A Temple University journalism professor has been publicly outed as the user behind an anonymous account linked to conspiracy-theory comments on news websites, and is criticizing the site that identified her.
Francesca Viola, a former reporter for WPHL (Channel 17) and WTXF (Fox 29), was named on Twitter over a comment made on the website of Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab using an account named "truthseeker" on the commenting platform Disqus. The "truthseeker" account had made comments, including an anti-Muslim remark, on a number of right-wing and mainstream websites that used the Disqus commenting system. The sites included Philly.com, which recently moved away from the Disqus platform.
"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?" Nieman Lab director Joshua Benton posted on Twitter on Friday, along with a screenshot of the comment and identifying Viola as "truthseeker."
Viola criticized Benton's decision to publicly identify her.
"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 by 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," she said in a statement. "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."
Benton said in a statement that "no one was doxxed."
In the digital world, the distribution of someone's personal information against the person's will is known as "doxxing," an act that has at times come under criticism for being used for retaliation or intimidation.
"Ms. Viola voluntarily logged into a commenting service and left a comment on our site using her Temple email address," Benton said. "All I did was click one link to see all the other comments she had posted using her Temple email address."
David Boardman, dean of Temple's Klein College of Media and Communication and board chair of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the company that operates the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, said in a statement that the university was looking into the situation. He said some of the posts were made by Viola.
"Professor Viola has admitted to writing some but not all of these posts and specifically denies writing the post that is derogatory of Muslim protesters, a comment we find particularly abhorrent," he said. "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."
The derogatory comment Boardman referred to was posted by the "truthseeker" account on Gateway Pundit, a conservative website that regularly peddles conspiracy theories. On a story posted in June 2017 claiming Muslims praying in front of Trump Tower were "working on their Islamic takeover," "truthseeker" commented, "Scum. Deport them. They hate us. Get rid of them."
It's unclear which other posts, if any, Viola contended she did not write. All of the posts in question were linked to a Disqus account that used her university email address, an account that has since been removed from the commenting platform, according to the Temple News, which viewed the messages before the account was deleted. In some of the posts, the commenter shared information that lines up with Viola, including the fact she was a "East Coast professor," lived and worked in Philadelphia, and received a degree from Widener University.
Some of the comments from "truthseeker" simply espouse conservative viewpoints on the news or criticize the media. Others, however, promote conspiracy theories from far-right circles, such as the debunked idea that former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was killed for releasing DNC emails to Wikileaks, which would seemingly disprove intelligence assessments that Russia hacked the emails.
"I watch Hannity and he's absolutely right about this Seth Rich thing," "truthseeker" posted on one Philly.com story.
"Seth Rich leaked the DNC plot to sabotage Bernie to Wikileaks. The DNC had him killed," the commenter wrote on a different Philly.com story.
Viola has contributed to the Inquirer and Daily News. In October 2017, she wrote an opinion column criticizing NBC News for spiking a story about allegations of sexual assault and harassment by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. The story, written by Ronan Farrow, who at the time was under contract with NBC, ultimately ran in the New Yorker and earned the Pulitzer Prize for public service.
Viola also served as a reporter on Inquirer News Tonight, a 10 p.m. news program anchored by Steve Highsmith and Toni Yates that aired on WPHL from 1994 to 1996.