How a Drexel prof's Christmas 'wish' stirred a Twitter tempest

George-Ciccariello-Maher-Drexel
Drexel professor George Ciccariello-Maher tweeted out on Christmas Eve, "All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide."

This much is clear: On Twitter, nobody hears your sarcasm.

George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor in Drexel University's politics department, learned that lesson the hard way over the weekend, when he tapped out a series of racially charged satirical tweets that he says were intended to mock white supremacists.

Not everyone got the joke. The tweets were taken at face value by several right-wing websites, including Breitbart and the Daily Caller, which posted articles attacking Ciccariello-Maher as antiwhite.

As the rhetoric on social media escalated, Drexel issued a statement calling the professor's tweets "utterly reprehensible."

But just as quickly, a backlash against the backlash began, as academics from around the country criticized Drexel as overreacting and taking the tweets out of context. By midday, a Change.org petition was demanding that Drexel condemn the "troll-storm" and respect Ciccariello-Maher's academic freedom.

The episode is the latest example of how seemingly inconsequential events and statements can be amplified and distorted by a hyper-partisan online journalism based on little or no actual reporting. It is a game of whisper-down-the-lane, where one report is used as the foundation for the next.

Ciccariello-Maher, who has 10,000 Twitter followers, set off the furor late Christmas Eve when he wrote "All I Want for Christmas Is White Genocide," a provocative riff on the holiday chestnut.

To those unfamiliar with the language of academic discussions on race and inequality, the statement was surely shocking. But to Ciccariello-Maher, who is white - and who has written extensively on racism, policing, social inequality, and colonialism - the phrase white genocide is shorthand for those who support policies that can harm and oppress minority groups, like blacks and immigrants.

Ciccariello-Maher did not respond to a request for an interview, but he wrote in an email that the tweet was intended as a riposte to those who complain that white Americans are the real victims of discrimination.

"White genocide," he wrote, "is a figment of the racist imagination. It should be mocked, and I'm glad to have mocked it."

Writers at Breitbart and the Daily Caller nevertheless took his statement literally. Citing previous tweets by Ciccariello-Maher, a Daily Caller article claimed the professor "has a history of hating white people." Breitbart took issue with his "slams of President[-elect] Donald Trump, attacks on Jews, as well as pro-Black Lives Matter and pro-communist sloganeering." Because Ciccariello-Maher's Twitter and Facebook feeds were no longer accessible Monday, there was no way to assess the claims independently.

In the not-so-old days, journalists might have tracked Ciccariello-Maher down to question him before reporting on his tweets. Instead, the discussion played out with no verifications in a Twitter duel in which the statements grew ever more fevered.

On Sunday, Ciccariello-Maher egged on his critics by tweeting: "To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a good thing indeed." More provocations followed, as did more website posts and more social media comments.

The response was intense and viral. In his statement, Ciccariello-Maher claimed that "a coordinated smear campaign was orchestrated to send mass tweets and emails to myself, my employer, and my colleagues. I have received hundreds of death threats."

That could not be confirmed, either.

The ruckus over Ciccariello-Maher's tweet is not so different from one last week, after online reports falsely accused a Jewish family of forcing a Lancaster County school district to cancel an elementary school production of A Christmas Carol. The story fit a right-wing narrative that liberal elites have mounted a war on Christmas.

As the fake news pinged around the web, yet another story - this one playing into liberal fears of rising anti-Semitism - falsely claimed that the family had fled its home to avoid reprisals.

The conspiracy theories were quickly punctured. The district actually had canceled the play because of the loss of instructional time. The Anti-Defamation League talked to the family and sent an email noting that it had not fled, but had left town early for a planned vacation. The real story was that there was no real story.

In Ciccariello-Maher's case, Drexel officials also were quick to enter the online fray. Drexel said that "while the university recognizes the right of its faculty to freely express their thoughts and opinions in public debate, Professor Ciccariello-Maher's comments are utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing, and do not in any way reflect the values of the university."

Drexel officials did not respond to requests for comment beyond the official statement.

In emails, several of Ciccariello-Maher's Drexel colleagues described him as an expert on Venezuela and a respected scholar. He is "well-respected in his field and he is a valued colleague at Drexel," wrote Mary Ebeling, a sociology professor. Many non-scholars familiar with his work also came to his defense on Facebook.

Drexel's statement deeply disturbed faculty member Marilyn Gaye Piety, who teaches English and philosophy. "No university should be in business of policing speech," she said. "You've got to be tolerant of ways of people expressing themselves."

She says she expected this latest social media war to blow over.

At least until the next one.

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