A double-edged sword: How the media shapes student activism

Feb. 2, 2024, 11:42 a.m.

When activist Hamza El Boudali ’22 M.S. ’24 returned to campus last fall, he did not anticipate being pulled into a scathing media battle surrounding the controversial hit-and-run of his close friend and fellow student, Abdulwahab Omira ’23. 

“It’s the craziest hate crime I’ve seen on campus,” El Boudali said. “And the reaction by these people was to just slander him.”

Omira, an Arab Muslim, was hospitalized with non-threatening medical injuries following an incident where he reported being hit by a black four-runner while crossing a road on campus. The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office refers to it as a hate crime. 

Omira did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.

This case and its surrounding controversy have forced student activists at Stanford to carefully examine their relationship with the media, as well as the broader role of media in shaping public opinion.

Multiple news sources, including NBC, ABC and The New York Times provided early coverage of the event. Some, such as CNN, included positive characterizations of Omira such as his call for “love, kindness and compassion” from his hospital bed.

But other media sources questioned Omira’s credibility. Anonymous users of the social media app Fizz accused Omira of being a “pathological liar,” while the student-run Stanford Review published a piece casting doubts on Omira’s reputation.

According to El Boudali, many of the sources used by the Review, including social media posts from Fizz and Instagram, are not verifiable. 

“I think that [the media coverage] was probably worse than the actual crime itself, the hit and run, because it damaged his reputation,” El Boudali said.

Student activists at Stanford have historically had complicated relationships with the media that, sometimes, have drawn extensive public attention. Public identification of protestors in news reports have long drawn controversy, a concern which has only grown with the rise of the internet and social media.

Mark Lemley ’88, who led a string of protests against the South African policy of apartheid in 1985, explained that after The Daily refused to give the Palo Alto Police Department access to identifying photographs of a violent confrontation between police and students who participated in a sit-in at the Medical School, the dispute resulted in the case Zurcher v. Stanford Daily — which made its way to the Supreme Court in 1978.

Over recent months, many Stanford student activists have also been victims of doxxing, including those involved in protests around the Israel-Gaza war or those who publicly objected to conservative judge Kyle Duncan’s visit to the law school last spring. 

Draper Dayton ’25, a participant of the Sit-In to-Stop Genocide, said members of the sit-in are frequently harassed and photographed. Many have had sensitive personal information published online via doxxing websites, including names, pictures and even photos of their dorm room doors, he said. 

Doxxing, which can put victims at risk of physical attack or negatively impact their employment, is notoriously difficult to prevent. Dayton said doxxers are often anonymous, and even when their identities are known, consequences are not severe enough to disincentivize them.

Stanford’s anti-doxxing policies have been criticized by some students for being “quite weak.”

ASSU Senator Dawn Royster ’26 said protest organizers on campus fear being doxxed or facing consequences from the University. Student activists have therefore proactively spread awareness about techniques to combat harmful media practices. 

Student organizations like the Stanford Asian-American Action Committee (SAAAC), Students for the Liberation of All Peoples (SLAP) and the Stanford Decarceration Collective (SDC) have hosted events to increase awareness about protesting safety techniques, such as masking and wearing gloves. 

At an anti-doxxing teach-in and barbecue hosted by SDC last November, attendees were taught how to clear personally-identifying information from photographs and videos. 

Louie Loveland ’27, a member of SDC who attended the teach-in, said even secondary information derived from images and videos can be used to target activists. There’s “software where they can read people’s gait and posture,” he said. “You can put a rock in your shoes so you can walk differently.”

Some activist groups on campus are also internally delegating media responsibilities to specific members to protect others who they say are especially vulnerable to doxxing and negative media coverage, due to religious affiliation or immigration status. 

“It’s very intentional that I put my name out there and more vulnerable members don’t,” Dayton said.  “Because I’m not Palestinian, I’m not [Arab]. But what I am is a citizen, and a white man and Jewish. And so I have all the advantages when it comes to potential vulnerabilities and ways that people could attack me.”

Similarly, following concerns raised by editors to comply with The Daily’s anonymity guidelines for opinions, El Boudali allowed his name to be attached to a community address written collectively by Stanford Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). 

“None of the students wanted to give a name. Obviously, they’re afraid of getting doxxed,” El Boudali said. “So I gave them my name, because personally, I’m not too worried about those kinds of threats, partly because I’m an American citizen.”

El Boudali has also individually published opinions and given interviews to news outlets. 

“I’m always happy to speak to the news, because I feel like that’s my strength or contribution to the cause,” he said. “I believe in the power of using arguments.” 

Other campus leaders have raised concerns about the media. Andrei Mandelshtam ’25, who is a co-president of Stanford Israel Association (SIA), penned a letter to the editor in The Daily that criticized Daily coverage.

“Jewish and Israeli students have had to sit and listen as neighbors, classmates and friends justify the brutal slaughter of their friends and family. The Daily contributes to this campus climate, and must acknowledge that irresponsible and one-sided reporting impacts Jewish students,” Mandelshtam wrote.

Social media has at once escalated the risk of doxxing and provided activist groups with platforms to advance their causes and gather support for demonstrations. 

SAAAC, for instance, used Instagram to spread awareness of its “Say No to APEC” campaign by posting about upcoming events and summarizing previous protests. 

“We do have a team of people who specialize in [media relations], just to make sure we don’t post anything that goes against our values,” said SAAAC president Amy Zhai ’25. 

Activists say they have also used social media for documentation and accountability. 

Several videos of verbal abuse aimed at sit-in participants have gone viral on social media. One man, who was filmed telling sit-in participants that 50 Palestinian women would need to be raped and held hostage by the Israeli government to broker a ceasefire, was terminated by his employer after they reviewed the footage that had been uploaded to Instagram and X (formerly Twitter). 

Instacart, the man’s employer, wrote on X that “upon learning of this incident, the employee in question was immediately suspended and following an internal investigation into the situation, was terminated due to the inflammatory and disturbing nature of the remarks involved.”

Zhai said given the urgency of the current political situation, even individuals can make a meaningful impact by posting and spreading information via social media.

“If we want the world to change, even in our own lifetime … it takes us to keep speaking out and protesting,” El Boudali concurred.

Jaiden McDaniel is a writer for The Daily. Contact them at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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