Saturday 23 April 2022

Eight conceptual challenges in developing the 'online academic bullying' framework

Written for scholars interested in understanding online harassment from academic cyberbullies, plus the development of the online academic bullying routine activity theory (OABRAT) framework

troll enjoys attacking academic leaders

In developing our 'Distinguishing online academic bullying' article, Prof Tim Noakes and I trimmed the manuscript several times. Reworking some of these cuts in this post may offer value through addressing the methodological challenges we encountered in proposing our article's OABRAT framework. Seven conceptual challenges were overcome its development, while an eighth was encountered post-publication:


Conventional definitions of cyber-bullying suggest a power imbalance in which one aggressor is more powerful than his or her victim (Englander, Donnerstein, Kowalski, Lin, & Parti, 2017). By contrast, an established academic may be easily be targeted by individuals of varied statuses; who can mount frequent attacks as part of cybermobs. OAB differs from the conventional definition of cyberbullying in that there need not be a one-to-one power-imbalance in favour of the bully. It can include varied power relationships between a victim and his or her attackers: a standard power-imbalance may exist in the victim being on a lower rung of an academic cultural hierarchy within a particular field than the bullies (e.g. Cardiology has greater prestige than Sports Medicine in the medical field). However, a senior scholar may still be the subject of collegial mobbing (Davenport, Elliot and Schwartz, 1999). For example, the Emeritus Professor was attacked online by junior academics and non-scholars, from within his field and from other disciplines (see Figure 1 for his university).

Faculties and departments in which employees persistently criticized the Emeritus Professor on social media
Figure 1. Faculties and departments in which employees persistently criticised the Emeritus Professor on social media (Travis Noakes, 2020)

Attacking a scientific dissident as a pre-defined target seemed to provide attackers with an instant form of credibility- they did not have to prove their symbolic credentials to gain visibility. Few of the professor's blogging critics were Health Science scholars. Despite making no scholarly contribution to the debate, some academic cyberbullies seemed to achieve visibility as opinion "leaders" online. This shows how micro-celebrity hijacking can apply for Higher Education (HE) employees. Academic bloggers criticise public intellectuals for "wrongthink" thereby gaining attentional capital- blogged critiques by "independent" critical thinkers can convert into appearances on broadcast media.

Power imbalances may also result from other differences in a victim’s status versus his or her attackers. These can span inequalities in capital (Bourdieu, 1986), notably social and cultural capital- a scholar who defends an unorthodox position is at a disadvantage in terms of her social capital. She will struggle to draw support against unfair criticism by organic groups of academic cyberbullies.

Another dimension of power imbalance may lie in technical cultural capital- an OAB recipient who has less knowledge of the digital platform(s) on which she is being attacked may be at a serious disadvantage. For example, cyberbullies can use advantages in their ‘digital dimensions’ (Paino & Renzulli, 2013) of cultural capital for gaining greater visibility. They can leverage a myriad of online presences for amplifying their attacks, whilst leveraging multiple chains of digital publication that are difficult for a victim to reply to.

This suggests another imbalance whereby OAB recipients will struggle to defend themselves against asymmetrical cyber-critiques. It may be exhausting to respond to frequent criticisms, across a myriad of digital platforms and conflicting timezones.


Definitions of cyberbullying are in themselves broad, since they may also cover electronic bullying and internet harassment (Berne et al., 2013).  Likewise, classifications for academic cyberbullies’ roles and behaviours must be wide-ranging to address how bullies can readily draw on many repertoires for anti-social communication. A highly agentive cyberbully could draw on practices that meet several characteristics- the mocking "jokes" of a malevolent troll, the swearing attacks of a 'flamer' and a 'deceiver''s  misrepresentations in their self-presentation (e.g. a self-proclaimed "philosophe(r)"/"scholar" without a PhD). We chose not make sharp distinctions between an academic bully’s and other online deviants' roles and behaviours, since this could actually include areas that strongly overlap. At the same time, we were mindful that defining OAB as a particular form of harassment by HE employees was important to ensure OAB does not become a catchall. There is a danger that definitions of harassment that are generalised can be misused in bad faith to apply to mere criticisms or mildly unpleasant language (Jeong, 2018).

A flexible OAB framework for academic cyberbullies also had to be future-proof in accommodating new methods. While there are many characteristic behaviours that mark cyberbullying, the denigration of a scholar’s symbolic capital via scholarly publications that tie-in with weaponised micro-celebrity is another unique layer that other forms of cyberbullying lack. Weaponised micro-celebrity considers how highly prolific micro-celebrities, whose content has the potential to polarise public opinion, are hijacked for attention by traditional media through disproportionate and sensationalist coverage. Their viral persona, fame and content becomes reappropriated as place-holders for various causes by broadcast media (Abidin and Brown, 2018). This resonates with the examples of unscrupulous advertisers who illegally use micro-celebrities' profiles and made-up quotes in fake campaigns that market non-existent products. Such as the Emeritus Professor's image and name being hijacked to market "products" by "Keto Extreme" (2022) and "Ketovatru” (2021)  (The Noakes Foundation, 2022).


Another conceptual challenge lay in framing how academic cyberbullies' hyper-agentive practices could potentially threaten academic free speech and scientific innovation. Both are threatened where a powerful grouping lays claim to a monopoly on scientific truth. It will follow a win-or-lose competitive approach in defending its belief system as the dominant set of ideas (Martin, 2004). The term ‘heresy’ remains useful for describing ideological challenges that threaten the values of a dominant orthodoxy, such as biomedicine. In the Emeritus Professor's case, the supporters of the dominant “cholesterol” model of chronic disease development (CMCDD) can view a rival scientific model, such as the Insulin Resistance Model of Chronic Ill Health (IRMCIH) paradigm, as a heretical field. The beliefs of health experts who promote IRMCIH are viewed as heretical because they threaten the current health care model for the treatment of many chronic diseases. Dissidents question past research findings and the resulting interventions prescribed for treating most patients with chronic diseases.

When a challenger to orthodoxy begins to attract attention from patients, the general public and the press, then those in power will take active steps to protect the reigning paradigms (Martin, 2004). Adherents to the dominant ideology will view such individuals' questioning of the central values of their CMCDD orthodoxy as performing heresy. Heresy is created by the response of the orthodoxy when its views' delineate attacks as beyond the pale (Wolpe, 1994). Defenders of CMCDD might justify their harassment in believing that only high carbohydrate/low fat diets are “healthy”. Followers of this belief have argued that pursuing any other ideas or approaches constitute a "threat to public health". Following this rationale, such critics may argue for censorship of dissidents' "dangerous" work and to limit digital publics' exposure to state-of-the-art IRMCIH science news.

In highly-polarised debates, HE employees can develop social capital for themselves, and 'negative social capital' for opponents, by using digital platforms to confront heretics, apostates, rebels and dissenters. Negative social capital (Wacquant, 1998) is the engineered dislike and distrust of a person or group by other people and groups. This capital is the antithesis of social capital as it results in its wilful destruction. The examples of cyberbullies creates a chilling effect whereby witnesses of harassment will be reluctant to engage with the proponents of heresy. Their future vocational trajectories may be at risk when grouped with heretical "outsiders".

troll enjoys attacking superiors
Defenders of the status-quo enjoy visibility as part of dominant networks and can readily spotlight “heretics” for criticism via formal and informal channels, such as social media. Recipients must negotiate rapidly-spreading disinformation, defamation, misrepresentation-of-argument and even character assassination HE employees involved in such adverse actions typically explain their actions as being justified in maintaining 'academic standards'' (Martin, 2020). However, such actions are detrimental in silencing dissenters' and whistleblowers' free speech, thereby stifling scientific debate and potential innovations.


The perspective of the victim is frequently neglected in research into online hostility (Jane, 2015). Our initial drafts of the manuscript focused on different styles of attack from academic cyberbullies. Subsequent drafts shifted to developing a unique, decade-long, pilot study for a cyberbullying recipient's case. We hoped his experiences of novel forms of OAB harassment might resonate with other recipients. Since we could not find any similar lengthy example of a scholar's online victimisation, we trusted his case would be informative for cyberbullying researchers, plus anti-bullying policy decision makers in HE.


The Emeritus Professor's case study was closely linked to a formal mobbing at his former academic institutional employer. In the initial manuscript, we foregrounded this strong overlap:  His employer's neglect of rules and policies against harassment by its employees provides a fertile space for harassment (Benatar, 2021). Senior leaders followed a dominating conflict culture (DCC) approach (Desrayaud et al., 2018) in protecting the Faculty of Health Science's (FHS) CMCDD orthodoxy from criticism. Although DCC actively encourages discourse about incompatible goals and ideas, DCC does not acknowledge the validity of opposing views. In a toxic DCC workplace, dissent is ignored and support for dissenters is withheld. Explicit bullying is seen as an acceptable response to intellectual differences and overt mobbing is also condoned. In this respect, attacks on the Emeritus Professor were similar to the bullying of other senior scholars that university leadership clearly tolerated (Benatar, 2017; Coovadia, 2015; Crowe, 2017; Crowe, 2019; McCain, 2020; Plaut, 2020; Soudien, 2015; Steer, 2019; Vernac News, 2019). In 2019, his employer's institution acknowledged that bullying was a major concern amongst staff (Feris, 2019), but has yet to recognise the importance of addressing DCC in its FHS. One positive recent development is that an anti-bullying policy was passed (2021). Albeit, a very late response to its former Ombudsman's recommendation from 2012 (Makamandela-Mguqulwa, 2020).

In university workplaces, bullies can use a justification of “academic freedom” to condone actions that would be unacceptable in other workplaces (Driver, 2018). For example, an academic lecturer (who is neither a scholar nor a scientist) published thirty blog posts that criticised the Emeritus Professor's popularisation of LCHF science. Although by no means an academic peer, this junior lecturer might justify such fervent criticism of a fellow employee at the same university as a necessary part of academic freedom in an institute of higher learning. Nevertheless, such obsessive behaviour from a low-ranking, under-qualified employee seems unlikely to be acceptable at any other place of employment.

academic failblog troll

In collating the varied forms of harassment from "academic colleagues", it was unsurprising that we initially considered a recipient's OAB as being inseparable from an experience of academic mobbing in the HE context. However, the manuscript's reviewers flagged that it could be separate- especially for  targets outside HE. In response, we designed the OABRAT framework to accommodate a separate phenomenon.

Such separation also addressed concerns that the private, departmental ostracisation of ‘academic mobbing’ in HE (Seguin, 2016. Khoo, 2010) is a very different negative phenomenon from the public attacks that academic cyberbullies launch. Unlike the largely concealed backstabbing of an academic mob, academic cyberbullies criticisms are public. OAB recipients can readily spot critics and their networks in digital criticisms, such as group petitions. Like others cybermobbers, public attacks fall within a spectrum that can include: i. drive-by harassment, ii. low-level mobbing, iii. sustained hounding and iv. sustained orchestration (Jeong, 2018). Professor Noakes and I are working on a manuscript that explores this spectrum for defining an ‘academic cybermobbing’'s particular characteristics. 


In addition to considering academic cyberbullies practices and their recipients experiences, it is also vital to address the role of guardians. RAT supports addressing the activities of both the targets of crime, plus their guardians. In academic cyberbullying, it is important to consider how the online activities of a victim could be placing him or her at added risk. It is also worthwhile considering how the lack of action from guardians of civility, whether they be at the scholar’s academic institution or moderators for social media platforms, has an impact. Prevention would seem better than cure for the negative phenomenon of persistent cyber harassment. In OAB, this emerges when a large quantum of criticism from academic cyberbullies creates an easily searchable footprint.

Policies protecting employees at HE institutes from workplace persecution have largely focused on sexual and racial harassment. The danger exists that other forms of persecution may be neglected as seeming relatively unimportant by comparison (Citron, 2007). For example, aggressive behaviours in the workplace may be considered acceptable by default (Rayner, Hoel, & Cooper, 2002). Informal expectations and norms can increase the sense of a lack of accountability online and boost the likelihood of deviant behaviours. Without deterrents or any consequences for academic cyberbullying, bullies may believe that they will not be held accountable for their actions. Worse, hegemonic leadership may actually reward those whose cyberbullying seems to maintain perceptions of consensus. In HE, such rewards are unethical in undermining academic free speech, scientific innovation and motivating academic cyberbullying. 

fake academic white knight troll

Dubious research and related fake news may be amplified online with impunity where university employers are unwilling to confront their source(s) and defend their scholarly recipients. Even where HE leaders uncover such falsehoods, they may have little enthusiasm for organising retraction or the censure of those who create and spread them. A HE leadership that models being bystanders in the face of cyber harassment from its own employees, would be hypocritical to expect staff to respond as upstanders against OAB.


In conceptualising OAB, we came to argue that the victims of academic cyberbullies need not be HE employees. Feedback from IRMCIH proponents in varied health professions, plus LCHF entrepreneurs, confirmed attacks from cyberbullies in HE. While our literature review produced many examples of dissenting scientists and academic whistleblowers being confronted academic mobs, there is a gap concerning cases for bullying victims outside HE. This is another area that The Noakes Foundation's Academic Free Speech and Digital Voices (AFSDV) project can address for the IRMCIH scientific issue arena.

academic troll line crosser
After Professor Noakes and I submitted the article for publication, we identified another concern to explore under the AFSDV theme:


Our article shared a reporting instrument for OAB recipients. We hoped that targets of academic cyberbullies could use the Google form at for developing reports on their experiences of cyber harassment. However, based on some OAB recipients' feedback, we must prepare a simplified version of the form. The questionnaire speaks to all aspects of cyber harassment the Emeritus Professor experienced by over a ten year period. So while his outlier experience informed the development of a comprehensive and wide-ranging questionnaire, there is considerable scope to shorten it and simplify its questions via new AFSDV research.


Stop, academic bully! shushmoji™ graphics courtesy of Create With Cape Town.

Thursday 14 April 2022

Behind 'Design principles for developing critique and academic argument in a blended-learning data visualization course'

Written for visual design educators and social semiotic researchers interested in students' use of data visualisations for argument.

Professor Arlene Archer and my chapter, 'Design principles for developing critique and academic argument in a blended-learning data visualization course', is to be published in 'Learning Design Voices'. Edited by Professor Laura Czerniewicz, Tasneem Jaffer and Shanali Govender. the book is produced by the University of Cape Town's (UCT) Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT). Its compilation aims to catalyse a discussion of key themes shaping practice in online learning design. Our contribution falls under the book's 'Learning materials, activities and processes' section. The book's other two tackle 'Learning Design as field, praxis and identity' and 'Humanising Learning Design'.

Our new chapter is a sequel to 'Exploring academic argument in information graphics' (2020), in which we proposed the framework for argument in data visualizations shown in Table 1. This social semiotic framework provides a holistic view that is useful for providing feedback and recognising students’ work as realised through the ideational, interpersonal, and textual meta-functions. For example, in addition to the verbal (written) mode that they are usually assessed on in Higher Education, students' digital poster designs must also consider composition, size, shape and colour choices.

Table 1. Framework for analysing and producing argument in data visualisation.
Designed by Arlene Archer and Travis Noakes, 2021.

Framework for analysing and producing argument in data visualisation

When the course was first introduced, many students' were able to produce attractive posters, but there seemed scope to support them in developing better arguments by revising the course's contents. Our follow-up piece describes how using this framework proved helpful for changing a second-year journalism, blended-learning course and helping students' argument-development:

In five-weeks, the lecturer had to teach novices- data infographics, graphic design and Excel software, visual design aesthetics and multimodal argumentation via data visualization designs. Many changes were considered for improving the posters’ argument and the lecturer changed the 2018 syllabus structure by adding two new sections (for ‘Multimodal argument’ and ‘Creative ideas for infographic design’, see Table 2).

Table 2. Lesson topic changes from 2017 to 2018's course

Lesson topic changes from 2017 to 2018's course

A midway assessment was also introduced in which students’ infographic arguments were tested as works-in-progress. Reviewers’ feedback presented those who went for the wrong goalposts with opportunities for changing their direction by the final assessment. The new sections and mid-way assessment proved helpful for supporting 2018's students on aggregate with developing better arguments via infographic posters. The initial course was arguably weighted too much on using new tools for aesthetic design. By contrast, the new iteration was weighted towards teaching opaque discursive conventions and how to make a coherent, strong infographic poster argument using different modes that travel well as they traverse different formats. 

To illustrate the benefits of this shift, our article focuses on two students, whose work differed from those of the 2017’s class in presenting meta-level critiques. As a result of some of the curriculum interventions, students began to engage with normative attitudes and societal discourses that shaped the information they shared. They began to flag how the graphs they shared might represent a numeric simplification of a qualitatively complex situation, and to point to the ways in which the categories for comparison may be blurred.

Before presenting two in-depth student cases, we described how several principles for learning design informed our analysis of student work using this framework:

1) Delimiting the scope of the task
2) Encouraging the use of readily accessible design tools
3) Considering gains and losses in digital translations
4) Implementing a process approach for developing argument and encouraging reflection
5) Developing meta-languages of critique and argument
6) Acknowledging different audiences and the risks of sharing work as novices

"Tumi" and "Mark" followed different approaches to metalevel critique in their data visualization project's. Tumi’s presentation (see Figures 1 and 2) critiqued the usefulness of Youth Explorer for exploring education in a peripheral township community versus a suburban ‘core community’. In contrasting the Langa township ward's educational attendance data versus the leafy suburb of Pinelands, she flagged why the results may be skewed unfavourably against Langa- children from peripheral communities often travel to core communities for schooling, so data for both core and peripheral communities “can be blurred to some extent”. Tumi also flagged that youth accused of contact crime were not necessarily ‘convicted or found guilty’.

Figure 1. Tumi's findings slide 2018

Tumi's findings slide 2018

Figure 2. Tumi's limitations slide 2018

Tumi's findings limitations slide 2018

By contrast, Mark’s poster (see Figure 3) critiqued the statistics available for understanding ‘poor grade 8 systemic results’ and the reasons for higher drop-out rates in schooling between suburbs. His poster explored the limitations of what Youth Explorer can tell us about systemic tests and how these link to dropout rates and final year pass rates. He argued that a shortcoming is the dataset’s failure to convey 'the role that extra-curricular support plays' in shaping learners’ results. Mark's poster reflected the fact that many children from affluent homes go for extra lessons after school to improve subject results. This knowledge of concerted cultivation was based on his personal experience, but is unaccounted for in most official accounts of educational input.

Figure 3. Mark's data visualisation poster 2018

Mark's data visualisation poster 2018

Both cases reveal how teaching a social semiotic approach for analysing and producing argument proved helpful. It informed changes to a data visualisation poster course that could better support students’ development as critical designers and engaged citizens- the two aspirant media professionals' meta-critiques flagged important challenges in relying on data that may be incorrect and incomplete, accurately spotlighting the inherent difficulties of simplifying qualitative complexity into numbers for their audiences.

If you would like to view a presentation on our research, please visit my earlier blog post at


The research is based upon work supported by the British Academy Newton Advanced Fellowship scheme. Travis’ research was supported by a Postdoctoral Fellowship (2019-21) at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Both authors thank the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Film and Media Studies for facilitating our research with students between 2017 and 2018. In particular, we thank Professor Marion Walton and Dr Martha Evans for their valued assistance. We also greatly appreciate the feedback from the editors and reviewers at Learning Design Voices.

Need support doing Social Semiotic research in Africa?

Both Arlene and Travis are members of the South African Multimodality in Education research group (SAME) hosted by UCT. Should you be interested in sharing your multimodal research project with its experts, please contact SAME.

I hope that you will read our chapter and find it informative. You are most welcome to give readers and I your feedback in the moderated comments section below.

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