The coronavirus pandemic has closed universities across the country, leaving professors scrambling to teach online and students grappling with chaotic if not completely lost spring semesters. But for right-wing operatives, the move to online-only classes means something else: an opportunity to smear academia as bastions of liberalism.
Over the weekend, young MAGA operative Charlie Kirk and undercover conservative trickster James O’Keefe put out calls in widely circulated tweets for conservative college students to take advantage of new online classes by recording their professors.
They asked students to send those recordings to the pro-Trump groups run by Kirk and O’Keefe, where it would presumably be packaged into “undercover” footage of liberal indoctrination on college campuses.
“Now is the time to document & expose the radicalism that has been infecting our schools,” Kirk, the head of campus conservative group Turning Point USA and a frequent visitor to the White House, tweeted.
Some people have adjusted to the coronavirus by reconnecting with family. Others have rushed to support members of their community and those in need. Kirk and O’Keefe have stared at the global medical pandemic and found, within it, a chance for more mischief.
This isn’t the first time the two have taken aim at educators. Kirk’s Turning Point USA operates a “Professor Watchlist,” which lists the names and faces of professors the group claims “advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” And operatives from O’Keefe’s Project Veritas group have secretly recorded teacher’s union leaders across the country.
The coronavirus outbreak and the move to hold classes through Zoom and other online platforms means it’s never been easier for campus conservatives to record their professors. All one would need is the ability to use the computers’ screen-recording function.
O’Keefe and Kirk didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Turning Point’s professor list has already inspired death threats against professors, according to Hans-Joerg Tiede, a senior program officer at the American Association of University Professors. Now, Tiede fears that the possibility that online classes could be turned into more fodder for the right-wing internet will make it harder for professors to conduct classes at an already difficult time.
“It can lead to self-censorship on the part of the faculty member and on the part of the students in the class if they have to be afraid that what they say will be recorded and shared elsewhere, and that’s not an atmosphere in which learning can occur,” Tiede said.
While Turning Point’s “Professor Watchlist” promises to stop professors who are indoctrinating their classes or discriminating against conservative students, it often just lists professors who have expressed liberal opinions, according to Tiede. The threat of having recorded Zoom classes taken out of context online ups the ante, however, with the likelihood of those segments being turned into Fox News clips that are then weaponized against academic institutions. At a minimum, Tiede warned, professors could be compelled to change their teaching styles for fear of being surreptitiously recorded.
“For all the concern these days that conservatives are expressing for free expression in universities, activities such as these seem to indicate a different interest in the suppression of views,” Tiede said.