Blog Post

Bloggers Take the FBI! Or, What does New Media bring to Public Scholarship?

Around two weeks ago, Spencer Ackernman over at Wired Magazine’s national security blog, “Danger Room,” wrote a post that revealed that, in April 2011, the FBI had used a racist and Islamophobic powerpoint to train new recruits.  These materials depicted Islam as a barbaric “7th century” religion, alleged that Arabs best respond to “force,” and cited literature that equated Islam with terrorism as “recommended reading.”  

While this news about the FBI is certainly disheartening, what interests me here is what happened after Ackerman wrote his post.  The first thing that happened is, well, the FBI responded.  They argued that the use of the powerpoint was an isolated incident and that the FBI had ended the program in which it was used in April 2011 (the same month in which it was started.) 

But Ackerman, working with his colleague Noah Shachtman, followed up and found evidence that the FBI had continued using Islamphobic training materials after this time.  In particular, a Bureau employee gave a lecture in which he argued that the real fight in the “War on Terror” should not be against al-Qaida, but rather against Islam itself. 

The stories were widely linked within the blogging community and garnered such support that senators and Arab and Muslim-American groups publicly denounced the FBI.  The scrutiny of the Bureau grew to such a critical mass that something that I never would have previously thought possible happened: The FBI listened, conducting a comprehensive review of all materials in its training program that relate to religion and culture.  Even more remarkably, this change came just *five* days after Ackerman published his initial story.

“Blogs Can Change the World,” was the title of Andrew Sullivan’s final post on the subject.  And, I have to say—in spite of my own knee jerk skepticism—that he may be right.  I never would have expected change to come at all, much less so quickly—and all from a single blog post by a blogger that some consider to be of the “far left.”

All this has gotten me thinking about how new media changes—and I believe, increases—the possibilities for and power of public scholarship.  I remember my own anguish as a college student at the start of the Iraq War: The country seemed to be marching in one direction, in utter ignorance of everything that scholars—the people who were the experts on the Middle East—had to say about the subject.  I wondered then how we could take scholarly knowledge—which, in general, remains sadly cloistered within the Ivory Tower’s walls—and apply it to pressing public problems that seem to so desperately need its attention. 

It was not till years later that I learned that there was a thing called “public scholarship,” and that many scholars were in fact with just how scholarly knowledge could inform public policy and public debate.  I’ve been very impressed with many public scholarship initiatives that I’ve seem, but I’m wondering how scholars might be able to more effectively utilize new media technologies to contribute to public debates.  Of course, there are isolated blogs by scholars whom I greatly respect—Michael Berube, As’ad AbuKhalil—but what strategies might we have for combining and institutionalizing new media project in public scholarship within the academy?

I’m tentatively planning on starting a HASTAC group on public scholarship.  If you would be interested in this—or just have comments on this post—please let me know!

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1 comment

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I'm also interested in a public scholarship group. In fact, I think my next blog post is going to be about public scholarship/public history and how "public" is typically invoked.

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