Trolls or no trolls, society needs academic expertise more than ever

Some topics are lightning rods for disagreement, but there are ways to insulate yourself against online vitriol, say Kristine Maloney and Teresa Valerio Parrot

四月 1, 2022
A "beware of trolls" sign
Source: iStock

When the pandemic began, our communication agency team could barely keep up with the volume of academics eager to share their expertise in opinion pieces and media interviews. Conveying accurate information and context directly to the public had never felt more important.

However, as the pandemic continued, and the 2020 election drew closer in the US, we noticed a marked shift. Scholars who had previously been very willing to contribute started pulling out of opportunities and deliberately stepping out of public view. The reasons weren’t surprising: the politics around handling Covid had become poisonous, and cancel culture, threats and social media trolling had crept into the national discourse. The landscape for sharing expertise had changed, and staying out of the public sphere seemed like the straightforward and safe choice.

However, we believe that the very reasons some people are hesitant to share their expertise should be the motivation to push ahead – with guardrails in place. Consider the role of a free and fair press in a democracy. One of the media’s primary functions is to provide unbiased information to citizens so that they can fully participate in society. The other is to serve as a check on power. The two are especially important at this moment, as misinformation becomes increasingly prevalent and consequential. Faculty, drawn to a similar mission to educate people for the betterment of society, are in a unique position to assist the media through public scholarship. Stepping out of public discourse now could have disastrous effects.

The public’s faith in both the media and higher education has declined significantly in recent years. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in academic experts and journalists fell by three percentage points between 2020 and 2021, with academics trusted by 54 per cent of people (an all-time low) and journalists by just 40 per cent. The solution to this is not to back down. When we focus on the decrease in the numbers, we ignore the majority of people who still turn to academics as trusted sources of information. And we must take seriously the additional 14 per cent of the public who trust academics, compared with journalists. Experts should share their ideas through their own thought leadership and serve as sources and experts for the media, to help buoy the accuracy of (and trust in) the news.

It is certainly important to identify your goals and be strategic about how you choose to do public engagement. Before jumping in, consider whether you are the right person, and whether this is the right time. In answering those questions, you may benefit from the perspective of colleagues and administrators at your institution. Once you have a good sense of your fit and where you want to end up, it will be easier to determine and evaluate the opportunities and outlets that will help get you there.

Some topics are lightning rods for disagreement, but there are ways to insulate yourself against online vitriol while still providing the public with important information. A simple one is to consider whether an outlet that doesn’t allow for comments might be the best fit for your contribution. A complex one necessitates honestly assessing if you have the bandwidth to deal with uninformed critiques, given your workload and personal responsibilities. Some of the additional tactics will need foresight and advanced planning, but others are just quick fixes to your social media settings and participation.

In our experience of working with academics, the vast majority of media interactions are positive, whether being interviewed by a journalist or publishing an op-ed. In addition, it is important to weigh the significant personal benefits to engaging in public scholarship. Visibility can launch opportunities for collaboration with scholars around the world. It provides name recognition that can help in job searches and promotions. More and more often, we are hearing from scholars that book publishers are reluctant to sign authors who don’t have an established “platform” in both traditional and social media. In other words, public scholarship often aids in professional advancement. Similarly, a lack of public scholarship can stifle it.

In other words, entered into with foresight and focus, participation in public scholarship is a win-win-win: for society, for colleges and universities, and for researchers. And in a time of crisis, that is truer than ever.

Kristine Maloney is assistant vice-president and Teresa Valerio Parrot is founder and principal of TVP Communications, a US public relations and crisis communications agency focused solely on higher education.



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