Activists protest against Valerie Plame at Smith College

  • Valerie Plame Wilson speaks Monday during a Kahn Institute panel discussion titled “Social Media and U.S. Foreign Policy” at Smith College. Gazette Photo

For The Recorder
Published: 12/13/2017 9:00:06 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Former CIA operative Valerie Plame came to Smith College Monday evening to talk about the relationship between foreign policy and social media activity, but it was her personal social media use that ended up taking center stage.

Dozens of Smith College students lined the back walls of the Weinstein Auditorium in Wright Hall and voiced their opposition to Plame’s sharing, or retweeting, of an anti-Semitic article on her Twitter account in September. Through signs, shouts and pointed questions, the students made clear their abhorrence of Plame’s actions. At least 360 people were in attendance at the event sponsored by the Kahn Institute at the college.

Plame, whose identity as a covert member of the CIA was famously unveiled in 2003, has worked as an author and activist since resigning from the agency in 2005. Recently, however, she became embroiled in controversy after retweeting an article, “America’s Jews are Driving America’s Wars.”

Three Smith College professors, Mlada Burkovansky, Brent Durbin and Darcy Buerkle, University of Massachusetts professor Paul Musgrave and Plame began their panel discussion, “Social Media and U.S. Foreign Policy,” at 5 p.m.

Before the panel started, members of the Smith College Jewish Community held signs reading “ANTI SEMITES NOT WELCOME” and “JEWS AGAINST WHITE SUPREMACY.” The signs were hung on some of the walls for the duration of the talk, and the protesters’ presence gave the panelists no choice but to address the controversy right off the bat.

“Since that invitation the controversy triggered by the retweets of anti-Semitic materials has come to dominate the conversation about this presence on campus. This panel will not shy away from that controversy but I hope and expect that we will move beyond it,” said Burkovansky, a professor of government who invited Plame to speak.

The article in question, written by Philip Giraldi, asserts that Jewish people are puppeteering U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and that “Jewish groups and deep pocket individual donors not only control the politicians, they own and run the media and entertainment industries.”

Plame in September defended her retweet of the article, calling the article “very provocative, but thoughtful” on her Twitter account. She has since apologized for sharing the article on social media, claiming she “skimmed” the piece and shared it without fully reading it.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to do in person what I wish I could do many times over which is apologize sincerely, fully, completely for retweeting an article I did not read,” Plame said in her opening remarks, to which several in the crowd hissed, yelled “lies” or blew raspberries.

“I stand here as a lesson to everyone on the powers of using social media and the repercussions of doing so,” Plame said. “The article is completely is antithetical to everything I believe in and have done, and I am terribly sorry.”

During the panelists’ — including Plame’s — statements on the scheduled topic, the use of social media in a foreign policy context, the crowd was mostly silent, and the protesters allowed the discourse.

Plame said social media can be a “double-edged sword.” While it can be helpful in connecting with friends and like-minded people, governments can, and do, use social media against people.

“First of all, governments are way better at manipulating social media than activists. Despite promises that you will be anonymous online, commercial and government surveillance has made internet privacy a thing of the past,” Plame said.

Plame pointed to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as an example of successfully influencing people through social media. She said Russian-linked ads on Facebook targeted voters in Michigan and Wisconsin — states where the presidential race was very close. Russia, Plame said, wanted to help Donald Trump get elected to sow divisions in American society.

Q&A chaos

After some applause for the panelists, protesters sprang into action during a question-and-answer period. Plame thanked the protesters who asked questions for their openness.

“I’m wondering what actions you’ve been taking, or what actions you will take to address anti-Semitism, to support Jewish people and to combat white supremacy?” said Naomi Forman-Katz, a sophomore board member of the Smith College Jewish Community.

Forman-Katz said Plame apologizing and saying she did not read the article is not enough to equal real repentance, to which the protesters applauded loudly. Plame responded by saying that she is now involved in two organizations: the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which tries to ensure military personnel are treated equally, regardless of their religion, and allowed to express their beliefs.

Not all in the crowd were in agreement with the protesters. Some applauded after Plame’s answers and several people began walking out of the auditorium during the questioning period. One man looked at the protesters and said, “people make mistakes” and “grow up.”

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