A Professor Was a Twitter Hoax

An anonymous anthropology professor remained outspoken about fairness in academia even as she suffered for months with coronavirus.

“This person was a scientist who got Covid because they’d been forced to teach,” said Michael Eisen, a fly geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, who had interacted on Twitter with the professor for years. “It wasn’t the first person I knew who got Covid — but for a lot of people it was one of the first people they knew who got it.”

He said that he had continued to exchange messages with the person running the account through June and that this person frequently discussed a difficult recovery.

Then BethAnn McLaughlin, another Twitter connection, announced on July 31 that the anonymous professor had died from complications of the virus.

Just a few days later, both the account of the anonymous professor and of Ms. McLaughlin were suspended for Twitter policies that, among other things, bar the coordination of fake accounts.

The same day, Gerardo Gonzalez, a spokesman for Arizona State University, where the anonymous Twitter user was supposedly a professor, described the anonymous account as a “hoax.”

The account had posted inaccurate information about the school, he said. “We also have had no one, such as a family member or friend, report a death to anyone at the university,” he added.

Among scientists and academics, the shock of mourning was already laced with suspicion. Enough of them had unpleasant interactions with the combative account and were troubled by its inconsistencies and seeming about-turns.

“You have these internal alarms that are like, ‘Oh, I don’t trust you,’” said Julie Libarkin, the head of the Geocognition Research Laboratory at Michigan State University. “Kind of the same as when I worked with BethAnn.”

On Tuesday, Ms. McLaughlin gave a statement to The New York Times through her lawyer.

“I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @sciencing_bi Twitter account,” it said. “My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt.”

The anonymous account, @Sciencing_Bi, was an active participant in the corner of Science Twitter that frequently discusses issues of sexual misconduct in the sciences. It claimed on at least one occasion to have grown up in Alabama, to have “fled the south because of their oppression of queer folk,” and to have attended Catholic school. The account began to pointedly make reference to being Native American and, earlier this year, began to identify as Hopi.

Since 2016, it has posted often about issues around social justice in the sciences, with a focus on activism and research about sexual harassment.

It was also active in the career of Ms. McLaughlin, a neuroscientist. (News of the relationship between the Twitter accounts was reported by Heavy.com, Science and the Chronicle of Higher Education.) It was key in promoting a petition that called for Ms. McLaughlin to be given tenure at Vanderbilt University. She was not given tenure in 2017, a decision she said was influenced by her having testified against a former Vanderbilt professor accused of sexual harassment. Her effort to reverse that decision was unsuccessful in 2019, and she left the university that summer.

On one occasion, the account responded to someone asking Ms. McLaughlin for information about Vanderbilt with extensive details about the university’s salary structure.

In April, @Sciencing_Bi began to undergo a drama that belonged solely to her, announcing the coronavirus diagnosis in a tweet. It was Ms. McLaughlin who announced that the anonymous professor had died.

“I was pretty shocked,” said Erica Smith, a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University. “I had never had particularly great experiences with @Sciencing_Bi, but I thought that she was a whole real human who had just died. I was surprised by how hard it hit me. I ate a pint of ice cream about it.”

Ms. McLaughlin came across as particularly distraught. She mourned @Sciencing_Bi in a long thread, paying testament to her humanity and toughness.

“She was supposed to get Hopi talisman for health as gifts for us but she ran out,” Ms. McLaughlin tweeted. “God. The irony of running out of health talisman.” She also said that she and the person behind the account had been planning on getting matching tattoos in the Hopi language.

Ms. McLaughlin has prompted particular frustration and disgust by posing as a Hopi woman, right as the coronavirus has caused disproportionate harm to Indigenous communities in the United States.

“There are millions who want to be us,” said Jacqueline Keeler, a writer and the editor of Pollen Nation, a Native-led magazine. “These people are centering themselves in our issues, they are heading Native American departments, they are telling Native students what they can and can’t study — it’s to protect their own position. And so it does change our ability to advocate for ourselves when we are constantly being replaced by frauds, white people or other people of different backgrounds pretending to be us.”

The first time Mr. Eisen heard from the account was in defense of Ms. McLaughlin. “The fact that @Sci-Bi was saying all these things about BethAnn, saying that BethAnn had helped her, it didn’t make me trust BethAnn — but it made me less willing to publicly criticize her because I thought that public criticism would be felt by the people she was helping,” he said. “Who turned out to be fake.”

Melissa Bates, a professor at the University of Iowa, was among those invited to a Zoom memorial via a Twitter thread. Ms. Bates said on Twitter that when she showed up on the Zoom, it was just her, Ms. McLaughlin, Mr. Eisen and another man.

Afterward, Mr. Eisen began to search for any evidence that @Sciencing_Bi had been a real person. He could not find any.

“The combination of the weird things that were happening on the call and looking at the tweets and seeing how much they circled BethAnn, it just became obvious to me,” he said. “‘Oh, this is BethAnn.’”

Ms. McLaughlin first began to make waves among those concerned about sexual harassment in the sciences in May 2018. She wrote and circulated a petition that month calling for the National Academy of Sciences to revoke the membership of those who had been punished for sexual harassment, retaliation and assault.

In June 2018, she and Ms. Libarkin started a website, MeTooSTEM, which quickly garnered attention, as women posted a series of largely anonymous stories there about being harassed while working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

In the same month, Ms. McLaughlin further raised her profile when she used Twitter to successfully pressure the website ratemyprofessor.com to drop its system of chili peppers used to rank the “hotness” of academics.

In October 2018, Ms. McLaughlin, who had begun to make decisions for the organization without informing her colleagues, created a fund-raiser for MeTooSTEM on GoFundMe. It eventually raised more than $79,000.

Ms. McLaughlin’s colleagues at MeTooSTEM were already feeling uncomfortable with her leadership at that point, and were made particularly uneasy by the GoFundMe.

“We were about to get in front of a crowd of people and say: ‘Give us your money,’” said Ms. Smith. She didn’t know how the money would be used, but did remember thinking: “We’re too broke to participate in white-collar crime.”

Former colleagues of Ms. McLaughlin at MeTooSTEM said they did not know where that money ultimately went. A 2019 report from MeTooSTEM said that the money, along with other donations, had “provided free services for 18 months to over 500 clients.”

In November 2018, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab awarded its Disobedience Award to Ms. McLaughlin; Tarana Burke, a founder of the #MeToo movement; and Sherry Marts, who left academia after being harassed by a colleague in her graduate lab. The award recognizes “ethical, nonviolent acts of disobedience” and comes with $250,000, which that year was split among the three recipients.

As Ms. McLaughlin received more public recognition, her colleagues at MeTooSTEM began to leave the organization, accusing her of frequent verbal abuse and citing the dysfunction plaguing the organization. By May 2019, seven members had resigned, according to a report in BuzzFeed at the time.

Deanna Arsala recently received a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago and was one of the few women of color at MeTooSTEM. She said that @Sciencing_Bi had claimed to know details about leadership meetings that included only BethAnn and a few other people. “I remember thinking, ‘Is this BethAnn?’” Ms. Arsala said.

Ms. Arsala left the organization in part because she and another colleague, also a woman of color, felt that white leadership did not prioritize what they had to say.

Kathryn Clancy, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois who was also involved in the MeTooSTEM movement and who is white, said that even as Ms. McLaughlin’s leadership issues brought bad publicity, her issues with race had gone largely overlooked, even as women of color inside and outside the organization had tried to get others to see them.

In February of 2020, another BuzzFeed report detailed further strife and resignations at MeTooSTEM. Activists including Ms. Marts publicly distanced themselves from the embattled MeTooSTEM leader; they even officially resigned from the hashtag.

In retrospect, the symbiosis of the two accounts makes sense to those who were aware of both for years. As Ms. McLaughlin lost some credibility, the account gained it.

And Ms. McLaughlin’s invention of the character behind @Sciencing_Bi was not as unusual as it may seem — nor would it have been unusual for her to have killed off the account.

Dr. Marc Feldman is a psychiatrist who studies factitious disorders in which a person acts as if they, or a loved one, have a disease. He specializes in what he calls Munchausen by internet, in which such deceptions take place online, and said he hears about a new case every couple of weeks.

“I think it happens online more than offline these days because it’s so easy to mislead people via social media,” Dr. Feldman said. He added that Covid-19 had been a boon for those with such disorders. “Nobody wants to be near a Covid-19 sufferer so they say, ‘We can’t meet,’” he said. “There’s no way to arrange a face-to-face meeting.’

In her statement, Ms. McLaughlin said: “As I’ve reflected on my actions the last few days, it’s become clear to me that I need mental health treatment, which I’m pursuing now. My failures are mine alone, so I’m stepping away from all activities with MeTooSTEM to ensure that it isn’t unfairly criticized for my actions.”

“These Pretendians are better at it than we are, because they don’t carry our specific trauma,” Ms. Keeler said. And: “They are ethnic opportunists and that is a colonial endeavor that has been going on for centuries in this hemisphere.”

Even the lack of tenure of the pretend professor served a purpose, giving the account a perfectly good reason for remaining anonymous.

“This is a good thing about Science Twitter, that it gives people who are marginalized a voice,” Mr. Eisen said. “It sucks that BethAnn took advantage of that.”

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