‘Catfish’ concerns over purported Covid death of ‘fake professor’

Scientists have expressed dismay that the reported death of a US scientist was apparently part of an elaborate hoax

August 4, 2020
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When it was announced that a queer Native American professor known to thousands on Twitter had died of Covid-19, scientists across the world sent messages of condolence.

Some scholars were angry too, because the scientist, known only by her Twitter handle @Sciencing_Bi, had posted a few months earlier how her employer – named as ASU, taken to mean Arizona State University – had forced her to continue teaching large in-person classes into April as coronavirus continued to spread across the US.

That anger has, however, turned to shock and disbelief after evidence emerged that the individual known as @Sciencing_Bi, who had 2,400 followers, probably did not exist and was instead an elaborate fake identity – known as a “catfish” – which had run for the past four years, interacting frequently with scientists and posting regularly about life as a bisexual Indigenous American scholar, including her experience of sexual harassment.

The apparent deception arose over the weekend after scientists began to look further into the news, announced on 31 July by BethAnn McLaughlin, a former associate professor of neuroscience at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, that her friend had died from Covid-19. “I don’t know what her students or my students who loved her will do,” posted Dr McLaughlin, who leads a non-profit called MeTooSTEM, which aims to highlight harassment in science.

In another post, Dr McLaughlin added that she was “looking at her side of the bed and crying”.

Some wondered, however, why ASU had not yet announced the death of a member of staff, while others highlighted a series of incorrect claims made recently by @Sciencing_Bi, including her assertion that in-person teaching had continued in April when classes had, in fact, moved online in mid-March with the exception of a few small groups.

An ASU spokeswoman issued a statement saying the university was treating the claim as a hoax after faculty were unable to identify the person in question. “We also have had no one, such as a family member or friend, report a death to anyone at the university,” the spokeswoman said.

Scientists raised further concerns over the veracity of @Sciencing_Bi’s account, established in 2016, after discovering that many pictures purporting to be taken by her were stock images.

Scholars who attended a Zoom memorial organised by Dr McLaughlin also became suspicious after realising she was the only one to have met her in person. On Twitter, Melissa Bates, assistant professor of human physiology at the University of Iowa, who had interacted with the account for several years, described the event as “weird” because its participants were just “me, two other dudes and the other person in this controversy”.

“The weirdest shit of all [that] was said was that this person had revised their will and…that I was in it,” said Dr Bates, who added that “you don’t leave shit to randos from the internet”.

Both @Sciencing_Bi’s and Dr McLaughlin’s accounts have now been suspended by Twitter for “violating our spam and platform manipulation policies”, it has said.

Dr McLaughlin did not respond to a Times Higher Education request for comment, but told the Arizona Republic newspaper that she did not know the individual in real life despite her previous posts.

“To the extent that I have people engage with me on Twitter using accounts not associated with their names, I try to do that in good faith assuming they are authentic,” Dr McLaughlin wrote in an email, adding that she “will not doxx anyone” – the practice of publishing personal or identifying information online about individuals who generally wish to remain private or anonymous.

Asked by the technology website Gizmodo what she would say to people who think the @Sciencing_Bi account was a hoax, Dr McLaughlin replied: “I’m really sorry, for all the pain they’re feeling now.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

To what levels has academia in the US dropped with hoaxes such as this and comments from an assistant professor that use language best suited to the gutter. It is little wonder academics are losing credibility.
Children are taught to not to take anything on the internet at face value- seems like there is a dire need for similar courses for academics now. Agree with the language comment by b.pierscionek too- it's unbecoming. Even for an assistant professor...
Account was a hoax by someone who wanted to feel important and pursue a false agenda against others in their organization. Sad but true. Should not take away from people who have truly been discriminated against and suffer silently. “I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @sciencing_bi Twitter account,” McLaughlin's statement to the New York Times said. “My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt.” https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-education/2020/08/04/bethann-mclaughlin-says-she-created-hoax-twittter-account-that-claimed-to-be-asu-prof-with-covid-19/3292914001/

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