Right Now!

In some countries, academic freedom is severely restricted by governments themselves.

From grassroots to government: far-right threats to academic freedom

In recent years, and particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, far right forces have increased efforts to systematically undermine the principles of academic freedom. Léonie de Jonge, Iris Beau Segers and Cathrine Thorleifsson highlight the urgency of defending academic freedom against governmental interference and protecting researchers from threats and intimidation.

COVID-19 and attacks on knowledge

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 brought about an increase in public demand for academic experts - including virologists, statisticians and public health scholars - to recommend, explain and evaluate policies intended to counteract the spread of COVID-19. The thirst for experts was soon offset by an increased tendency to challenge their epistemic authority. In some countries, this rising distrust has resulted in personal attacks and (death)threats directed against public health officials. In the Netherlands, for instance, two women were arrested earlier this year for incitement against the country’s chief virologist Jaap van Dissel. In neighbouring Belgium, Marc Van Ranst, who has led the country’s response to the coronavirus, had to be taken to a safehouse with his family after being targeted by a far-right activist. These threats are symptomatic of a broader trend toward concerted efforts by the far right to curtail academic freedom.

Over the past years, far-right groups and individuals have sought to disrupt and discredit academic institutions and educational spaces, as well as sites and processes of knowledge production more generally. To be sure, far-right conspiracy theories about the alleged ‘left-wing indoctrination’ at universities had already seeped into parliamentary politics before the pandemic. The Dutch far right party Forum for Democracy, for example, launched a hotline in 2019 where students and pupils could report alleged left-wing indoctrination at educational institutions. Yet, since the onset of the pandemic, attacks on academics (and journalists) seem to have become increasingly common.

‘Ideology instead of science’: government involvement in academia

In some countries, academic freedom is severely restricted by governments themselves. In Hungary, Budapest’s prestigious Central European University (CEU), a high-ranking institute funded after the fall of the Soviet Union to champion the principles of democracy and open societies, has been forced out of the country. Gender studies programmes have been banned at universities, with Victor Orbán’s deputy arguing that they represent ‘an ideology, not a science.

This kind of government interference, however, reaches far beyond the Hungarian borders. In France and Denmark, right-wing politicians have criticized research on gender, decolonization or migration as ‘pseudoscientific’, ‘leftist’ or ‘activist’. But there are also examples of right-wing governmental pressure on universities in the name of free speech. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative government has recently taken steps against the alleged ‘cancel culture’ at British universities by announcing the penalization of institutions who ‘cancel’ or ‘deplatform’ speakers who hold controversial views. According to sources in the UK government, culture secretary Oliver Dowden aimed to ‘defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down’ . At the same time, in response to Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protests in previous years, the British government has introduced a bill that severely restricts the right to protest. In reality, the governmental strategy seems to be clearly aimed at redefining the boundaries of who is and isn’t allowed to speak truth to power.

‘The curse of knowledge dissemination?’ Threats to scholars

In the digital age, it is evident that threats to academic freedom are not just emerging from states, but also from non-state transnational movements and individuals. Social media has created a golden age for threats, surveillance and the fast spread of disinformation and propaganda. Critical scholarship can trigger hostile reactions, in particular from those who feel threatened by findings that disturb and counter injustices.

Accordingly, academics who disseminate knowledge about the drivers and dynamics of far right mobilization in public are vulnerable to attacks. In particular women, researchers of colour, and other scholars who are underrepresented in the academy can face personal risks when they engage in public debates - something that most institutions now actively encourage under the mantra of ‘impact’ and ‘outreach’.

In the aftermath of a terrorist attack in August 2019, for instance, researcher Cathrine Thorleifsson contributed with continuous analyses in print and broadcast media about far right digital subcultures, after which she was subjected to a coordinated attack from users of such online spaces. Over the past few years, the combination of anonymity and a conspicuous lack of moderation has made various digital platforms a haven for transnational, white supremacists who rapidly produce and circulate misogynistic content.

The attack included hacking and scam messaging as well as rape and death threats - all well-known intimidation strategies from this particular subculture. For some anonymous users, transgressive production of lulz (the acute amusement in the face of someone else’s distress) is a central driver for online community building. Just as online racism is intended to generate hostility and attacks on people of colour, campaigns against researchers, journalists or other public figures framed as ‘internal traitors’ are designed to intimidate and silence individuals with uncanny precision.Similarly, in the Netherlands, the academic community was recently shaken by orchestrated attacks from an anonymous group of far-right agitators called Vizier op Links (literally ‘sight’ or ‘target’ on the left). The group targeted alleged ‘left-wing’ activists and academics, including many (young), female scholars as well as people of colour and other minorities by spreading disinformation and launching personal attacks resulting in intimidation, harassment and (death)threats.

While online harassment appears to be on the rise, death threats to researchers remain relatively rare (at least in Norway and the Netherlands). Nevertheless, all forms of hostility, ranging from criminal offenses to coordinated trolling campaigns, can produce significant mental and emotional toll and pose a clear infringement on the academic freedom of the researcher.

Academic freedom under attack

Threats to academic freedom are emerging from non-state actors that are thriving in transnational online networks, but also from key governmental actors in Western Europe and beyond. This is deeply problematic because academic freedom is not just essential for guaranteeing quality research and teaching in higher education, but also for the functioning of democracy at large. Situations such as the ones in Hungary and Turkey, where governments have cracked down on both individual academics and institutions, provide a harrowing example of democratic decline and the loss of academic freedom. Now that we are witnessing the slow encroachment of governmental actors into academia in countries such as the UK and France, it is ever more important to think more proactively about how to protect and defend academic freedom.

To this end, Janika Spannagel and Ilyas Saliba from the Global Public Policy Institute have developed the Academic Freedom Index, which is intended to capture the academic freedom across countries by means of five key indicators: ‘the freedom to research and teach, the freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy of higher education institutions, campus integrity (meaning the absence of surveillance and security infringements), and the freedom of academic and cultural expression.’

Whereas far-right governments pose threats to all five aforementioned aspects of academic freedom, grassroots online groups and social movements may indirectly impact academics’ ability to research, publish, teach and express themselves freely. These threats do not stand alone, but rather feed off one another: when politicians broadcast conspiracy narratives, these are easily picked up and amplified by non-state actors.

Respecting and protecting boundaries

Of course, academic freedom is not limitless. As academics, we are required to faithfully and transparently report our hypotheses, methods and findings, which are subsequently subjected to critical peer review. Moreover, academic freedom should not be confused with freedom of speech. Freedom of speech only falls under the realm of ‘academic freedom’ as long as our public statements are related to our scientific role and our own field of research and expertise.

Countering far right threats to academic freedom involves respecting the rights and freedoms of individual scholars, departments and universities, but also demarcating the boundaries of what academic freedom means, and who can claim it. First, it is key to counter actors who reject science in favour of conspiracy narratives, and to mitigate the spread of disinformation. Second, governments should respect the freedom to research and teach both within national borders, and beyond. Third, academic institutions have an important role to play both in supporting individual scholars at risk, and protecting academic freedom from interference in all its different forms. Finally, within the scholarly community, it is of paramount importance to express solidarity across borders with scholars who risk their personal well-being and safety by entering the public debate and disseminating knowledge.

About this blog:

Welcome to the “Right Now!” blog where you will find commentary, analysis and reflection by C-REX’s researchers and affiliates on topics related to contemporary far right politics, including party politics, subcultural trends, militancy, violence, and terrorism.

The Center for Research on Extremism, C-REX, is a cross-disciplinary center for the study of right-wing extremism, hate crime and political violence. It is a joint collaboration with five of the leading Norwegian institutions on extremism research, hosted by the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Oslo.

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