"They know where I work." Battling the effects of online threats

Prof. Jaigris Hodson studiously watches a presenter at a conference. Her purple hair glints in her glasses.

Academics, at their best, are seekers of knowledge, tellers of truths.  

But the truth is, sharing such knowledge in the public sphere, beyond academic journals and conferences, can attract insults, harassment and even threats.  

Because online blowback is a fact of life for post-secondary researchers, Royal Roads University’s Jaigris Hodson and Victoria O’Meara, Chris Tenove and Heidi Tworek of UBC, and the publication The Conversation Canada, have launched Support Strategies for Mitigating the Online Harassment of Research Communicators, an extension of previous research into anti-social online behaviour.  

Funded by a $23,723 Partnership Engage Grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the project will develop workshops to advance networks of support for researchers who present their work online in outlets such as The Conversation, on social media or in the news media.  

Knowledge mobilization is critical to extending the benefits of taxpayer-funded research to the larger public, says Hodson, Canada Research Chair in Digital Communication for the Public Interest and an associate professor in RRU’s College of Interdisciplinary Studies. But online harassment “creates a lack of motivation to share the work with public,” she says, noting that tracking down cyberbullies can be near impossible. 

“The thing about being an academic is… you’re easily searchable,” she says. 

The harassment that can follow ranges from harsh language and insults to physical threats. Hodson says those vary depending on the recipient, with women more likely to receive threats of sexual violence; men to see threats against their families; and academics from racialized groups told to “go back” to their perceived home country, even if their actual home country is Canada.  

The Conversation’s CEO and editor-in-chief, Scott White says the problem isn’t unique to his publication, adding that a Toronto Metropolitan University survey echoed Hodson’s research and “showed that the people who were impacted the most by this were women, racialized scholars — the people whose voices need to be heard more and more because they often don’t have the opportunity to make their views known and to share their expertise.” 

“The point is to intimidate somebody so they stop saying the thing you disagree with. I have to take that threat seriously because I know they at least know where I work.” 

The goal of the SSHRC-funded research, then, is to hold a workshop at the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities to educate academic researchers and administrators to build support for those whose work will be in the public eye. 

“Ideally, we’d like to get buy-in from administrators showing why it’s important and having ways for them to support their staff,” Hodson says. “But at the very least, we want to provide peer networks of support because I think that will help with the burnout and the psychological distress, and that way more people will feel like they can carry on.” 

As White put it: “The optimal outcome is that we offer some practical advice that people can use to mitigate this problem. You just can’t let the trolls win.” 


Learn more about Royal Roads’ Interdisciplinary Studies program.