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The off-campus imposition on collegiate speech

One of the first people to recognize the value of aggregating social media outrage was conservative commentator Michelle Malkin. In 2012, she launched the website Twitchy, which one Forbes writer dubbed “the Drudge Report of the Twitterverse.” The idea was that there was a lot of interesting turmoil on the still-young Twitter that might be mined for attention.

In practice, though, Malkin’s site ended up serving as a rewards system for mockery. The best disparagement of left-wing or mainstream-media tweets earned inclusion in Twitchy’s articles — usually little more than lists of tweets. There was always a mechanism for approval built into Twitter (likes, retweets, etc.) but here was external validation. A best-of.

Again, though, this was back when Twitter was still modest in scale and blogs were big. Eventually, Twitter became big enough that this external validation wasn’t really necessary. You could “dunk” on the other team (facilitated by the 2015 introduction of quote tweets) and get big-name accounts to retweet you and gin up thousands of likes. There’s still a cottage industry in aggregating outrage at perceived opponents (including on Fox News’ website), but that’s mostly aimed at the diminishing community of article-only consumers.

Something else was also happening in parallel. In stutter steps, the value of ganging up on opponents became more obvious. There was Gamergate in 2014, an early internet-driven backlash to the expanded engagement of women in video games and the gaming industry. Then there was the 2016 election, during which actors at the political fringe worked in concert to blanket people with abuse. It’s hard to get 10 people to shout at someone you dislike in real life. It’s relatively easy to get 1,000 people to shout at them on social media.

Online abuse came to be seen as a political tool. Supporters of Donald Trump and others on the right were particularly energetic about expressing their disdain for the left. Efforts by social media platforms to stamp out abuse were constrained to the most obvious examples. Memes and mockery became a way for everyday Trump supporters (for example) to feel as if they were fighting alongside the president — or against his successor.

A 2019 truism served as a guiding philosophy for Twitter and the web more broadly: “Each day … there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.” But other people sought to be the main character, auditioned to be the person who most deftly skewered the media or the elites or the left. Celebrities emerged, making the rounds on Fox News or simply becoming omnipresent on Twitter feeds.

This was where things were headed from the moment Twitchy began. The internet offers the power to destroy and politics rewards those who use that power most skillfully.

Bringing us to 19-year-old Daniel Schmidt.

As a general rule, discussions about free speech on college campuses are overwrought and unimportant. College is the literal domain of teenagers and recent ex-teenagers, and teenagers definitionally make bad decisions. Observers — who are themselves often products of prestigious universities and therefore overly invested in the idea that college is terribly important — weight generic campus controversies with the burden of representing free speech broadly. It’s awfully tedious.

On Monday, though, the New York Times reported on a controversy at the University of Chicago that offers a different, more useful lesson.

The incident began when an instructor, Rebecca Journey, prepared to offer a class titled, “The Problem of Whiteness.” As described, the course would have centered on the very real debate over how “Whiteness” is bounded and how those boundaries have changed. If your instinct is to dismiss this idea, Google “Bhagat Singh Thind,” an immigrant from India whose efforts to gain U.S. citizenship a century ago by being classified as legally White came up short.

Schmidt’s instinct was to dismiss Journey’s idea. Or, really, to leverage the obviously provocative title of the course for the sake of social media attention.

EXCLUSIVE: At my college, @UChicago, a class called “The Problem of Whiteness” will be taught in the Winter.

Since I began college a year ago, I’ve documented all the anti-white hatred I’ve seen on campus. Without a doubt, this is the most egregious example.

*THREAD* pic.twitter.com/mdASZqYxlk

— DANIEL SCHMIDT (@realdschmidt) November 1, 2022

“EXCLUSIVE,” he wrote in a tweet. “At my college, [University of Chicago], a class called ‘The Problem of Whiteness’ will be taught in the Winter. Since I began college a year ago, I’ve documented all the anti-white hatred I’ve seen on campus. Without a doubt, this is the most egregious example.”

All the clues as to what’s happening are right there. The hunt for examples of “anti-white hatred.” The superficial description of the course. That “EXCLUSIVE” at the front end, as though he is a reporter breaking important news. It is an appeal for main-character status. (Twitchy, of course, later wrote it up.)

What happened next is predictable.

The professor’s “inbox exploded … with vitriolic messages from dozens of strangers,” the Times’s Vimal Patel reported. “One wrote that she was ‘deeply evil.’ Another: ‘Blow your head clean off.’ ”

Schmidt had tweeted out her email address in a different message. He did so again in March when the course, once delayed, finally moved forward — with new safety precautions.

It is easy to exaggerate the danger posed by a few dozen people sending nasty messages. It is similarly easy to become inured to this happening, particularly if you’re someone who is often engaged in the public political debate (as I am). It is probably the case that Schmidt himself has received nasty messages in response to his behavior.

But Schmidt, unlike his critics, was hoping to leverage this tendency. The Times documented other moments when he attempted to deploy outrage as a weapon; he mentions doing so himself. He wanted to get people mad because he benefited from being the first person to draw their attention to it. He was in elementary school when Twitchy launched; the world of online attention and warfare is the only one he has known. Journey allowed him to reach his desired destination.

Schmidt undoubtedly could have benefited from actually taking her course. The intent of his university education, after all, is presumably to expand his awareness of things that he at first blush might reject.

But college also offers Schmidt and others like him outrage fodder. Thanks in part to the idea that colleges are hotbeds of liberal indoctrination (which is not a well-founded belief) there are a range of websites and actors actively seeking out examples of wrongthink to expose. The divide between Schmidt’s criticism of Journey’s class and someone mocking the offerings in Target’s Pride Month display for social media views is subtle, if it exists.

In essence, Schmidt chose to jump-start his career by attending the university, though not in the way intended. Why go to classes for years when you can become a professional political influencer with a few tweets?

It seems he probably wouldn’t find Rebecca Journey’s answer to that question particularly compelling.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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