This much is clear: On Twitter, nobody hears your sarcasm.
George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor in Drexel University’s politics department, learned that lesson the hard way over the weekend, when he tapped out a series of racially charged, satirical tweets that he says were intended to mock white supremacists.
Not everyone got the joke: The tweets were taken at face value by several partisan, right-wing websites, including Breitbart and the Daily Caller, which posted articles attacking Ciccariello-Maher for being anti-white.
As the rhetoric on social media escalated, Drexel issued a statement calling the professor’s tweets “utterly reprehensible.”
But just as quickly, a backlash against the backlash began, as academics from around the country criticized Drexel for overreacting and taking the tweets out of context. By midday, a Change.org petition was demanding that Drexel condemn the “troll-storm” and respect Ciccariello-Maher’s academic freedom.
The episode is the latest example of how seemingly inconsequential events and statements can get amplified and distorted by hyper-partisan online journalism that is based on little or no actual reporting. It is a game of whisper-down-the-lane, where one report is used as the foundation for the next.
Ciccariello-Maher, who has 10,000 Twitter followers, set off the furor late on Christmas Eve when he wrote, “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide,” a provocative play on the classic holiday chestnut.
To those unfamiliar with the language of academic discussions on race and inequality, the statement was surely shocking. But to Ciccariello-Maher, who is white – and who has written extensively on racism, policing, social inequality, and colonialism – the phrase “white genocide” is a shorthand critique of those who support oppressive policies that can harm minority groups, like blacks and immigrants.
Ciccariello-Maher did not respond to a request for an interview, but said in an email that the tweet was intended as a riposte to members of the alt-right who complain that white Americans are the real victims of discrimination. “White genocide,” he wrote, “is a figment of the racist imagination. It should be mocked, and I’m glad to have mocked it.”
Writers at Breitbart and the Daily Caller nevertheless took his statement literally. Citing previous tweets by Ciccariello-Maher, a Daily Caller article claimed the Drexel professor “has a history of hating white people.” Breitbart took issue with his “slams of President Donald Trump, attacks on Jews, as well as pro-Black Lives Matter and pro-communist sloganeering.” Because Ciccariello-Maher’s Twitter and Facebook feeds were no longer accessible Monday, there was no way to independently assess the claims.
In the old days, journalists might have tracked Ciccariello-Maher down to question him before reporting on his tweets. Instead, the discussion played out with no verifications in a Twitter duel in which the statements grew ever more fevered.
On Sunday, Ciccariello-Maher egged on his critics by tweeting: “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a good thing indeed.” More provocations followed, as did more website posts and more social media comments.
The response was intense and viral. In his statement, Ciccariello-Maher claimed that “a coordinated smear campaign was orchestrated to send mass tweets and emails to myself, my employer, and my colleagues. I have received hundreds of death threats.”
That could not be confirmed either.
The ruckus over Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet isn’t so different from the one that occurred last week after online reports falsely accused a Jewish family of forcing a Lancaster County school district to cancel an elementary school production of A Christmas Carol. The story fit a right-wing narrative that liberal elites are mounting a war on Christmas.
As the fake news pinged around the web, yet another false story – this one playing into liberal fears of rising anti-Semitism – falsely claimed that the family had decided to flee their home to avoid reprisals.
The conspiracy theories were punctured after the Anti-Defamation League contacted the family to get the facts. The district actually had canceled the play because of the expense. The family had not fled, but rather left town early for a planned vacation. The real story was that there was no story.
In the case of Ciccariello-Maher, Drexel officials also weighed in before all the details were known. In a statement aimed at dissociating itself from the professor, the university said that, “While the University recognizes the right of its faculty to freely express their thoughts and opinions in public debate, Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s comments are utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing, and do not in any way reflect the values of the University.”
Drexel officials did not respond to requests for comment beyond the official statement.
In emails, several of Ciccariello-Maher’s Drexel colleaguesdescribed him as an expert on Venezuela, and a respected scholar. He’s “well respected in his field and he is a valued colleague at Drexel,” wrote Mary Ebeling, a sociology professor. Many non-scholars familiar with his work also came to his defense on Facebook.
Drexel’s statement, made in the heat of the online fray, deeply disturbed Drexel faculty member Marilyn Gaye Piety, who teaches English and philosophy. “No university should be in business of policing speech,” she argued. “You’ve got to be tolerant of ways of people expressing themselves.”
She expects this latest social media war to blow over.
At least until the next one.