The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Account that posted conspiracy theories and anti-Muslim remarks may belong to Temple professor

Francesca Viola. (Temple University)

A journalism professor at a public university in Philadelphia has admitted to making some of the posts attributed to an anonymous account that spread baseless conspiracy theories and maligned Muslims on far-right sites, according to the school.

Francesca Viola, who teaches journalism at Temple University, was identified on Twitter by Joshua Benton, the director of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, as the user behind the commenter account name “truthseeker,” after it had posted a comment disparaging the media-centric site.

After identifying Viola, Benton pulled up comments the user had made on other sites and began to tweet them.

Truthseeker had parroted evidence-less conspiracy theories about the unsolved murder of a former Democratic National Committee staffer, wrote that President Trump would have won the popular vote during the 2016 election had it not been for illegal votes and also posted sharply disparaging remarks about Muslims.

“Scum,” the user wrote in response to an article about Muslims praying in front of Trump Tower on the conservative conspiracy theory site Gateway Pundit, according to images posted by Benton. “Deport them. They hate us. Get rid of them.”

David Boardman, dean of Temple’s Klein College of Media and Communication, said in a statement that the university was looking into the allegations.

“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.”

It was not immediately clear for which or how many of the posts the professor had taken responsibility.

The incident comes less than a month after a professor at California State University at Fresno attacked the recently deceased former first lady Barbara Bush on Twitter, sparking a debate over free speech and academic freedom.

Viola, who did not respond to a request for comment sent to her university email address, accused Benton of “doxing” her, a practice of disclosing other people’s personal information online as a way to harass or intimidate them. She asked people “not to assume I am the author of some or all of those comments.”

“I dispute the incorrect attributions and specious allegations posted by Joshua Benton on his Twitter feed at Harvard’s Nieman journalism think tank,” Viola said in a statement, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I am appalled [by] his improper ‘doxing’ 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.”

Doxing typically involves posting highly personal details, such as a cellphone number or home address, which was not done in this case.

“Ms. Viola voluntarily logged into a commenting service and left a comment on our site using her Temple email address,” Benton said, according to the Inquirer. “All I did was click one link to see all the other comments she had posted using her Temple email address.”

The “truthseeker” account was created on the platform Disqus, which allows users to comment on different websites under one user name. The account was registered to Viola’s official university email address, the Temple News reported.

The conspiracy theory over the death of DNC staffer Seth Rich, which has been debunked numerous times, flourished in right-wing media circles last year, culminating in a report on Fox News that was later retracted by the outlet. The theory posited that the DNC staffer, who was murdered on a Washington street in summer 2016, had been killed as retaliation for leaking information to WikiLeaks.

Sean Hannity done talking about Seth Rich and WikiLeaks ‘for now’ as Fox News retracts story

“The DNC had him killed,” the truthseeker account posted. “This Russia story was manufactured as a distraction. You stupid libs keep pushing the Russian narrative with not one shred of evidence.”

According to the images Benton posted, truthseeker wrote repeatedly that “I am a college professor at a major east coast university,” a lawyer and a Trump supporter.

Viola has a law degree from Widener University in Chester, Pa., and is a licensed attorney, according to her Temple University bio.

The truthseeker account wrote that “the reason Trump won is because more people voted for him than your girl.”

“And save your breath on the tired refrain that Hillary won the popular vote,” it wrote, “because of some illegal votes cast in California.”

The president has helped popularized the baseless theory that he would have won the popular vote had it not been for massive voter fraud.

The truthseeker account notes that Viola’s interests include “the nexus between emerging media and the law’s response to it, as well as the effect of the internet on broadcast journalism.”

Correction May 9: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to the name of a student newspaper at Temple University as the Temple Press. The newspaper is the Temple News. 

Read more:

‘Olliemania’: The stage-worthy scandal that starred Oliver North as a congressional witnesses

Police expect to find bodies of half a dozen girls in vacant field after reopening cold case

Miami officer charged with assault after video shows him kicking at suspect’s head