Science Twitter Got Catfished by a Fake Professor Who ‘Died From Covid’

Science Twitter Got Catfished by a Fake Professor Who ‘Died From Covid’
Screenshot: Ed Cara

A bizarre saga of events played out on social media over the weekend, embroiling much of the close-knit world of scientists, academics, and researchers on Twitter. It started with accusations that Arizona State University’s actions had exposed one of their faculty members, an Indigenous woman and anthropologist, to an ultimately fatal case of covid-19. But it ended with allegations that the death was a hoax, carried out by someone who also faked the supposed professor’s entire existence.

Given that many campuses and schools are debating if and how it’s possible to reopen schools physically this fall in the midst of the pandemic, the accusations of negligence on the part of Arizona State University carry a heavy weight. But many members of the science Twitter community now suspect that the academic who was the first to report the woman’s death, Tennessee-based neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin, has pulled off a catfishing scam for years, citing inconsistencies in the woman’s accounts of events in her now-gone tweets.

“Unfortunately, this appears to be a hoax. We have been looking into this since this weekend and cannot verify any connection with the university,” an ASU representative said in an email. If this was indeed a catfishing scheme, the faux death would not only make a mockery of the concerns people have about covid-19, but also the challenges that women of colour continue to face in science. 

Late Friday night, July 31, the Twitter account belonging to McLaughin, @McLNeuro, announced tragic news: that the woman who ran the anonymous Twitter account @sciencing_bi had died of covid-19. @sciencing_bi had a little over 2,400 followers, and multiple scientists and science communicators on Twitter had positively interacted with the account through public tweets and private message since it was created in 2016. McLaughlin’s news was initially met with condolences and fond remembrances of @sciencing_bi.

Screenshot: Ed Cara Screenshot: Ed Cara

Since 2016, @sciencing_bi had tweeted about being a queer, indigenous Hopi scientist who worked at ASU, presumably referring to Arizona State University. In the thread following the declaration of her death, McLaughlin referenced earlier tweets of @sciencing_bi that stated she had been forced to teach in-person there until April. According to McLaughlin’s telling on Twitter, it was there that she likely caught the contagious viral disease. A week after the campus closed, McLaughin added, @sciencing_bi had ended up in the hospital.

While people were sympathetic at first and called for action to be taken against ASU, some on Twitter began noticing that it was strange for there to still be no outside verification of @sciencing_bi’s death, including from ASU. People who had earlier spoken fondly of their interactions with @sciencing_bi eventually noted that they had never spent time with her outside of social media and that they were no longer sure of her existence and claimed death. And certain details of the story just didn’t add up. Most importantly, ASU had announced in early March that all classes would go remote by March 16, not in April as @sciencing_bi had claimed.

At some point over this weekend, the @sciencing_bi account was made private, meaning that all of its tweets are now inaccessible to non-followers. And in a thread on Sunday, McLaughlin stated that she would follow the lead of a wise friend and “be quiet,” not addressing any of the questions surrounding the account or the accusations now bubbling that she herself had been running it.

Very late Sunday evening, Twitter suspended both the McLNeuro and @sciencing_bi accounts, disappearing most of their previous tweets from the internet. A spokeperson for Twitter said via email that both accounts were suspended for violating the company’s spam and platform manipulation policies. Those policies include but are not limited to the faking or sockpuppeting of accounts. Twitter has not yet responded to questions about which specific policies either account had violated or whether the two suspensions are related.

On Monday afternoon, a representative from ASU said in an email that the university has not been able to confirm any recent deaths attributed to covid-19 among their faculty, nor have any family members or friends reported any such death to the university. The university also denied having implemented any salary reductions during the pandemic, a claim that @sciencing_bi had made about her job there, according to the representative.

The case for McLaughlin being @sciencing_bi is largely circumstantial for the time being. Accounts on Twitter and Reddit have highlighted now-unverifiable tweets where it appears that @sciencing_bi used stock images to describe events that were supposedly happening in real life. One user I reached out to over Twitter mentioned an experience where they had contacted @sciencing_bi to volunteer her help in securing McLaughlin tenure at Vanderbilt University where she was then employed. Soon after, she received an invite to a Google Docs group, not from @sciencing_bi, but McLaughlin herself. Another user told me of a time when @sciencing_bi appeared to be in financial trouble and was soliciting donations over Venmo. However, the Venmo account they were asked to donate to belonged to McLaughlin. No one besides McLaughlin seems to have reported ever seeing @sciencing_bi in person.

Circumstantial as the case is, it was enough to convince much of the community of scientists and academics on Twitter by Sunday night.

One of the few verifiable archived images of sciencing_bi's Twitter presence left.  (Screenshot: Ed Cara, Other) One of the few verifiable archived images of sciencing_bi’s Twitter presence left. (Screenshot: Ed Cara, Other)

“I feel betrayed, obviously. And weirded out to discover that someone I thought I knew didn’t just die, but kind of did, since they didn’t actually exist,” Michael Eisen, a biologist and editor-in-chief of the journal eLife, said in a direct message on Twitter. Eisen had routinely interacted with McLaughlin on Twitter and had occasionally spoken with @sciencing_bi through direct message over the past year, he said. According to Eisen, it was @sciencing_bi’s frequent tweets about injustices in academia that resonated with him and others. Thinking back now, he also noted that she frequently tweeted about BethAnn as well.

McLaughlin called me late Sunday after I reached out to her personal email. She stuck by her claim that @sciencing_bi had died from covid-19, as far as she knew. When I asked how she had learned of the death, she only would say that it was through a family contact. I then asked if she would be willing to reveal the identity of @sciencing_bi, and she said no. She also denied being the creator of the account.

McLaughlin did admit, however, that she had access to the @sciencing_bi account, though she went on to state that it was not her who made the account private. McLaughlin also reiterated that she had met @sciencing_bi in person. But she later admitted that it was her daughter, and not @sciencing_bi, who was seen in a picture accompanying a July 2018 tweet where she described spending time with @sciencing_bi at Yosemite National Park. Another group picture at an academic conference where she had tagged @sciencing_bi along with others wasn’t necessarily meant to convey that everyone tagged was actually there, she said (though alleged screenshots for both of these tweets exist, they could not be verified independently by Gizmodo).

This isn’t the first time that McLaughlin has been at the centre of controversy. McLaughlin is the founder of MeTooSTEM, a nonprofit group that has advocated for the better treatment of women within the scientific community. Starting last year, former members of the group and others have accused McLaughlin of bullying people within and outside of the organisation. Departed members of the group’s leadership team, as well as a former volunteer, have also alleged that McLaughlin routinely directed this harassment toward women of colour. The remaining board members of the group decided to stand by McLaughlin following these allegations, according to a Science magazine article from this March. McLaughlin has not responded to a follow up email request for comment on these allegations.

As it happens, @sciencing_bi is one of the people who had registered to receive some form of support from MeTooSTEM, according to McLaughlin. But McLaughlin declined to comment on exactly what type of support, such as financial, was provided, or whether @sciencing_bi had represented herself as a member of the Hopi tribe in her correspondence with MeTooSTEM, as she had on Twitter. I asked if it was possible that McLaughlin herself had somehow been fooled by @sciencing_bi. She stated that she had to take the conversations she had with @sciencing_bi in good faith, especially given her own experiences with harassment and the need for anonymity that many women online have.

Of course, @sciencing_bi’s alleged death didn’t happen in a vacuum. The circumstances of her death — a professor dying from covid-19 that she may have caught while teaching in-person classes — speak to a real concern that many educators are having about returning to campuses and schools this fall. And if her death is real, it would be another example of the added challenges that many vulnerable groups in the U.S., particularly indigenous Americans, are facing during the covid-19 pandemic. It is perhaps those realities that make the possibility this was faked all the more outrageous to people looking from the outside in.

According to Eisen, if @sciencing_bi was indeed a creation of McLaughlin, then it was potentially used as a way to deflect the accusations of bullying she allegedly carried out on others, particularly women of colour — someone who could vouch for McLaughlin, supposedly being a woman of colour herself.

“It’s easy to say we should have known — and yes, in retrospect it’s obvious for many reasons. I don’t want to stop being trusting, but even so, we should have known,” Eisen said. “BethAnn hurt a lot of people, and it should not have been possible for anyone — even a seemingly trustworthy third party — to minimise that without BethAnn acknowledging, reckoning with, and rectifying those harms.”

I asked what McLaughlin would say to the people who now believe that @sciencing_bi is an elaborate hoax, including those who had positive experiences with both of them. “I’m really sorry, for all the pain they’re feeling now,” she said.

Lastly, I asked if she would do anything further to help assuage people’s fears of having been lied to for years by @sciencing_bi or herself.

“I’m really trying to figure out the best way I can do that,” she said.