Dear readers, some of the material discussed in this article contains obscene language. We have restricted using that language until after the section titled, “Background of the events”.
By Acton H. Gorton / CU-CitizenAccess — What began as a reaction to the news that University of Illinois students would have to attend class during sub-zero weather quickly escalated into a discussion of racism, sexism and white-privilege that will take place during the #ONECAMPUS forum on February 6.
It all began on Sunday evening of January 26 after Chancellor Phyllis Wise sent a mass email to students that campus would be open for business the next day. Angered by the decision, a handful of students took to venting their frustrations using the social media service Twitter.
Within a little more than a day, some 2,500 messages — or Tweets — were sent through Twitter with remarks about the chancellor. The first sets of Tweets expressed frustration, but were soon followed by Tweets of anger, and then vitriolic racism and sexism. In response, a larger contingent of students took to Twitter in defense of Chancellor Wise against the remarks. They were soon joined by anti-racism and anti-sexism activists that use social media because of its ability to reach large audiences.
In an effort to understand how the nature of the conversation evolved, CU-CitizenAccess.org sought to identify the most influential communicators that participated in driving the discussion.
By counting the number of messages sent and repeated, CU-CitizenAccess.org identified individuals as Idea Starters, Amplifiers and Curators. This approach is described in a 2012 academic paper titled, ” Identifying Communicator Roles in Twitter“.
The approach provides an understanding of the discussion by tracking the spread of ideas throughout Twitter based upon the activity of Tweets and Re-Tweets. The paper describes the three major roles as:
Idea Starter:“someone who has their tweets retweeted by a large number of people – thus suggesting that their ideas are of value to share”.
Amplifier:“a user who is the initial person to retweet a tweet – one which is part of the retweet chain”.
Curator:“an individual who brings together conversations”.
The first step was to gather as many Tweets as possible during the event. Many times the Tweets can be short lived, as people will erase controversial comments from their online history. When that happens, it is very unlikely that they will be included in the analysis. In effect, what we see with this visual are the individuals that posted to Twitter’s public timeline and did not attempt to takedown or remove their commentary.
To qualify as an “Idea Starter”, the individual needed to be Re-Tweeted a minimum number of 50 times. This number was chosen because it provided the Top-5 most active individuals that fit the role of Idea Starter.
The graphic below breaks down the individuals throughout the discussion that fit the respective communicator roles. The names can be dragged with a mouse to see things more clearly.
What we don’t see on the graphic are the people that participated in individual commentary or simply watched the events unfold.
If you want to explore or take a closer look at the individuals that participated in the conversation, CU-CitizenAccess.org used the TAGS Explorer to create a node-link diagram of everyone that publicly participated in the discussion. A node-link diagram looks visually similar to a hairball because lines are drawn between two different points in order to show a relationship. Click the image to load the website and get a closer look:
For a more in-depth approach to the Twitter discussion using social network analysis, take a look at Michael Simeone’s work on his blog. Simeone is a former University of Illinois researcher with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. He now heads up the IHR Nexus Lab for Digital Humanities and Transdisciplinary Informatics at Arizona State University.
From the analysis, Simeone hypothesizes that there are some elements of self-interest, rather than reaching a consensus about who or what is right or wrong. Additionally, as Simeone puts it, there appears to be some preferential treatment for @suey_park.
Background of the events
Shortly after Chancellor Wise released the email announcing campus would be open amidst predictions for severe weather, a few students posted their frustrations towards the decision onto Twitter using the hash-tag, “#fuckphyllis”.
As originally reported by Buzz Feed, the messages began distastefully, but then shortly began to include racism and sexism as others joined in on the discussion. Some people posted to Twitter using an alias to obscure their identity, and they are responsible for the worst comments.
In particular, some imagery was posted of Chancellor Phyllis made to resemble an Internet meme.
A “meme” is a term coined to describe an evolving trend of some popularity on the Internet. Examples range from homemade movies capturing embarrassing moments, cute animals slowly waking up from sleep, self-made music videos that go wrong, to intentionally made images poking fun at something.
In this case, one student took a photograph of Chancellor Wise and added the words, “YALL READY FOR CLASS 2MA? … OR NAH?”
And another student created a Twitter account for Chancellor Wise for sending out fake messages.
Chancellor Phyllis Wise is a successful academic leaderwho also happens to be an Asian-Americanwoman. Her academic curriculum vitae alone is 27 pages long; add another 8 pages for her administrative experience.
Activist Suey Park, a University of Illinois alum, who Tweeted and Re-Tweeted the most messages throughout the discussion, explained her approach to using Twitter in an article for The Washington Post titled, ” Suey Park: Asian American women are #NotYourAsianSidekick“. In the piece, dated December 17, 2013, Park describes starting a trend on Twitter with the hash-tag #NotYourAsianSideKick and what organizing around a cause on Twitter has the potential to do.
“I want these conversations to be ongoing and not just be rooted in having these conversations but having these conversations be transformative to a point where we’re organizing around them. There’s so much potential if we’re able to activate the millions of Asian Americans who are out there,” said Park.
On the evening of January 26, nearly an hour and a half after Chancellor Wise sent an email announcing the campus would be open the next morning, Park picked up on the #fuckphyllis hash-tag and began weighing in:
- “Forever one of the embarrassed alumni because of trends like #FuckPhyllis existing when the campus was silent in the face of oppression.”
- “As an Asian American woman, trends like #FuckPhyllis make it clear that no amount of success can erase racist and sexist attacks.”
- “Same school that invites me back to give speeches about race and feminism has students that are so numb to critical thinking. #FuckPhyllis”
Some students began to reply to Park, defending the hash-tag by saying that it was being twisted and the real problem is with dangerously cold weather:
— Rich Uh (@richathanyouu) January 27, 2014
Then others join in:
— Matt Cooper (@MattCooper_) January 27, 2014
— Azriel (@azrielneighbors) January 27, 2014
Hate having to go to school in the snow? Then skip class. But don’t attack a University chancellor with a fake Twitter account. #FuckPhyllis
— Andrea Garcia-Vargas (@AndreaGarVar) January 27, 2014
— Dani (@xodanix3) January 27, 2014
Park discussed suggesting an article to editors:
Oh shoot I just pitched #FuckPhyllis as a story to my editors and took a ton of screenshots. *sigh* wish this could have been avoided.
— Suey Park (@suey_park) January 27, 2014
And thanks the writer at Buzz Feed that covered the story…
The Tweet shown above sent to the Buzz Feed writer Rega Jha (@regaiha) is favorited by Tanya Chen (@Tanya_Chen), both of who have previously written about Park:
Common sense should tell any current UIUC student in the #FuckPhyllis that there are years of potentiall for horrible consequences ahead.
— Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) January 27, 2014
— Suey Park (@suey_park) January 27, 2014
The fake Twitter account for Chancellor Phyllis is taken down…
Discussion whether messages are driven by specific groups…
#FuckPhyllis = racism + sexism. And lets be real: You dont have to intend for something to be oppressive for it to actually BE oppressive.
— Lynx~ (@LynxSainteMarie) January 27, 2014
— Lilith (@GrimalkinRN) January 27, 2014
This continues for some time…
Before things begin to wind down, Park’s posts to Twitter would be Re-Tweeted 269 times, ranking her at the top of the list:
An apology is issued
One Tweet stood out, asking followers if it would be better to shoot Hitler or Chancellor Wise.
That Tweet was produced by a female student, who temporarily removed her Twitter account, then resurfaced with an official apology, and then took her account offline again.
“To all whom it affected, I apologize for my terrible and inappropriate tweet. Cold briefly shut down my brain” — Kelsey Bear (@kelsbear9)”
As of the publishing of this story, @kelsbear9 is the only student to come forward and apologize.