Conservative groups have spent the last several years warning of a culture of intolerance developing on college campuses. Their mission appears to be attacking what they say is censorship of conservatives by demanding liberals be censored, attacked, or threatened.
In a Chronicle of Higher Education report this week, the conservative group Campus Reform was outed for their "right-wing, astroturfed-outrage ecosystem, where dark-money donors pay student stringers small bounties for tips about 'liberal professors.'" It was a story by a Collin College History Professor L.D. Burnett, who became the target of the group's efforts.
"I told my dean that I was probably on the Campus Reform radar screen because I had recently published an article in Slate that was critical of the president's 'patriotic education' initiative," she explained.
According to former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa, it's a form of "domestic information warfare." In an extensive thread on Twitter Sunday, she explained that the right-wing group's plot censor anyone they deem unfit by employing their own form of "cancel culture."
"Campus Reform is a project of The Leadership Institute, which is funded by the Koch donor network," she explained. "It's essentially, in intelligence terms, a PERCEPTION MANAGEMENT OPERATION (sic) designed to delegitimize the academy."
She linked to a Pew Research Survey showing that Republicans increasingly see colleges and universities as an enemy to the United States. It isn't hard to understand why. Facts and information have consistently been the enemy to President Donald Trump, and his administration and fact-checking conservative outlets like Fox News can be perceived by viewers as an affront to their own crafted "reality."
"So, what are their tactics? Typically, it involves focusing the Eye of Sauron on a particular faculty member's tweets or comments, stripping them of context and analysis, and making them into a 'story,'" said Rangappa.
She went onto cite this as an example of their form of "journalism."
My latest for @campusreform https://t.co/nI8XDXTcVP— Ashley Carnahan (@Ashley Carnahan)1602732478.0
She explained that the story then becomes the source for right-wing outlets to do their own stories on it and bring on other conservatives to bash the professor or the university.
"In a coordinated effort, the outlets then all descend like piranhas on both the faculty member and institution (through both phone and email), demanding comment and explanation. Which brings me to the second phase of the info op: REFLEXIVE CONTROL," Rangappa tweeted. "Reflexive control is basically a disinformation technique whereby you feed certain assumptions to your adversary, which they adopt without question, and then will react on the basis of those assumptions."
In the case of the Chronicle professor, she tweeted during the Vice Presidential Debate weeks ago that Mike Pence should "shut his demon mouth" because he kept interrupting Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and talking over her.
When the professor sent the tweet out, no one cared, said Rangappa. There was little to no response, fanfare or attention. It was only after Campus Reform wrote about it that conservatives decided they were offended.
"At the same time, administrators at the institution receive this deluge of activity, presented with the following assumptions: 1) your faculty member just said something CRAZY; 2) you MUST DO SOMETHING," she explained. "Note that also at this time, private trolls are sending harassing (often crude, misogynistic, racist) emails/phone calls to both the professor/institution. This serves to disorient the target, make them feel a sense of panic and urgency, and the need to FIX THIS IMMEDIATELY."
LD Burnett did the right thing, Rangappa explained. Collin College did not.
"Instead, he sent a CAMPUS-WIDE email reprimanding her. In doing so, he furthered the objectives of the op, namely, paint higher ed as a crazy place with commie hippie profs running amok."
Rangappa posted "Face with rolling eyes" and a meme telling President Neil Matkin "congratulations, you played yourself."
Burnett, however, also did something that rarely happens, she pushed back on the college president, and her colleagues agreed. The president was so fragile he couldn't handle being undermined by his entire faculty. So, he shut down the "reply all" function and stopped all conversations on the topic.
"Which brings me to the last feature of information warfare: ASYMMETRY," Rangappa continued. "CR is able to quickly mobilize its 'army' of so-called reporters and trolls to saturate the information space (the battlefield) and overwhelm its adversary. The goal is to isolate, intimidate, and silence. Shutting down a common conversation and the ability to form an organized response (or even consensus) furthers this asymmetry, offering the advantage to the aggressor and further leaving the target isolated and alone. Super bad idea jeans."
She closed by giving suggestions to academics if they're ever in the same situation and how to be smarter than the Collin College administration when dealing with the right-wing attack machine.