Toxic Posts on Economist Job Website Traced to Users from Elite Universities

An online economics forum known for sexist, racist and abusive commentary included posts that originated at many prominent US universities as well as the Federal Reserve, according to a new study.

(Bloomberg) — An online economics forum known for sexist, racist and abusive commentary included posts that originated at many prominent US universities as well as the Federal Reserve, according to a new study.

Economics Job Market Rumors, a site started in 2008 to aid newly minted doctorate holders in their job searches, has become notorious for hateful and damaging content, all anonymous. A trio of researchers from Boston University and Yale University said they unmasked internet addresses connected to two-thirds of posts and determined many of the users’ physical locations, though not their identities.

Of about 7 million posts on the site over the past 12 years, portions originated from users at top schools such as Stanford University, Columbia University and the University of Chicago, along with the Fed, according to the paper, which is being released Thursday and presented at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference.

The researchers labeled some 10% of all posts as “toxic,” encompassing abusive, defamatory, racist or misogynistic content. Some of those posts originated from schools with top-ranked economics departments, according to the paper.

The paper didn’t list the Fed as a location for the toxic posts.

“EJMR is sometimes dismissed as not being representative of the economics profession,” wrote the authors, Boston University’s Florian Ederer and Yale’s Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham and Kyle Jensen. “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.”

A Fed spokeswoman declined to comment. Spokespeople for Stanford, Columbia and the University of Chicago did not respond to requests for comment.

The researchers’ own employers — Boston University and Yale University — also showed up in the findings. A significant percentage of posts coming from Yale and BU were toxic, as they were at many of the other top schools.  

While many economists have for years condemned the site, the profession has so far struggled to stop it, and the study found the site’s popularity surged during the Covid-19 pandemic. The ability of users to post anonymously and scant moderation of those comments by EJMR’s unknown host have effectively rendered it impossible for victims to sue users or for the economics community to pressure the host to disband the site.

Earlier this year, at the American Economic Association’s annual conference, a group of economists urged the organization to do more to take down EJMR. At that time, then-AEA President Christina Romer, a professor at the University of California Berkeley and a former Obama administration official, called the site a “cesspool.”

Some economists have said the site’s content has affected their career trajectories. It also seems to have influence beyond the profession, which remains overwhelmingly White and male.

Fed Governor Lisa Cook, the first Black woman appointed to the US central bank’s board, faced an aggressive Republican campaign against her during her nomination process last year. Some of the arguments posed against her at the time echoed those posted on EJMR.

“The massive brunt and very, very heavy burden falls on disenfranchised members of our profession,” Ederer said in an interview. “Women, under-representative minorities, they are just relentlessly pursued on that website to the point that it makes people want to exit.”

The authors explained in the paper how they were able to decrypt the website’s system for assigning user names to posts. While internet addresses are simple to change — via widely available tools such as virtual private networks — the authors said this type of obfuscation likely wasn’t being used by most of EJMR’s posters.

Since Ederer first circulated the paper’s abstract, in May, the website changed its methodology for anonymizing posts, he said.

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