By: Michelle Amazeen
Speaking Out: Then They Came for the Academics…
During my spring 2023 research sabbatical, I have continued my studies of disinformation. While having the time, resources, and support to focus exclusively on research is an increasingly rare privilege in academia, as I prepared to return as COM’s Director of the Communication Research Center, I have been reflecting on some of the challenges academic researchers face, especially those that study disinformation.
In 1943, the U.S. Department of War (today known as the Defense Department) released a short film called “Don’t Be a Sucker.” With anti-racist and anti-fascist themes, the film was intended to educate the public about prejudice and discrimination. At 14:56 into the clip (available here from the U.S. National Archives), the narrator – a Hungarian immigrant – remembers how the German Nazis came for academics and others who spoke for truth, exposing, among other things, the scientific fallacy of a “master” human race. These academics, writers, and scientists were exiled from Germany, jailed, or even put in concentration camps.
Eighty years on, the New York Times posted an article indicating that academics are once again under attack by their government. This time, it’s disinformation researchers who are being targeted by government legislators, not in some far away country, but right here in the United States. The goal is to undermine research into false claims about elections, vaccines, and other topics. The similarities to the historic descent into fascism are chilling.
Unfortunately, government suppression of academic inquiry is not new in the U.S. Among its wide-ranging investigations, in 1959, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed 40 public elementary and high school teachers in San Francisco accusing them of being Communists. Despite having little prosecutorial powers, the stigma of being called before the HUAC ended the careers of many including some of these educators.
Even with tenure – a mechanism that is supposed to protect academics from losing their position because of their speech, publications, or research findings – there are many examples of legislative and political interference with academic freedom.
PEN America – a non-profit defending freedom of expression – has noted a growing trend in legislative actions around the country attempting to influence what can be taught in public schools, colleges, universities, and libraries.
In Florida, for example, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill requiring review of professors’ tenure every five years and is also proposing that trustees should be able to call for a tenure review at any time.
There is a long history of communication scholars, in particular, who have been targeted for their attempts to study media and communication systems. Some of them have been denied tenure at their institutions, others have been harassed, and some even received death threats.
One recent case includes Nicole Hannah-Jones being denied tenure in 2021 by the trustees (most of whom were elected or appointed by the state legislature) of the University of North Carolina over concerns about how her research depicted the historical record on slavery in the U.S. Another local example is that of Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor emeritus who researches linguistics but has also extensively criticized the U.S. media system – most notably in his book Manufacturing Consent – and is a political activist. Over the years, he has endured being harassed by the Nixon administration as well as “death threats, bomb threats, [and] hysterical accusations” by others.
At its best, communication research aids legislators in policy making. “Through all periods of research on the uses and effects of media,” note scholars Byron Reeves and James L. Baughman, “scholars actively studied questions that concerned the public, the communications industries, or government regulators and legislators, and the researchers expected that their efforts could in some form result in social change.”
Yet, when ideological differences exist in just what social change is warranted, conflict arises.
History tells us what happens when those who are clinging to power do not wish to sincerely debate the empirical evidence on what is best for the public:
- They take control of the media, outlawing any news or programming not controlled by the government as when Adolf Hitler took power in 1933 or when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.
- Books are banned or burned, as occurred during the Nazi regime, to “purify” literature. Disconcertingly, in the 2022-2023 academic school year, book bans in U.S. public schools are up by 28%.
- They manufacture evidence and block others from examining it.
Rather than harassing the academics who try to examine our media systems for the nature and effects of disinformation, legislators should be facilitating that research and utilizing it to develop evidence-based policy.
With the turn of the calendar to the 2023-2024 academic year, I look forward continuing my research on disinformation, supporting others with their own research efforts, and engaging with those interested in developing evidence-based communication policies.