An account registered to the Temple email address of Francesca Viola, a journalism professor, has posted anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and fake news conspiracy theory comments on various media websites.
In Spring 2018, Viola taught Broadcast Newswriting and Journalism and the Law courses. The account, called “truthseeker,” posted comments on alt-right media sites like The Gateway Pundit and Breitbart News Network, as well as national news sites like the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Hill.
In one comment, the account registered to Viola responded to a story on The Gateway Pundit about Muslims praying in front of Trump Tower. The account’s comment called Muslims “scum.”
“Deport them,” the truthseeker account posted. “They hate us. Get rid of them.”
In another comment on a Philly.com article, the account registered to Viola posted about alleged disagreements with the comment approval policies on the news site.
“I’ve been tracking your pattern of not allowing comments on any stories that involve race, crimes that involve African Americans, or any article that would give readers a chance to express any anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiments,” the account wrote. “Although you and your editorial team may find these opinions uncomfortable and even repulsive, the First Amendment protects those opinions.”
Some of the comments posted by the truthseeker account promote conspiracy theories endorsed by far-right activists, including one that argues millions of people voted illegally in California in the 2016 presidential election and that the Democratic National Committee killed its employee Seth Rich for leaking information to WikiLeaks.
David Boardman, the dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication, wrote in a statement to The Temple News that Viola has “admitted to writing some but not all of these posts” and specifically denies writing the derogatory posts about Muslim people, which he said is “a comment we find particularly abhorrent.”
“We are troubled by the content of some of the other cited posts but acknowledge that those in the Temple community are entitled to exercise free speech within constitutional parameters,” Boardman added.
The account posted a comment on an article titled “People who are delusional, dogmatic, or religious fundamentalists are more likely to believe fake news,” which was published by the Nieman Journalism Lab, Harvard University’s journalism think tank.
Joshua Benton, the director of Nieman Lab, moderates the comments on the site. On Friday, he tweeted screenshots of the account’s comment on the Nieman story, along with the account’s past comments. Benton publicly identified Viola as a person connected to the truthseeker account.
I think that this attitude — permanently rejecting a news source because it accurately reports something you don't like — is exactly what you want in a journalism professor, yes? Also, spell our name right, Francesca Viola of Temple University https://t.co/VBssWkSvlY pic.twitter.com/aNXjY36IP0— Joshua Benton (@jbenton) May 5, 2018
“I was shocked to see that these comments…were coming from a journalism professor, posting with her Temple email address,” Benton wrote in a statement to The Temple News. “Everyone is entitled to their political opinions, but I think students and staff should be able to know when someone charged with teaching young people journalism holds these sorts of fringe and debunked views.”
The comments by the truthseeker account were all posted through a Disqus profile. Disqus is a service used by many news websites to create a profile of all comments posted by one account.
Each member of the Temple community receives a Temple email address that is connected to a TUMail account, which can be accessed with their name or their Accessnet username and password. The Disqus account registered to Viola has been regularly active since at least 2014.
The comment posted on Nieman Lab’s story has since been deleted, and the truthseeker Disqus account was unreachable as of Monday night. The Temple News was able to access these comments and the truthseeker Disqus account when our staff began to report on the story on Saturday morning.
The truthseeker account also uses identifying information about Viola — in several instances, the account posted that the person using it is a journalism professor on the East Coast and a lawyer who received their degree from Widener University. According to Viola’s biography on the Klein College website, Viola earned her law degree from Widener.
In a statement to The Temple News, Viola denounced Benton’s tweets and other posts about her. She said they were defamatory. Her full statement is as follows:
“I dispute the incorrect attributions and specious allegations posted by Joshua Benton on his Twitter feed at Harvard’s Nieman journalism think tank. I am appalled his improper ‘doxxing’ and by his flagrant violation of the Twitter, Disqus, Nieman and Harvard’s terms of service, the apparent violation of the Consumer Fraud and Abuse Act — as well as the ethical and legal standards of journalism. I consider this a personal defamatory attack as well as an attempt to silence academic freedom and people everywhere. Most importantly, as an investigation is now underway, I would ask the community not to assume I am the author of some or all of those comments.”
Many on Twitter came to Viola’s defense and condemned Benton for “doxxing” her. Doxxing is the act of publishing identifying or private information about an individual with malicious intent.
Hi, why are you doxing a commenter to @NiemanLab?— Mike Cernovich 🇺🇸 (@Cernovich) May 5, 2018
I'm reading your Terms of Service, and nothing indicates that users have consented to being doxed by you or Harvard.
What am I missing?@EFF https://t.co/45OjWSNmGf
Benton denied allegations that he doxxed Viola.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that the First Amendment does not protect hate speech. The First Amendment does protect hate speech but does not regulate moderation guidelines of newspapers.