Lessons from an electronic lynch mob

December 21, 2023 12:26 pm

Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, left, testifies before the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Also testifying, Liz Magill, who subsequently resigned as president of the University of Pennsylvania; Pamela Nadell, professor at American University, and Sally Kornbluth, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

“Hey, I’ve got some news that might interest you.”

The reporter’s voice was chipper, friendly, as though intending to tell me I’d won something. Except he’d called on a Sunday. When journalists are working that shift, it’s rarely a positive sign.

He said, “You were plagiarized by the president of Harvard!” Or something to that effect.

His revelation came as no surprise. I’d already received an email announcing the same thing. Still, hearing the words spoken aloud made my stomach churn.

I knew Harvard University President Claudine Gay back when we were graduate students there, initially serving as her “teaching fellow,” then working in the same lab. Claudine was a genuinely nice person, rare in elite academic programs, and I thought highly of her. Gay’s stumbles in the wake of the Hamas terrorist attack already had puzzled me — so I dreaded the idea she might face another scandal, let alone one that roped me in.

“Gay’s dissertation contains paragraphs from a paper you wrote with Bradley Palmquist, but she didn’t credit you.”

That made matters worse. If Gay had copied a successful project, I might have felt gratified. This paper was the opposite: a humiliation I’d rather forget. I’d poured hours into that work, at a time when my children would have loved more attention, yet we’d never managed to submit the research for publication.

Learning what Gay had borrowed added insult to injury. She didn’t piggyback on my familiarity with Louisiana politics or my coauthor’s quantitative knowledge. Instead, she mimicked a minor part of our paper — one paragraph and fragments of another — explaining methods developed by someone else. It was the statistical equivalent of checking the oil before taking a car out for a drive.

Depressing. Those plagiarized words are destined to become the most widely read paragraph I’ll ever write. Yet they were rubbish, unimportant to our research and to Gay’s. If intellectual-property theft can be represented by picking someone’s pocket and keeping hundreds of dollars, this was like thoughtlessly grabbing a nickel or ballpoint pen off my desk, figuring I wouldn’t miss it.

I considered refusing interviews, but the story wasn’t going away and maybe I could help. Check out the Harvard Crimsons in-depth coverage of the scandal, and consider how the section about me would have sounded if it ended before my input.

Instead, I cooperated with every interview request — fielding multiple calls from the New York Times, Boston Globe and Chronicle of Higher Education. The message was simple: Yes, Claudine Gay technically plagiarized me, but what she copied was trivial material. I was not victimized. I deserved no retribution.

To use the “p” word seemed harmless. My entire career, I’ve been teaching students it’s wrong to do what Gay did, and I expect most writing teachers have done the same. Readers wouldn’t need me to tell them it was plagiarism once they saw my paragraph and hers side by side.

Just last year, I chastised a student for similar copying. What I wrote seems prophetic:

“Understand that you cannot use whole sentences from people — and also cannot use longer sections of someone else’s writing, organized the same way as their paragraph but with perhaps a trivial word change or two … Later on in your career, especially if you’re successful, it could cause a scandal of the sort that periodically hits public scholars.”

Some of Gay’s other defenders, however, apparently thought they could help by obscuring the meaning of plagiarism. My simple willingness to employ the word made news. 

Right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, known for turning “CRT” into a household acronym, exploited that opportunity. Because I called Gay’s paragraph “technically plagiarism,” he grouped me with two “esteemed academics” actively criticizing her use of their work.

I had to push back, given this one-sided characterization. I tried for a boring reply, hoping it would serve his tweet as a footnote noticed only by those who knew me. 

No such luck. Rufo amplified my response at prime time the next day. Approximately 1.8 million devices eventually encountered it, sending me down a rabbit hole that was the most eye-opening part of the adventure.

I found myself surrounded by an electronic lynch mob calling for Claudine’s head — with the most vocal participants furious at me for supporting her.

Some amused me, because they dismissed my stance with ignorant assumptions.

  • “You care more about Gay’s progressive politics than about truth.” Right, that’s why I supported the Kentucky GOP’s redistricting case?
  • “You want to stay on Harvard’s good side.” When’s the last time anyone at Harvard tried to boost my career?
  • “You want to avoid getting on the diversity office’s bad side.” You mean the office already considered hostile to white males?
  • “A student who did the same thing would be expelled.” No, at most schools, penalties for minor plagiarism are light.

But I don’t use the phrase “lynch mob” casually. Some replies were more sinister, giving vent to racial resentments against Claudine Gay, as well as against me because I wouldn’t help string her up — including posts from accounts with racially charged names or with user descriptions that referenced white supremacy.

Even more remarkable were the sexual insecurities on display. Donald Trump’s support always had roots in hostile sexism, but scholars and social critics have noted the rise of an incel (or involuntary celibate) culture that goes beyond race or political ideology. If you want a window into that particular underbelly of U.S. society, try scrolling through the reactions I received.

Gay was targeted not solely for race, but as a “strong woman of color” (and, some assumed fallaciously, a lesbian). Meanwhile, I was a traitor to my sex for standing by her. I was emasculated, a Beta male, a cuck. It was like turning a publishing house over to sixth-grade bullies.

I don’t know whether Claudine Gay’s presidency will survive the accumulating accusations. Leaving aside my part, I can’t judge whether it should.

I also don’t know where life might have taken me if I’d faked some moral outrage, giving those 1.8 million Twitter accounts more of what they wanted to hear. A syndicated column? A book contract? Maybe that’s the prize the reporter was hinting I’d won, were I willing to claim it.

I’m certain I wanted no part of that parade, though. Better to leave it having defended a former student, “a sadder and a wiser man” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1798).

And I’ve won in a smaller way. Before this scandal, only a hundred people had opened our unpublished paper from a site called ResearchGate. Now that number’s past 3,000. Scandal attracts more attention than scholarship.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

D. Stephen Voss
D. Stephen Voss

D. Stephen Voss is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, where he has worked since 1998. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, specializing in quantitative analysis, and began his research career studying Southern and Kentucky politics. More broadly, his research focuses on the politics of race, ethnicity and culture.