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Palestine solidarity activists in Indiana are being subjected to a new kind of online harassment. Beginning in March 2016, about two dozen websites emerged targeting at least three organizers for Students for Justice in Palestine chapters and one professor who acts as an adviser for the groups at two universities in the state.
The websites contain fabricated allegations of sexual harassment, “immoral” behavior and terrorist leanings. They appear to be part of a well-coordinated attempt to smear the reputations of individuals who speak out for Palestinian rights. Some of those targeted are planning legal action against the creators of the websites.
Unlike past attempts to smear the characters of Palestine activists, the websites do not exclusively focus on their target’s activism. For example, one chastises a Muslim female student for supposedly improper behavior. Another accuses the male professor of sexual harassment. The websites present no evidence to support their claims.
Analyzed together it is clear the websites are being managed by the same person or group of people. There is also evidence that the same people who created these websites attacking Palestine activists may be planning to create more websites posing as pro-Palestinian.
Such websites could resemble Sawtona, a sockpuppet group claiming to represent Palestinian opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Sawtona emerged at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) the same week that the first of the websites was created.
The first website appears to have been created on 7 March 2016, targeting Sarah, an active member of Students for Justice in Palestine at Purdue University in West Lafayette. Using the blogging platform LiveJournal, the writer uses one post to brand Sarah “a disbeliever” who puts on a show of being a Muslim. The Electronic Intifada has changed the names of students targeted by the websites. Another post is written from the viewpoint of a “devout Muslim” who professes to have witnessed Sarah not wearing her headscarf at a party and drinking “with two guys” before “making out” with one of them. Sarah said she first discovered the site almost three months after it was created, when she and a friend were googling each other for fun. “The first one I saw, I just laughed”, she recalled. “But then I discovered there were six of them”.
Sarah describes a low-key atmosphere at Purdue University when it comes to Palestine solidarity organizing. There is no major hostility to her group, nor is there big mobilization for it. She believes she only became a target when she got involved with the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at IUPUI, which is about an hour’s drive from Purdue.
In March 2016, Sarah had been working with Lina, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine at IUPUI, in preparation for a regional conference the following month. Later that month, two more websites were created smearing Sarah for allegedly leading a “non-Muslim lifestyle”, along with a crop of websites with a new target : Lina. These sites describe Lina as a closet “Islamic extremist” who has privately advocated for the “annihilation of Israelis”. Describing her as supporting violence, one website claims that Lina fits the profile of a “would-be attacker” –language clearly intended to attract law enforcement scrutiny and intimidate any student from speaking out at a time of heightened tension over terrorism and campus shootings. Both are written from the point of view of IUPUI students who purport to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but believe Lina to be an unacceptable leader. In April, two more websites targeting Lina were created. Though they use her name in their addresses, they are currently empty.
Then, within 10 minutes, on 18 April, three websites were created with three distinct angles but one objective : to tarnish Purdue University professor Bill Mullen’s reputation. Mullen is a professor of American Studies with a focus on working class literature and critical race theory. He is the co-editor of Against Apartheid : The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities, published last year. Though he does not teach on Palestine, he has served as the adviser to Purdue’s Students for Justice in Palestine group since 2010. He says he has given a handful of talks about the issue on campus, but his primary engagement has been as an adviser to student organizers. Mullen is also an organizer with the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Like Sarah, Mullen says there has been a relatively genial environment at Purdue for Students for Justice in Palestine.
One website targeting Mullen claims to be a platform for female students to “warn others” about Mullen’s purported track record of sexual harassment. The anonymous writer adopts the persona of a woman who has taken to the Internet because she doesn’t want “to be part of some administrative investigation, which could have unknown repercussions”. Another website describes Mullen’s social justice advocacy as the product of “white privilege” and “white guilt”. Though the writer claims to know how Mullen conducts his classes, they do not explicitly claim to be a student. On a third website, the writer presents themselves as connected to IUPUI but, notably, not a student of Mullen’s. The writer claims to have only discovered Mullen and his wife, Tithi Bhattacharya, a history professor at Purdue, after coming across an article they co-wrote criticizing Mitch Daniels, Purdue’s president and former Republican governor of Indiana. “Professors have an obligation to maintain our university’s good image, an image that has been earned through excellence”, the writer states. Another post on the site likens Mullen to Donald Trump and also contains a cursory biographical post on Bhattacharya that claims she has used the term “zio-Nazi”, a claim she strenuously denies and for which the post presents no evidence.
While the web of sites smearing Mullen and the students appears to have absorbed a lot of time and some money from its creators, there is no indication that the sites have been circulated, shared or promoted. “The creepy part is that it’s just sitting there. I can’t believe it’s not going to emerge into my life, though. I just don’t know where or when”, Mullen told The Electronic Intifada.
Mullen and Bhattacharya discovered the websites in early May 2016, when Bhattacharya was clearing out her Facebook messages and pressed delete just as she read the beginning of the message, “an open letter to Tithi Bhattacharya”. She couldn’t retrieve the message, but did an Internet search for what she remembered. The “open letter” was on the same website accusing Mullen of sexual harassment. “Tithi”, the letter states, “I implore you to conduct an investigation of your own before he covers his tracks”.
One of the websites misrepresenting Mullen’s political work claims that allegations of Mullen’s sexual misconduct are under investigation. But no investigation of Mullen has been opened, even after an anonymous woman made repeated phone calls to the Purdue University dean’s office accusing Mullen of expressing anti-Semitism in the classroom and suggesting that he made female students feel uncomfortable. Mullen says that he immediately reported the websites alleging sexual harassment to Purdue dean David Reingold, who told Mullen that no formal complaints of sexual harassment had been lodged. The university did not respond to The Electronic Intifada’s specific inquiries on the matter, except to say that “Purdue University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters and seeks to afford all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn”.
University procedures for resolving complaints of discrimination or harassment make clear that a person subject to a complaint would have to be notified of any such investigation and given an opportunity to respond. Mullen said he has never been notified of any kind of investigation.
“The fabricated accounts of sexual harassment against me are false, and a calculated smear designed to silence my support for Palestinian civil rights”, Mullen said. “They demonstrate that these anonymous pro-Israel harassers must resort to scurrilous personal attacks since they cannot deny or refute the realities of Israeli apartheid and occupation”.
All three websites about Mullen were purchased through the same registrar and created through the same hosting provider. They all share an IP address. The publicly available information on the person who registered the sites is the same, though likely fake. Inquiries sent to email addresses listed for the registrants of the domains went unanswered, while phone numbers listed, usually with country codes outside the United States, were inoperative. And though the websites were created simultaneously, they contain hyperlinks to one another. Some of the two dozen websites reviewed by The Electronic Intifada used masking services that for a fee will protect the real identity of the registrant –the online equivalent of using a post office box instead of a home address. All five websites targeting Lina and Mullen were created using the same registrar and hosting company, a clear indication that the same person or group of people is behind both. All the websites targeting one of the students have the same IP address, as do those targeting Bill Mullen. The IP addresses are also nearly identical to each other, except for the last three digits, which indicates they were acquired simultaneously. At least three more websites with the same IP addresses as the sites targeting Mullen have been registered. They are currently empty, but their domain names –variations of Interfaith Coalition for Palestine and Coalition for Palestine– suggest they may be used to deceitfully carry the banner of Palestine solidarity, or impersonate Palestinians or their supporters in a similar manner to Sawtona.
The Electronic Intifada also discovered a batch of five websites targeting a third student activist at Purdue University.
Between March and June 2016, a total of nine websites attacking Mullen appeared, some on platforms such as Tumblr, Wordpress, Weebly, Storify and LiveJournal. All nine contained links to some of the others. Minor but telling changes were made to the site accusing Mullen of sexual harassment, within moments of similar changes to other sites. These alterations, documented by a website change detection service, provide more strong evidence that the same person or group is managing the sites.
Three “reviews” were also posted on the website Rate My Professor in April and May 2106, making accusations similar to those on the websites. The reviews were supposedly by students who claimed to have taken one of Mullen’s American Studies classes. One claimed Mullen made the student uncomfortable by “standing too close or looking at me for too long”. The other two asserted that Mullen indoctrinates students into an “anti-American” cult and does not tolerate dissenting opinions. But following a complaint by Mullen and his lawyer, Rate My Professor removed the posts. Mullen produced evaluations showing that no students expressed such dissatisfaction or discomfort about his class. “I see this as a vindication that Rate My Professor recognized the illegitimacy of the reviews”, Mullen told The Electronic Intifada. “There is no correlation between my teaching experience, or teaching evaluations and what these websites are saying”. “My evaluations are phenomenally good, they give me high marks for offering various opinions and class diversity”, he added. “My life as an activist is separate from my classroom presentation”.
As insidious as this campaign is, carrying the potential to wreak damage to people’s personal lives, it also signals the crumbling foundation on which stalwart Israel advocacy has long rested. Traditionally, attacks on activists for Palestine have been premised on the assumption that it is enough to expose someone’s criticisms of Israel to damage their reputation. Last year, for instance, a website called Canary Mission emerged to publicly tarnish activists it describes as anti-Israel. Linked to the far-right, pro-Israel and anti-Muslim demagogue Daniel Pipes, and to other pro-Israel organizations and individuals, Canary Mission’s political angle is straightforward and its agenda transparent.
In July 2016, a new website appeared containing images of students and professors involved in Palestine solidarity activism at IUPUI. Accusing them of “spreading hatred” and calling for violence against Jews, the website says its information is sourced from Canary Mission. Though The Electronic Intifada found no connection between these new websites and the Israeli government, the campaign in Indiana dovetails with Israel’s official efforts to thwart the Palestine solidarity movement.
In June 2016, Israel’s public security minister Gilad Erdan, who leads the government’s campaign against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, began accepting applications to head a new “tarnishing unit”. A writer with the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz called it a “dirty tricks” operation. Working with Israeli intelligence agencies, Erdan’s ministry is engaging in what a veteran Israeli analyst is calling “black ops”. These may include defamation campaigns, harassment and threats to the lives of activists as well as infringing on and violating their privacy, according to the analyst.
A group of Israeli citizens recently filed an official information request to attempt to force the Israeli government to reveal any funding to foreign groups or individuals who may be assisting in the attacks on Palestine solidarity activists.
Mullen and other individuals targeted are working with two lawyers to file a defamation lawsuit against the anonymous creators of the websites. “This suit will be filed specifically against the purveyors of the defamatory lies and smears against me, but also in solidarity with countless other advocates for Palestinian human rights who have been the subject of false accusations, harassment and even efforts at blacklisting”, Mullen said. Mullen’s Indianapolis-based lawyer Mark Sniderman says the website alleging sexual harassment fulfills the basic elements for a defamation lawsuit. “Websites are no different from other publications”, Sniderman told The Electronic Intifada. “People have a broad range of rights but defamation laws and libel laws still apply”, he said, noting that there are variations from state to state.
For Indiana, in order for a publication to qualify as defamatory, it has to have been created in malice and caused harm as a result. The false assertion of sexual misconduct or criminal conduct are considered defamatory by their very nature. Sniderman says the only defense against a defamation lawsuit is proving the allegation is true. In this case, where the defendants are anonymous, the lawsuit would allow Mullen to subpoena information from the Internet companies hosting the information. That could potentially lead to those behind the websites being unmasked.
Charlotte SILVER and Ali ABUNIMAH. Jason YANOWITZ contributed research.