In an Online World, a New Generation of Protesters Chooses Anonymity

Over the last week, Fabiola, a sophomore at Columbia, joined an encampment on her university’s quad, risked suspension and disrupted campus life, all in an effort to draw attention to the Palestinian cause.

She describes stopping Israel’s deadly siege of Gaza as a moral duty — an urgent imperative around which she has reoriented her life.

But as she participated in one of the most visible protests on the planet last week, Fabiola decided to hold one very important thing back: her identity. Thinking of her international student visa, she stretched a black surgical mask over her face, and declined to share her full name.

It was no one-off. On campuses from New England to Southern California, students leading one of the largest protest movements in decades have increasingly strapped on face masks and checkered Palestinian kaffiyehs in a polarizing bid to protect their anonymity even as they demand universities and governments be held to account.

The choice represents a sharp break by many, though not all, of these students from earlier generations of university activists, who gained their moral force in part by putting their words on record and their futures in jeopardy for a larger cause.

But as they actively invoke the legacy of antiwar movement of the 1960s and its successors, today’s young activists appear to be responding to a much more contemporary set of reputational and economic risks their predecessors simply did not face.

Many protesters who wear masks say they fear doxxing and consequences for their careers.Credit…Bing Guan for The New York Times

In interviews, a dozen student demonstrators across the country cited the risk of being doxxed by pro-Israel groups accusing them of antisemitism, featured by news media or captured in viral videos. Several were intimately familiar with the torrent of online harassment, rescinded job offers and death threats that can follow. (A small number also profess concerns about viruses spreading in close quarters.)

Many students will accumulate large debt burdens that were virtually unheard-of half a century ago. Campuses that were once mostly occupied by white men are now home to a broad range of ethnic minority groups and international students studying on visas.

“If I give my name, I lose my future,” one Northwestern student explained bluntly, as he demonstrated in a kaffiyeh and asked for anonymity.

And yet, on campuses already rife with tension over the Israel-Hamas war, sympathy only goes so far among fellow students and university leaders trying to restore order.

The presence of large groups of masked demonstrators also appears to be contributing to a growing sense of unease at schools like Columbia and the University of California, Los Angeles, which overnight on Tuesday looked more like conflict zones than institutions in the middle of final exams.

Frustrated provosts and deans worry that the regular masking is making it easier for outsiders to infiltrate their campuses, a charge Columbia cited late Tuesday to justify mass arrests of demonstrators who had occupied Hamilton Hall on its Upper Manhattan campus.

Some university officials have asked students to unmask.Credit…Bing Guan for The New York Times

And some on campus have come to question whether student demonstrators are also trying to evade consequences for flouting rules, commandeering academic buildings and repeatedly using protest chants that some of their Jewish peers have described as painful and threatening.

At least two schools have pleaded with protesters to unmask, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where administrators said the practice “runs counter to our campus norms” and state law designed to target the Ku Klux Klan.

Some Jewish students fear the anonymity is giving dangerous new license to protests that have already been pocked by antisemitism. Others have likened the appearance of some male protesters, who wrap kaffiyehs or other scarves around their heads so that only their eyes are exposed, to members of Hamas or the Klan.

“If you show up at a rally dressed like a bank robber, it’s not unreasonable to conclude you may be there to do something other than express your constitutional rights,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks incidents of antisemitism. “It has the effect of intimidating their opponents, of menacing the other side.”

He said that pro-Israel counterprotesters have largely forgone face coverings. And yet, in the early hours of Wednesday, a group of pro-Israel counterprotesters put on masks themselves as they violently clashed with pro-Palestinian demonstrators at U.C.L.A. and launched fireworks into their encampment.

At U.C.L.A., both pro-Palestinian protesters and pro-Israeli protesters have donned masks.Credit…Mark Abramson for The New York Times

Even some predisposed to support the protesters have raised questions about the message that masking sends.

“On the one hand, I can empathize,” said Michael Kazin, a historian of social movements and politics at Georgetown University, who was hit with a police billy club as an antiwar protest leader at Harvard in 1969. Other campus protesters in his generation were shot by the National Guard, or lost deferments from the draft to fight in Vietnam because of their activism.

“On the other hand,” Dr. Kazin continued, “I do think if you are going to demonstrate, and it’s something you feel deeply about, you should be willing to stand up and be counted.”

To be sure, not all of the undergraduate and graduate students leading this year’s demonstrations have been masked. Many have willingly stepped forward to identify themselves. And masks have done little to protect students from suspensions or arrests.

Elijah Bacal, a freshman who helped found the pro-Palestinian group Yale Jews for Ceasefire, said he did not have “anything to hide” as he pushes Yale to divest from weapons manufacturing companies.

“In the moment, it’s always hard to take these kinds of stands,” he said. “They wouldn’t be significant if they weren’t difficult, and they wouldn’t be difficult if they weren’t significant.”

But he defended those who made a different choice, saying they were motivated by safety.

Though it’s impossible to know how employers might view the protests in years to come, being kicked out of school or branded an antisemite on high-profile websites could stick with student activists for decades.

“I used to joke that the same student might be able to burn down a Bank of America branch in 1970 and still successfully sign on as an executive trainee at Bank of America in 1971,” said Rick Perlstein, a historian who has chronicled midcentury American politics.

“Today, anxiety about achieving economic security after graduation is far more pressing,” he added. “The consequences for identification and arrest are, simply, much greater.”

More recent history also provides part of the explanation. Many students protested for the first time after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, when Covid mask mandates were still in place. They quickly learned that concealing their identities helped protect them from surveillance and media scrutiny. Kaffiyehs, a symbol of Palestinian solidarity, have come to serve the same purpose.

Beyond masking, protest organizers have taken other steps to try to protect participants and tightly control their message in news reports and on their own social media accounts.

Mr. Bacal said Yale activists had taken pains not to release videos of their protests where students could be easily identified.

Many protesters have also been reluctant to talk to journalists.Credit…Adrian Martinez Chavez for The New York Times

At Columbia last Friday, a faculty member walked the perimeter of the encampment discouraging news cameramen from filming those inside, while students held up large blankets to further obscure people kneeling in prayer. Student organizers had also designated a handful of spokespeople trained to address reporters.

Downtown, at the New School, a prominently placed flier instructed protesters to “BLUR IMAGES, WEAR MASKS, COVER NOTABLE ARTICLES/FEATURES.”

“Be conscientious; you do not want to risk the possibility of hurting your comrades and yourself,” it read.

Across the country, at U.C.L.A., organizers with megaphones warned students not to speak to reporters unless they were “media trained.”

Dylan Kupsh, 25, a U.C.L.A. computer science Ph.D. student, said that organizers hoped to create a safe space, especially for younger students who may not understand the risks associated with protesting in public.

Mr. Kupsh has had his personal information publicized online twice. The first time, in 2019, his name appeared on Canary Mission, a website that describes itself as documenting “people and groups that promote hatred of the U.S.A., Israel and Jews on North American college campuses” and that noted his ties to Students for Justice in Palestine.

“It was terrible,” he said. “My parents were extremely frustrated, and it was a huge rift.”

He said people started creating fake social media accounts using his identity and sending racist messages to his professors. Then, earlier this year, he said, his phone number was leaked online.

“Within the first hour, I was getting death threats,” Mr. Kupsh said.

At Columbia, Fabiola, the political science major, said she was taking steps to conceal her identity to prevent a similar outcome. But it was hard not to see the consequences for other students: She watched in October as a truck paid for by a conservative advocacy group parked near campus displaying the names and images of “Columbia’s leading antisemites.”

In the months since, Fabiola has wrestled with her own position on the conflict and how visible to be in campus protests. As of last week, she still wasn’t sure.

“I hope to be a leader someday,” she said. “To what extent do I want my self-interest to take over, and to what extent do I do what is right?”

Reporting was contributed by Jill Cowan in Los Angeles, Bob Chiarito in Chicago, Neelam Bohra in Austin and Olivia Bensimon in New York.

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