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.

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