nature of scholarship is often collaborative, sometimes controversial, and occasionally public. Social media and faculty online presence (e.g. personal blogs, websites, etc.) further tends to elevate the visibility of scholars and their work. As employees of a high-profile public institution subject to public disclosure laws, MSU employees might also expect to be subject to a higher level of public scrutiny and comment than others.
More and more faculty, staff, and students are targeted by online attacks in social media and email. Often the targets are women and minoritized faculty, staff, and students. Such attacks are highly traumatic to experience, lead to fears for personal safety, and can damage a career. Those who experience this type of abuse should not be ignored or have their experiences downplayed by colleagues, supervisors, or friends. With their consent, action needs to be taken to support the faculty or staff member or student. Although many incidents share commonalities, each situation is unique and needs to be respected as such.
Michigan State University is committed to defending the core value of academic freedom and ensuring the personal safety of everyone in our university community. When MSU scholars experience threats or harassment through social media and other channels, a variety of resources can be accessed depending on the nature of the attack. Here is a list of resources that can help to provide support to both the faculty, staff, and students involved as well as the colleagues and administrators assisting them.
Some forms of attack:
- “Trolling”: Engaging in a deliberately offensive or provocative e-mail, post, or comment in order to get a reaction from someone.
- “Zoom bombing”: Disrupting or otherwise making an unwanted, disruptive intrusion during a video conference call.
- “Doxing”: Intentionally revealing personal identifying information about someone online without their knowledge or consent.
Strategies for faculty or staff targeted by online attacks
Proactive Measures in the Classroom
- Establish Expectations for Collaboration both in the syllabus and during the first class meeting(s).
- A trolling attack may involve a student, and might include recordings taken in your classroom.
- Be aware that anything you say can be quickly broadcast or commented upon using social media.
- If you believe the incident will disrupt your classes, speak with your chair or director (unit leader) about alternative instruction arrangements.
If a Social Media Attack or Threat has Taken Place
- Call 9-1-1 or the police right away if you or anyone else feels in danger or otherwise threatened.
- Contact your department chair, supervisor, director, dean to report the incident and for further support and resources. Together, you can develop a course of action and prepare unit-level responses if necessary.
- Contact your College Marketing and Communications office. They should be included in the conversation to serve as an additional resource.
- Contact the MSU Police Department at 517-355-2221 and file a report. The MSUPD can consult on threat assessment and cybercrime, investigate threats and involve other law enforcement agencies: https://police.msu.edu/
- Keep the messages, e-mails, take screen shots, or otherwise document the attacks, so that they can be used in an investigation as necessary. If you do not want to read them, reach out to a trusted individual, IT, or the police to help you with documentation and sorting.
- Don’t engage, talk back to the harassment, or otherwise “feed the trolls” as this will only escalate rather than deescalate. They write to shock, hurt, and provoke and are not reasonable, so do not try to reason with them. Suspend any social media activity for the time being.
- If you are contacted by the media, it is not necessary to respond. Reach out to your College Marketing and Communications office as well as University Communications for advice and strategies.
- Block the attacks in the social media comments feature, e-mail address, or other location.
- Google yourself to see where personal information is appearing on the Web.
- Contact MSU IT and your College Marketing and Communications Office for help and management strategies. You can request that your contact information and websites be temporarily removed from any university websites. Turn off notifications for Twitter, etc. Consider blocking any social networking sites you are on and reporting the messages to the platforms. Doing this can limit the amount of calls, emails and social media outreach you might receive.
- If the attacks are coming from within the classroom from someone who is recording you, you have the right to prohibit any video or audiotaping of your class as long as it is not for disability access reasons.
- Consider that the attacks might or might not impact your students or disrupt your classes in some way. If this might be the case, consult with your department chair to talk through strategies and potential solutions.
- Gordon Whitson writes: “Don’t let the haters affect you;…..Just remember that if you’re getting trolled more often, it’s probably because they see you in a position of power, which means you’re doing something right.” (“How to Stop Caring”, 2014).
- Additional avenues of support include the relevant Faculty Excellence Officer, Dean, Assistant or Associate Dean, University Ombudsperson, Faculty Grievance and Conflict Resolution Officer, the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of Faculty and Academic Staff Affairs, or reach out to a trusted friend or colleague who could help to facilitate these conversations or some of the above steps for and with you.
If Contacted for Comment or Interview by Outside News Organization
- Before making any response, promptly notify your department chair or unit director, who in turn should inform your college and its communications manager, and UComms as needed. Your College Communications and Marketing Director and University Communications should also be notified, and can help evaluate requests and offer media training.
- Be aware that emails and other communications and records from MSU employees are subject to public disclosure under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. Carefully evaluate any request to disclose or share information, and contact the MSU Freedom of Information Office if you receive any such request.
The above suggestions were taken from the following sources:
- Gordon, Whitson. “How to Stop Caring About Trolls and Get On With Your Life” Lifehacker.com May 16, 2014.
- Eric Anthony Grollman. “Scholars Under Attack.” Inside Higher Ed. July 9, 2015.
Ways for Administrators, Faculty, and Staff to Support Colleagues Targeted by Social Media
Supervisors should provide a quick response to any report of social media attacks on faculty, staff, or students.
- Call 9-1-1 or the police right away if the faculty or staff member, or student feels personally in danger or otherwise threatened.
- Send the faculty or staff member to this support website.
- Alert unit staff as they may receive harassing phone calls. Provide talking points such as:
“Thank you for reaching out to us on this matter. Calls on this topic are being handled by xxx (the College Marketing Director in the Marketing Office). May I connect you with this office?”
- Contact your College Marketing and Communications Office and University Communications. You may receive calls or inquiries from media for public comment on the situation. If that is the case, both offices can help you with addressing these questions and a plan of action for future media requests going forward.
- The attacks may impact classroom dynamics. Students may have questions or feel threatened. Discuss with the faculty member classroom management strategies, whether a classroom should be moved, or if a temporary instructor should be found. Advisors should be made aware of any student impact.
- Department faculty and staff might also feel threatened or otherwise want to demonstrate support. Connect them with resources as appropriate and provide them with positive ways to speak out in favor of the person threatened or talk through the impact with them. Encourage them not to “feed the trolls” themselves.
- Consider that faculty collaborators might also be impacted as well as professional organizations. If this is the case consider reaching out to the relevant organizations.
- Continue to check in with the faculty or staff member in the months after the attack and alert mentors to help with anxiety and other management strategies going forward. Understandably, such attacks can impact productivity, affect annual reviews, and progress to promotion and tenure. They may impact the scholar’s reputation as well so take this into account when soliciting any external letters.
- Finally, if someone is trolled or otherwise attacked in a meeting that you are running or on a website that you oversee, make sure to take the comments down immediately, take steps to avoid repeat attacks, and reach out to support the person who was targeted. Make sure to report the incident(s) to the MSU Police. If you are taking part in a meeting and witness similar attacks, contact the meeting organizers or moderator and report as above.
Additional Resources for Consultation
- For immediate response if there is a concern of physical or personal safety, call 911.
- For all other calls, contact: Behavioral Threat Assessment Team (BTAT)
The Michigan State University’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Team (BTAT) exists to facilitate a multidisciplinary, coordinated response to reports of students, employees, or other individuals on campus who have engaged in behavior indicating a possible threat of harm to self or other members of the campus community.
MSU Department of Police and Public Safety
- Community Support Bureau
Deputy Chief Andrea Munford
- Inclusion and Anti-Bias Unit
Captain Florene McGlothian-Taylor
Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
The EAP provides access to specialized counseling including racial trauma for MSU employees.
MSU Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS)
CAPS provides access to specialized counseling including racial trauma counseling for MSU students.
MSU Center for Survivors
For survivors of sexual assault who may be (re)triggered by online social media attacks.
Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion (IDI)
Jabbar Bennett, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer
Deborah Johnson, Diversity Research Network
Office of Institutional Equity (OIE)
Report any attacks under the mandatory reporter policy that violate MSU’s Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct and Title IX Policy (RVSM Policy).
Office for Civil Rights and Title IX Compliance and Education (OCR)
Report attacks that violate MSU’s Anti-Discrimination Policy (ADP)
Office of Informational Technology
IT can help with a variety of strategies to manage the attacks.
Proactive and Responsive Communications Strategies
Henry Mochida, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Communications Manager
MSU University Communications and Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives
If the attacks involve a current MSU student, this office offers a number of resources that can support faculty, staff and students involved:
- Can do mediation
- Talk with faculty about what they can do
- Social justice process restorative justice approach
- Can work with those involved to show how they are causing harm, how their actions affect people, and provide a learning opportunity
- Can bring in anti-bias classroom training
The Office of General Counsel does not represent or provide legal advice to employees (e.g., administrators, faculty, staff, etc.) in connection with individual or personal matters. However, they can provide a list of attorneys in the area as needed.