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Economics website is filled with racist and sexist speech, some blame the nation’s top universities

Stanford University
Posted at 2:08 PM, Jul 22, 2023

WASHINGTON (AP) — Anonymous comments with racist, sexist and abusive messages that were posted for years on a jobs-related website for economists originated from numerous leading U.S. universities, according to research released Thursday.

Some economists have long condemned the website, Economics Job Market Rumors, for its toxic content. The site, known by its acronym EJMR, is run by an anonymous individual and is not connected to a university or other institution. That fact had fed speculation that those who posted hateful messages on it were mostly online cranks who might not be economists.

Yet the new research indicates that users of the website include individuals at top-tier colleges and universities, including Harvard, Stanford and the University of Chicago, and many others.

“Our analysis reveals that the users who post on EJMR are predominantly economists, including those working in the upper echelons of academia, government, and the private sector,” the paper concluded. It was written by Florian Ederer, a management professor at Boston University, Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham, a finance professor at the Yale School of Management, and Kyle Jensen, an associate dean at Yale.

A spokeswoman for Harvard declined to comment. Stanford and the University of Chicago did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“It’s not just a few bad apples,” Ederer said in a presentation Thursday at a conference sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s very, very widespread. And the toxicity is widespread.”

The revelations have provoked debate on social media among economists about privacy, free speech and online abuse. Some economists, particularly women who have been attacked on the site, say they hope the revelations lead colleges and universities to investigate the postings. Others have expressed concern that the research could lead to a “witch hunt” among those who posted on the site.

Speaking in an interview with The Associated Press, Goldsmith-Pinkham sought to dispel those concerns, saying the group does not plan on “releasing anything identifying” individuals.

Nearly 2,000 people watched a livestream of the paper's presentation Thursday on YouTube. That was far more than the 100 or so who watched other NBER presentations the same day, suggesting widespread interest in the topic among academic economists.

The bigoted content on the website makes women and nonwhite economists often feel unwelcome in a profession that is already struggling to diversify, Goldsmith-Pinkham said. Black Americans, for example, are more likely to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics or other social sciences than in economics.

“The idea that in an anonymous space, people behave in this way, it reflects pretty poorly on the profession,” Goldsmith-Pinkham said.

The researchers used publicly available data to determine the internet addresses for about two-thirds of the more than 7 million posts that have been made on the site since 2010. They classified about 10% of those posts as “toxic" because of their racist or sexist content. These posts included the use of racial slurs and assertions that women have smaller brains than men.

About 11% of the postings on EJMR, the researchers found, originated from among several hundred universities, including those they classified as the top 25 research universities. On average, 13% of the posts from universities were considered toxic.

“Things were WAY better when women were focused on rearing children and feeding their husbands,” said one post highlighted by the researchers.

“The biggest enemies of America are: Blks,” read another.

The site has drawn criticism since at least 2017, when Alice Wu, an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote a paper highlighting the sexist nature of many of the postings on the site.

In response to her paper, Olivier Blanchard, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and emeritus economics professor at MIT, called the website a “cesspool.” Blanchard added that the site had “become a breeding ground for personal attacks of an abusive kind.”

Anya Samek, an economics professor who was first attacked on the site in 2009, said it persists because there has been no way to hold the site accountable. She said she hopes the universities that are being identified as sources of some of the posts will take steps to prevent future abuse.

“I would like to see universities take some action to make sure there’s no hate speech online coming from their own offices," Samek said.

Samek was targeted with threatening messages on the EJMR website after she was hired in 2009 by the University of Chicago's top-tier economics department. She had earned her Ph.D. from Purdue University, which she said some posters on EJMR might not have considered prestigious enough.

She was then subject to false accusations on the site in 2022, after she presented at an economics conference.

“It was a truly horrible experience,” she said.

Samek has since started a petition urging the American Economic Association to consider legal action against threatening and defamatory posts.

The economic association has started its own job board to provide an alternative to EJMR, though so far it hasn't received much use.