Cyber safety assembly sparks controversy and online conflict

On November 14, Internet security activist and founder of the Library Freedom project Alison Macrina visited PHS to deliver a presentation on “Social Media in the Dark Ages.”

There were two presentations held on November 14 for students of every grade, and some staff members. To some members of the community, the speaker’s presentation was viewed as incendiary and overtly political.

“The goal [of the assembly] was to give students information about online safety, about social media, about things like your digital footprint,” said Principal Snyder. “While the presentation included some of those things… I think those points were overshadowed by other topics that I didn’t expect to be so strongly presented within the context of the main message.”

“Overall, the presenter made comments that were shock-value comments … and students reacted … I think she misinterpreted their reactions and from then on it sort of devolved,” said Jennifer Bigioni, a PHS educational media specialist and librarian.

“Content was lacking, in my opinion,” said Vladislav Stepanov ’19. “The things she was talking about—Tor and [virtual private networks]—it doesn’t work anymore. So maybe the message was kind of in the right direction, but it still wasn’t completely right.”

“The most controversial part [of the assembly] was that it was just a violation of the genre school assemblies are in because, when the school administrators discuss what talks they’re going to hold, they’re supposed to be not challenging and nonpartisan … they’re not supposed to be political in any sense, and this was just the complete opposite of that,” said Talia Fiester ’19.

However, many members of the school community and the speaker herself emphasized the instructive value of the presentation, as well as the culpability of students for some of the conflict.

“As soon as I started showing images of attacks of racism and sexism, there was a pretty sizable minority of students who started laughing and cheering, and otherwise responding with hostility. Some of them were just kind of going along with their peers,” Macrina said. “But indifference to racism and sexism is still very upsetting to me, so I tried to shut those students down a little bit, kept going, and it went a little bit back and forth like that for the duration of the assembly.”

After the presentation, students and the speaker alike began to spar over Twitter.

“A few of our students were trying to make a good point, and I felt like she rebuffed them. And then there were other people … who were making rude at the best and really troubling statements at the worst, and I thought that she sank to their level … I think that’s pretty shameful,” Bigioni said. “What’s great is that our goal [for Macrina was] to talk about social media … we can maybe learn about social media through that Twitter battle.”

While some students had well-reasoned exchanges, they were small in number,” said Princeton resident and parent Jennifer Cohan. “What stands out are the students who lacked impulse control and need guidance… both at home and at school. Several male students were profane, misogynistic, hateful, and ignorant. Two of these students referenced—and posted a photo of—an infamously hateful man, Milo Yiannopoulos, a prominent figure in the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ who has been banned from Twitter.”

“I would say the overwhelming majority of responses that I got on Twitter were obscene and violent, a lot of them from students, some of them from parents,” Macrina said. “Some of them not really clear, a lot of them were vaguely threatening … There were some really great civil exchanges with students … who started asking me such things like ‘I wouldn’t have had a problem with what you said, but you went off-topic’ and it was a great opportunity for us to talk about how I really didn’t go off-topic. There was some really great and healthy dialogue that I was really grateful for.”

The speaker was recommended by Princeton Public Library Executive Director Brett Bonfield, and the program was sponsored by both the Princeton Public Library and Princeton Public Schools. Regarding the reasons why the administration held the assembly, students had divergent views.

“I think it was kind of in late response to the whole ‘Jews versus Nazis’ beer pong last year,” Fiester said. “I also think that the President-elect’s use of social media did play a role as well, but I’m not sure the administration would do it just because of a candidate’s actions.”

The administration, led by Principal Gary Snyder, issued a message in response to the assembly over the loudspeaker the day after.

“I was troubled by the principal’s response. I feel that it didn’t represent well what actually happened in the room,” Macrina said. “I feel that it blamed me for the way that the talk got out of hand and didn’t acknowledge the way that those students responded to images and issues on racism and sexism.”

However, Principal Snyder’s opinion differed.

“We certainly, as a student body, as a school, didn’t act and present ourselves in a way that we know; it was not good, it wasn’t excellent, and yet, from the adult perspective, we have a responsibility to not put students in a situation where they might predictably act in a way that’s not good,” said Principal Snyder. “So… I’ve placed more responsibility on the adults than the students. Some misinterpreted that to think that I wasn’t holding students responsible for the student behavior that wasn’t all good across the board. But, I think more recognize that… most who were there walked away knowing that was not a good experience, from all perspectives.”

As to how students at PHS interpreted the topics discussed in the assembly, Macrina distinguished between the two different groups of students, finding the second more receptive.

“It seems to me that even in the first assembly, the majority of students were still really interested in the topic. And in the second [assembly] definitely, the majority, since they went in a different direction, so I would like to recognize that clearly,” Macrina said. “Princeton is in a good place where a lot of students understand these things that are very serious issues for themselves and their peers, and … I would encourage all of those students to continue learning and thinking about these things on their own.”

In the end, students disagreed as to what extent the speaker’s message was lost in the controversy.

“I know that my response to them wasn’t perfect,” Macrina said. “I responded to them angrily, because it made me very angry. But I also think that it is appropriate to respond to hostility and indifference to racism and sexism with anger.”

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