This is the fourth installment of Attack on Academia, a series of interviews with academics who have endured sustained campaigns of threats and harassment from the alt-right. The first installment, an interview with Heidi Czerwiec, can be found here. The second piece in the series, an interview with Dana Cloud, can be found here. The third, an interview with Lisa Durden, can be found here.
Dr. Melissa Zimdars is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media at Merrimack College. She teaches about various forms of media, including radio, print journalism, television and digital media, as well as topics exploring feminism and weight, and teaches students about criticism and evaluation of media sources. In November 2016, facing Donald Trump’s impending election, Zimdars created a document to help her students practice analyzing the credibility of various websites claiming to share news. As the buzzword “fake news” had taken off during the election season, so did the document, rapidly becoming viral and gaining notoriety of its own as a controversial litmus test for a broad range of sources, from the intentionally satirical to the covertly misleading. While the list, carefully categorized and complete with a handy guide to DIY source analysis, has been enlightening to many, the backlash Zimdars received, a flood of gruesome and misogynistic insults and threats, shows the dark side of right-wing media influence.
Weave News: Historical and political context should be considered when we talk about your story and your list, which was circulated pretty rapidly after it was written. What motivated or inspired you to create this resource?
Melissa Zimdars: It was created specifically for my students at first. I didn’t intend for it to be public. I made it public for Facebook when some friends asked to share it, either to add to it with their friends or because it was useful as a teaching tool. Then it took off, as you said, rapidly. It had almost 300,000 shares the last time I checked. I made it for a couple reasons. Of course, we started seeing and hearing the notion of “fake news” in public discourse more regularly than it had in the past. I had been frustrated with some of what I had been seeing my friends share on Facebook, including friends who are journalists and even professors. I myself was duped by a fake news article on Facebook about football back in the summer. Knowing all of this confusion, plus being increasingly dismayed by the kinds of sources my students were citing, and the fact that they seemed to be becoming increasingly vocal on social media and basically not trusting any news at all, I created a document with different ways to assess sources. So the original document wasn’t just fake news, it was actually just a few fake news websites and ones that are clickbait-oriented or biased. The idea was that [my students] would assess the sources and determine their credibility. But when it started taking off, the mainstream news’ narrative was that it was a “fake news list.”
WN: Tell me more about what you teach, and this particular class.
MZ: I teach media studies, and this was a large lecture called Intro to Mass Communication. It covers film, television, video games, everything to journalism, culture, and ethics. We were in the middle of a month long session on issues in contemporary journalism. It fit directly into our course content.
WN: So despite just doing your job and trying to help students learn, you were targeted viciously. Was this the first time you’ve been put in the public eye and harassed like this for your work?
MZ: This is the first time it’s happened on this scale. I was involved in my graduate student union and was the chief campus steward and negotiated contracts campuswide for all the graduate students. So as part of that I had to be somewhat publicly active. I got some statewide coverage in Iowa and wrote a blurb for The Nation, but I didn’t spiral into national attention or pushback. It was sort of a little taste of the attention I got for this. It’s not entirely the first time, but that was just a tiny microsample of this. This is the first time that anything I’ve done has had nationwide appeal, and resulted in both really good things and really annoying or not-so-good things.
WN: There was a lot of intensity in the pushback, as you called it. What kind of support did you receive? Was there any kind of balance to the negative?
MZ: If you’d like to see a sampling of the messages I received, not counting over a thousand that I haven’t even looked at that are still sitting in a folder in my inbox, I actually started a Tumblr where I anonymously post the stuff that I get. But I did have support from my friends, and a couple of my advisors from Iowa offered to fly across the country and stay with me. So my academic support system was fantastic; colleagues, present and former. The institution I work for, they were supportive behind the scenes. They didn’t release any public statements but took kind of a hands-off approach, which I actually think was smart, in a way. I don’t think that’s smart in every situation, but in this case, when I talked to the council and communications they helped me manage it and made me feel more safe. They took dozens and dozens of phone calls saying I should be fired and was bad for my students and colleagues, and they reassured me that they were supportive, but their PR style in general is more conservative. They just don’t get involved in anything. Overall, I did feel like a lot of people had my back in this situation.
WN: Your list includes sources that are on both sides of the political spectrum. Are the attacks on you mostly coming from one side?
MZ: That’s how crazy the situation is. I purposefully made the document politically balanced because I have a lot of students who are conservative. It didn’t have anything to do with political leanings, it had to do with the integrity of information. I did have a couple sources on the left who wrote very terrible and inaccurate things about me. Free Thought Project is one, which I have seen increasingly spiral down to a piece of shit publication, and one or two others whose followers don’t take any criticism of their sphere lightly. But most of it was from the right, like Breitbart. Washington Free Beacon was pretty bad, they wrote more than one thing about me. 100percentFedUp.com targeted me, and a few others. For a couple of them, a “journalist” would contact me. I had a little uptick about six months after it was published because the university library shared it, and so I was getting harassment again. A couple people writing for right-wing publications asked to talk to me, and I thought, “OK, maybe if I talk to them, they won’t inaccurately frame what I was doing as a blacklist or conservative smear campaign,” because it wasn’t, but even after I talked to them it was the same narrative. One person even wrote to me and said “I’m sorry, there were a few errors. My editor didn’t like the way this was going and may have mischaracterized you.” I was like “You see that this is why your publication is a problem, right? You knowingly are publishing inaccurate information.” It blows my mind that a document that was basically a media literacy document became completely unintelligible to large sections of people. Part of that is because of how credible news organizations erroneously reported on things initially, and then that spiraled intensely in the conservative media sphere.
WN: Has the backlash had a drastic effect on your life? Did you need to go out of your way to take extra measures for your safety?
MZ: Campus police did maintain a presence outside of my door. One day in particular, because I was getting calls and emails asking for my office location after I basically scraped my phone number and office location from the public website because I didn’t feel safe. So when people were asking for that, campus police said they were going to make sure that no one showed up. IT was also monitoring information on who was accessing my website and tracking the access data. And personally, I went several days without leaving my house with my windows closed. I didn’t feel very good moving about the world especially after anonymous people were sending me links to message boards where people were circulating my personal information and my phone number and where I lived. Seeing that online is definitely scary. It took me a couple weeks to believe… I don’t know. Even weeks later, I was driving down the highway and someone was tailgating me, and I briefly thought it was someone who was mad about fake news, even though I knew that was ridiculous because I live in Boston where everybody tailgates everybody. So for a while, I felt really paranoid about moving around in the world because of so many people telling me that they wanted me to die, or be raped, or whatever.
WN: The hateful messages you received seem very personal. Do you think it was all individual people angry for their own reasons, or that perhaps some of the sources on your list encouraged their reader bases to malign or threaten you?
MZ: I honestly don’t know. The sources sometimes said at the bottom of articles things like “You should let Zimdars know how you feel” along with my email or office phone number. Sometimes it was very coordinated, or at least very encouraged by certain publications. One thing I learned about was improving my internet privacy. I started using a VPN, I made sure all of my internet accounts had two-step verification, changed all of my passwords, did all of those things. A thing that happened to me was getting signed up for things that I didn’t ask for. Someone took out an anonymous sex ad using my email, and people started making accounts and putting my email on lists for various sex websites. Apparently, I was applying to test drive boards all across the country and inquiring about plastic surgery to “fix my ugly face,” among other things. Some of those things were more amusing than frightening, but still made me guard my information even more.
WN: Do you think that the fact that you aren’t a man played into the way you have been treated?
MZ: I definitely think so. Almost every comment I got was seriously sexist. Also, I’m not Jewish, but a lot of it was really anti-Semitic too, but I will talk about that in a minute. It was all about “Who does she think she is?” I’m sure if I was a man, I would have gotten pushback as well, but I feel that it wouldn’t have immediately become about the way I look. It probably wouldn’t have been hundreds of emails about people wanting to sexually assault me. And I do think that there’s an issue of credibility. “Who is this young woman? She’s only had her PhD [at the time] for 15 months!” I would get comments from people who claimed to have read my dissertation and said that I’m a fake professor and an idiot. So much of it was wrapped up in gendered assumptions and words. I’m a “cunt,” a “lesbian,” a “dyke,” no man will ever want to have sex with me, and so on.
WN: You mentioned anti-Semitism in some of the backlash. A recurring theme in this series is how the far right media has been closely connected with the actual “alt-right,” including Neo-Nazis, such as in the attack on Dana Cloud. How much of that has been apparent in what you’ve seen?
MZ: There’s a type of hate and conspiracy circles that believe that “the media” is a mass Jewish conspiracy. I would get mail that said I was a “stupid idiot for the Jew World Order” and things that insinuated I was Jewish because I was involved in criticizing the media. They would say that my family and I should have been in an oven. It was from this conspiratorial mindset. Honestly, I don’t know how I would fully categorize all the people contacting me, but I did my best to avoid looking in my Google Alerts at stuff from people who were on websites like Daily Stormer. In the beginning, I was monitoring what people were saying, but after a while, I had to stop. I don’t even know if there’s been anything since then from people like them, although I am sure there are overlapping audiences. But what was sent to me has often been similar to the discourse you would see on those websites.
WN: What has helped you to deal with the outpouring of hate and threats?
MZ: I don’t know if I have been doing a good job of it. To be totally frank, I gained like 15 pounds over the last seven months that I think was very much connected to stress relating to the situation. I think I’ve been struggling with some depression and anxiety related habits, like sleeping poorly and not exercising and eating things that aren’t very healthy. In terms of strategy, acutely, I found out pretty quickly that if I didn’t look at the messages I felt better. Anytime I got something from a name I didn’t recognize, I should have deleted it, but I wanted to keep a record just in case because I was contacted by some national organizations about this issue. So I decided to collect the evidence, but part of my strategy was not opening it, and turning off the Google Alert for my name. Basically, it all had to do with just unplugging and ignoring. I found I could better serve my community by just pretending it wasn’t happening, and just focusing on some of the good that was coming out of the attention, instead of the bad. The virality of the document has been, in some ways, beneficial. In the end, the biggest thing I have taken out of this whole experience has been even checking my own reactions when I read things about other professors and public figures, because I think I got swept up in this reactionary and twisted narrative about myself, and it made me do some soul searching on my own reactions to reading about other people. I think that’s something we all could use a check on.