Universities must help academics targeted by trolls

While the benefits of impact accrue to institutions, any backlash is focused on individuals, says Erin Pritchard

May 24, 2022
Trolls head surrounded by sweets to illustrate Universities must help scholars targeted by trolls
Source: Getty / Istock montage

The fanfare around the 6,781 impact case studies submitted to REF 2021 – accounting for 25 per cent of the total scores – underlines the importance of the impact agenda to UK institutions. When they are made public shortly, they will “help everyone associated with the research enterprise to see ways of maximising the benefits realised from substantial public and private investment in research”, according to David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England.

In this context, we can only expect the pressure on academics to produce and publicise impact to increase further. However, when research breaks out of the academic bubble and into society, including the dark realms of social media, the response from society can be brutal.

Earlier this year, I succeeded in campaigning to have the sweets known in the UK as “midget gems” renamed. The campaign was a result of my research; in 2019, I had written a chapter arguing that the term “midget” is a form of hate speech towards people with dwarfism, the vast majority of whom find the term offensive. It is derived from the word “midge”, another term for the sandfly, and was used to refer to people with dwarfism in Victorian freak shows. As my research shows, most people with dwarfism have experienced having that term shouted at them by strangers. As a result, they often avoid public spaces, especially busy ones.

As a person with dwarfism myself, and as an academic in disability studies, I recognise the importance of making an impact with my research, in terms of advocating for equality. As a result, I wrote to a couple of companies, including the ubiquitous high street behemoth M&S, asking them to change the name of their midget gems.

In the end, both companies agreed. M&S began selling a revised product that it called “mini gems”, and while most people apparently thought nothing of it, I was pleased to see that offensive word being slowly removed from society.

A few months later, the media team at my institution decided to publicise the impact my research had had. This is when the trouble started.

The main instigator was the Daily Mail, which will not come as a surprise to people familiar with its endless drip feed of sensationalised stories implying that various minority groups are trying to take over and destroy British values. The headline proclaimed that the decision to change the sweets’ name was “not just wokery” but “M&S wokery”. “Woke”, is, of course, the new term used by the right to try and silence the push for any kind of social justice.

The headline succeeded in angering its readers – and their backlash did not stop at the comments section on the newspaper’s website. I received numerous instances of hate speech via social media, my own institutional email account and even traditional post. The messages did not stop for a few days and always targeted my disability and often my gender.

“What a nasty old vile witch you are,” one declared…“Wish someone would ban you permanently. Just cause you’re a MIDGET doesn’t mean you can ban the word. Just face it you’re a dwarf…Go sue me. Just shut your face and stop being woke. Grow up!” 

As a person with dwarfism, I am used to receiving verbal abuse from strangers, but this felt different as I am typically shielded from it on campus, where I am first and foremost a lecturer. On social media, too, my dwarfism is not always visible, so it is usually harder to target.

In another case, a student from a university in the north-west of England sent me a direct message on Facebook just to call me a “stupid midget”. I reported the message to the student's university, but all I got was a generic apology from the student, via the university, claiming, absurdly, that she had not meant any offence. The message to the student is that insulting academics, especially those from minority backgrounds, is acceptable and does not come with any repercussions.

The typical advice given to people receiving abuse is to just come off social media: to ignore the trolls rather than “feed” them. But this just silences the victim while letting the perpetrators freely engage in hate speech. I agree that academics should be professional in their conduct, but that does not mean that we should have to tolerate the abuse directed towards us all too easily by the ready availability of our contact details on our institutions’ websites. We are only human. We need more support.

My campaign helped promote the research impact of my institution, but it was me, not my institution, that the abuse it stirred up was directed at – and I was basically left to deal with it on my own. While my colleagues, including my line manager, were supportive, the institution itself was not.

If universities want to push the importance of research impact further, proper safeguards must be put in place to protect academics. Debate should be open to those with conflicting views, but personal attacks should not be tolerated.

Erin Pritchard is a lecturer in disability studies at Liverpool Hope University and a core member of the Centre for Cultural Disability Studies. Her most recent book is Dwarfism, Spatiality and Disabling Experiences, published by Routledge.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles


Featured jobs