A Hamilton International Middle School teacher decided to use YouTube posts from Felix Kjellberg to discuss bigotry and fake news; a student secretly taped the lesson and posted it on Twitter, and the teacher has been targeted on the internet.
A Hamilton International Middle School teacher has found himself in the crosshairs of internet trolls and right-wing extremists after a student posted a secretly recorded video of him criticizing a popular YouTube personality for promoting racism and anti-Semitism.
The secret recording, posted Dec. 14 on Twitter by the student, caught the attention of Swedish YouTube sensation Felix Kjellberg, the topic of the teacher’s lecture, and some of his 78 million followers, and since then social media has lit up over the controversy. The post has been viewed nearly 2 million times and has made the rounds on right-wing conspiracy sites, including Alex Jones’ Infowars, where an article described the teacher as “unhinged.”
Hamilton school officials have since called the Seattle Police Department over reports of threats, which persist. The teacher, who has asked not to be identified, has declined to talk about it. Hamilton Principal Dorian Manza sent an email to parents Wednesday that explained the incident caused disruption to the school day and concern for students and staff.
Police did not find any “substantive” threats, Seattle police spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee said Thursday. But the school will still have extra security presence, Manza said.
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Seattle Public Schools spokesman Tim Robinson declined to comment on school security. He would not comment on information contained in a tweet by the student that said the teacher had been absent.
Kjellberg, a 29-year-old Swedish-born comedian and commentator who goes by the name “PewDiePie,” is known for posting outrageous and sometimes bigoted commentary and videos that have given him one of the largest followings on YouTube. Last year, The Wall Street Journal found a number of his videos contained anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery. In response, PewDiePie fans hacked a website owned by The Wall Street Journal to publish a fake apology. Fans have also hijacked nearly 50,000 printers to print flyers promoting the YouTuber.
Students at Hamilton had put up similar posters around the school, KUOW reported, which is what prompted the social-studies teacher to discuss Kjellberg during a lesson on real and fake news.
“Every time you retweet one of these things or every time you promote this idea, you are promoting ignorance, racism, genocide and anti-Semitism,” the teacher said in the video.
Kjellberg saw the post and retweeted it, and Infowars and other right-leaning media have since latched on. On 4chan, an anonymous message-board site frequently used for hate speech, some users posted anti-Semitic comments, asked for the name of the teacher, and even said his personal information should be posted online, which is called “doxing.”
College professors in particular have been targets of far-right and white nationalist groups for discussing topics like white supremacy and diversity, and conservative-media outlets have used secretly-recorded videos from students to try to expose liberal professors. Some professors lost jobs or became scared for the safety of their family after being harassed or “doxed.” One professor told NPR that after being doxed, he received abusive calls and threats against his family, and that he even found photos of his 9-year-old daughter online.
Linda Mullen, communications director for the Washington Education Association, said she doesn’t think K-12 teachers are targeted as often, but that she’s concerned about the impact incidents like the one at Hamilton have on student and staff safety. Schools can’t operate if they’re not safe places for students and teachers, she said.
The teacher has received criticism for telling students that if they share hate speech, they could be found liable for it. Ambika Doran, co-chair of media law practice at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, told KNKX that wasn’t likely.
Police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said detectives are familiar with cyberbullying, harassment and doxing tactics used by the far-right and in gaming communities. He noted the department recently launched an anti-swatting registry in response to harassment.
“The alt-right? We got it covered,” Whitcomb said Saturday. “We’re watching this closely and we’re aware of that point when it does cross a line.”
It’s not clear if the school is prepared for future incidents of this nature, as Robinson declined to answer questions on this topic. The district’s statement said it had no comment and that student and staff safety is its first priority.
Some Hamilton parents said they’ve struggled with how to keep their children safe in a digital age they don’t completely understand, and they wondered if schools were any more prepared. Xochil Squaglia and Nekole Shapiro both kept their children home from school Wednesday out of caution after hearing police were called.
“This is probably a newer thing for the school to deal with,” Squaglia said. “It would have been nice to get more information up front, but I don’t think they even realized what was going on as it was going on.”
Seattle Times reporter Neal Morton contributed to this report.
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