How a Twitter thread sparked a lawsuit against Nieman Lab’s founder

In the thirteen years since it was founded, Harvard University’s Nieman Lab has developed a reputation for thoughtful explorations of digital trends in journalism and incisive critiques of how reporters and editors go about their business.

The Lab’s founder, Joshua Benton, and Harvard, are now facing scrutiny of their own. A former journalism professor has filed a defamation suit, claiming she lost her job after Benton outed her on Twitter as the author of several controversial, right-wing comments. Last month, US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin greenlit her lawsuit, which means Benton and others at Nieman Lab could be facing depositions, discovery, and a trial. 

The dispute began in May 2018, when Benton wrote a Twitter thread about someone who was using the name “truthseeker” to comment on a Nieman Lab story that examined whether people who buy into fake news tend to be delusional about other matters. Thanks to his administrative access on Disqus, Nieman Lab’s commenting platform, Benton determined that the account was linked to Francesca Viola, a longtime assistant professor of broadcast journalism and media law at Temple University. He also managed to find truthseeker’s more noxious comments from other sites. 

Viola lost her teaching position a year later.

Viola’s initial comment––the one that triggered Benton––was fairly tame. “I am a journalism professor at a major east coast university,” she began, before criticizing the piece as “an article designed to insinuate that … conservative media that don’t tout the democrat party talking points are disseminating ‘fake news.’ I will no longer use Neiman as a source.”

Before long, Benton surfaced comments that truthseeker had posted elsewhere––ranging from lambasting the Drudge Report for being too liberal, to surfacing conspiracy theories about Seth Rich, the Democratic National Committee employee who was murdered in an apparent robbery. “I watch Hannity and he is absolutely right about this Seth Rich thing,” Viola wrote on another site. “The DNC is corrupt, and like Hillary will do anything to preserve power… even murder…. The DNC had him killed.” She also engaged in unfounded election theories: “The reason Trump won is because more people voted for him than your girl. And save your breath on the tired refrain that Hillary won the popular vote because of some illegal votes cast in California. Yawn.”

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One truthseeker comment that Benton found, responding to a 2017 Gateway Pundit piece about a Muslim protest at Trump Tower, was especially abhorrent: “Scum. Deport them. They hate us. Get rid of them.”

The reaction to Benton’s tweets was swift and devastating, according to Viola’s suit. She became “a social pariah at Temple,” and several colleagues “demanded that she be fired…. Viola was also ostracized during faculty meetings…. Viola was also bombarded by dozens of harassing and disturbing emails, phone calls and messages.” 

Shortly after Benton identified Viola, David Boardman, the dean of Temple’s media and communication program, stated, “we are troubled by the content.” He also noted that people “in the Temple community are entitled to exercise free speech within constitutional parameters.”  

Benton received criticism, from conservative pundits like Mike Cernovich, but also from mainstream journalists. Stephen Fowler, of Georgia Public Broadcasting, wrote: “Posting someone’s name/title because you can see their email on the backend because they made a questionable comment seems… in poor taste and just as questionable.” Temple’s own student news site backed Viola’s right to say what she thought: “We don’t believe she should be removed for her alleged comments, although we condemn them.”

And Benton’s actions seemed at odds with Disqus’s own policies, which state that “user information is for moderation purposes only” and adds that “distribution of personal identifiable information is prohibited.”

After several days of backlash, Benton posted an apology: “By revealing such details without making an effort to contact her and seek confirmation and explanation, and otherwise adhere to rigorous reporting methods, the tweets did not meet Nieman’s journalistic standards. I apologize and regret my error in judgment.” He did not delete the original tweets.

In her suit, Viola acknowledged writing most of the posts. But she denied being behind the anti-Muslim screed. That was critical to Sorokin’s decision to allow the libel and defamation part of Viola’s suit to proceed. The former professor “has plausibly alleged that Benton may have been negligent in his failure to verify that she was the author,” the judge wrote. He also took note of how Benton managed to discover and reveal her identity. Viola wrote her comments “based on the promise that her user information would be used for ‘moderation purposes only,’ which was violated when Benton posted her information on Twitter,” Sorokin wrote. (The Harvard Crimson, a student-run news site, reported on the ruling earlier this week.)

So, if Viola didn’t write the anti-Muslim comment, who did? Her suit offers no explanation, and she didn’t return requests for comment. Harvard attorney Bradley Abruzzi declined to discuss the case. 

Viola’s suit raises a host of issues. There is the traditional one: that reporters should always contact people they’re criticizing––on Twitter or in other media. And there are those issues that apply to the digital age, in particular, exposing the identity of an anonymous commenter. The post that Viola added to the Nieman article––which was in response to another critical comment––wasn’t personal or racist. There’s often little good that comes from a journalist taking on a commenter; if the post is especially repugnant, it can be removed.

More fundamentally, the Nieman Lab chose to use Disqus, a platform that allows for anonymized accounts. By contrast, a site like WSJ.com tethers comments to subscribers’ accounts and requires that people use their real names. There are valid arguments for either side. Allowing people to hide their identities can enable more robust discussions and provide an outlet for those who have reason to fear repercussions. But requiring people to reveal their identities reins in much of the crazy stuff that infects discussion boards. The main thing is, an administrator can’t have it both ways, promising anonymity and then using special access to expose someone’s identity.

Newsrooms have been struggling with these debates since they went online. Comments usually appeal to a tiny fraction of readers; an NPR study from a few years ago found that only .06 percent of its unique users bothered to post. The Philadelphia Inquirer cut back comments last February, noting that they had been “hijacked by a small group of trolls who traffic in racism, misogyny, and homophobia.” 

There’s no shortage of places where people can say what they want about news stories––anonymously or by name. News organizations have found that comment boards often bring out the worst in our readers. Judging from this episode, they can also lead journalists astray. 

 

Editors’ note: CJR corrected a previous photo that showed Wesleyan University instead of Harvard University.

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Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).

TOP IMAGE: Photo of Harvard University via David Adam Kess/Wikimedia Commons