Tom Flanagan was mobbed online. His experience provides several sorts of lessons.
Tom Flanagan, a Canadian political scientist, worked for 45 years at the University of Calgary. He became a prominent public figure, appearing on television and writing columns for newspapers and magazines. He also had experience in the political system, having served as campaign manager for several politicians seeking office.
Along the way, Flanagan made some enemies. Much of his research related to First Nations and their claims over land, and he took a position contrary to activists in the area. Flanagan’s political leanings might be characterised as conservative: he had managed campaigns for conservative politicians.
On 27 February 2013, Flanagan gave a talk at the University of Lethbridge. Unknown to him, some First Nation activists attended and planned to use the talk to discredit him. They secretly recorded his talk and asked him a question about an extraneous topic, about which he had once made a passing comment: child pornography.
In the several hours it took Flanagan to drive home the next morning, a social media storm blew up, leaving his reputation in tatters. An extract of his talk, out of context, had been posted on YouTube with the misleading tagline “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography.” Before long, he was widely denounced, including by Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, for whom Flanagan had once been campaign manager, by the premier of Alberta, and by numerous mainstream media outlets, with front-page stories.
Flanagan soon lost many of the connections he had built up over the years. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation cancelled his contract and his own university put out a weak-kneed media release.
Several things about this storm of protest especially annoyed Flanagan. First, he had only made passing comments about child pornography; it wasn’t a topic he had carefully investigated. Second, he had been speaking to an academic audience, in his teacher role in which he tried to stimulate thinking about the topic, but his enemies had treated it as a political opportunity to catch him out and discredit him.
Third, his views on child pornography had been seriously misrepresented. He opposed child pornography, and had only said that penalties for merely viewing it (in Canada, a minimum of several months in prison) might be too stiff. Fourth, those who denounced him and his views had not waited to hear Flanagan’s perspective before rushing to make public comment.
Vulnerability to online mobbing
Mobbing is collective bullying. It’s when a group of people combine to attack a target by abuse, undermining, sidelining, defaming and otherwise causing harm to a person’s morale and reputation. Most commonly, mobbing occurs in workplaces, when a group of workers — usually including the boss, though not always — use verbal and physical methods against a fellow worker. Flanagan experienced a different sort of mobbing. His attackers were online, whereas his colleagues were largely supportive of him.
Flanagan in his book Persona Non Grata (discussed below) says several factors were involved in the online mobbing he experienced. One is that the news cycle has sped up enormously. Before the Internet, it would take a day or two for a story to be taken up widely. Now it can occur in minutes. In the face of a crowd baying for blood, politicians and public bodies did not want to wait a day for claims to be checked out. Instead, they made statements immediately to reduce the potential harm to themselves of being seen as sympathetic to Flanagan’s alleged views.
Another factor is that Flanagan had enemies who were unscrupulous. They set him up with a leading question, made a recording without telling him, produced a clip omitting context, posted it on YouTube with a misleading label and started raising the alert about it. Most people never acquire enemies like this. Flanagan, by being a public commentator who was willing to challenge orthodox views in some areas, was vulnerable.
A third factor in Flanagan’s case was moral panic, which is widespread alarm about an issue out of all proportion to its actual harm. In his book, Flanagan traces the evolution of moral panics over child sexual abuse, including claims about Satanic rituals at US preschools and claims based on recovered memories, in which innocent workers and parents were charged with crimes and some of them imprisoned despite lack of any material evidence. Child pornography, he says, is the latest version of this genre of moral panic. By making comments questioning the severe penalties for viewing child pornography, Flanagan entered territory in which the merest association with a topic can create a stigma.
Finally, Flanagan says online mobbing occurs because so few people check out the facts before passing judgement. Hundreds of people who didn’t know Flanagan personally were willing to condemn him without hearing his side of the story. Even worse, some individuals who knew him well, sometimes for many years, condemned him without hearing his side first. The rush to judgement overwhelmed their critical capacity: they assumed he was guilty as charged and apparently were afraid of being seen to support him, so they joined the attack.
Flanagan says that if he had been expecting an attack and had been closely monitoring social media, he might have been able to organise resistance at the very beginning and prevent the worst consequences. However, his attackers had operated surreptitiously. While driving home, listening to music, he received initial word of the media storm, but was not well placed to mount a concerted response. Anyway, why should someone like him — an academic who had just given a guest lecture at another university — have to be constantly monitoring social media just in case of adverse comments?
When he got home, he discovered the scale and seriousness of the attack and started responding. Luckily, he still had friends and supporters, and he was able to write explanatory articles in several influential publications. Furthermore, his colleagues at the University of Calgary were largely supportive. Flanagan, having been a campaign manager for several political candidates, knew quite a lot about media dynamics and management, far more than some others who have been targets of virtual mobbing. Even so, he felt overwhelmed, noting that a rushed response, while under siege and before he obtained full information, might make things even worse.
One of Flanagan’s sympathisers arranged an opportunity to write a book, and that is what he did. Before the end of the year, he finished writing Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014). Flanagan had written many previous books, so he was quite capable of such a rapid yet considered response.
Persona Non Grata
Flanagan’s book is a powerful account of his experiences and an indictment of his attackers. One thing that makes the book powerful is his clear, engaging narrative. His treatment is careful and measured, with some degree of outrage to be sure, but more along the lines of being a concerned investigation into a problem about which he has first-hand experience.
By being clear, informative, calm and readable, Persona Non Grata will reach audiences who had never heard about Flanagan before and who would be unsympathetic to his political views. I wrote an article, “When you’re criticised,” on how to respond to attacks, recommending writing a response that is clear, calm and factual, and that is what Flanagan has done in his book.
One of the features of Persona Non Grata is a chapter on penalties for possessing child pornography. As he describes, he had never had more than a passing interest in this topic, but because a false representation of his views was the pretext for mobbing him, he started investigating further. He addresses various arguments and, while expressing his abhorrence at the production of child pornography, and his personal distaste for it, he affirms his previous tentative view that mandatory jail sentences for only possessing or viewing child pornography may be excessive. This is his careful, considered riposte to those who mobbed him.
In the urgency of the initial online mobbing, the University of Calgary, Flanagan’s long-time employer, issued a statement that was pathetically weak. Flanagan was especially disappointed that an academic institution would put out such a statement without waiting a few extra hours to consult with him. So in Persona Non Grata, Flanagan devotes a chapter to academic freedom.
He gives one of the most cogent accounts of the arguments for academic freedom in the classroom that I have read. Most studies of academic freedom focus on research, inquiry and public comment. Flanagan, in giving attention to teaching, spells out the justification for academics being given the opportunity to teach what they want in the way they want, as well as to speak out on issues of public importance. He is well aware that academics are inhibited and constrained in various ways, and gives good reasons to continue claiming academic freedom as an important contribution to students and society.
Professors have to have room to discover what works well for them, in their discipline, with their personality, with their particular bundle of strengths and weaknesses. Typical undergraduate students at a large university will be exposed to perhaps three dozen instructors in the course of getting a bachelor’s degree. Out of those three dozen, they will probably find a small handful that seemed especially memorable and another handful that seemed like a complete waste of time or worse. But the variety gives all students a chance to find at least a few inspirational professors whose memory can be cherished for a lifetime. If that doesn’t happen, the student has been cheated. (pp. 162–163)
Flanagan tells about some of the students in his classes over the years, and what careers they have entered, many of them taking different political trajectories than Flanagan himself.
Quite a number of individuals have been caught in a whirlwind of online abuse and condemnation, which harms their reputations and careers far out of proportion to their alleged misdemeanours, as astutely described by one of the leading researchers into academic mobbing, Canadian sociologist Kenneth Westhues. Tom Flanagan has produced the most insightful and readable account available of what it is like to be a target of an online mob. In Persona Non Grata he has shown how to rise above the abuse and respond in a calm, reflective fashion that is the exact opposite of the way he was treated.
Thanks to Zoë Barker and Ian Miles for helpful feedback on drafts.