At First It Looked Like A Scientist Died From COVID. Then People Started Taking Her Story Apart.
BethAnn McLaughlin, who has previously come under fire for harassing people in her group MeTooSTEM, faked an online persona: a woman of color who she said died of COVID-19.
Update: On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that McLaughlin, through her lawyer, admitted to inventing the fake persona. This story has been updated to include her statement.
Whoever was tweeting from @Sciencing_Bi, she had a corner of the scientific community’s attention. She claimed to be a bisexual geologist or paleontologist of Native American descent. She frequently tweeted about sexual harassment and diversity in science, making connections online with other advocates.
And since April, she documented a long struggle with COVID-19, with persistent symptoms including a loss of language fluency.
@Sciencing_Bi blamed Arizona State University for her condition, tweeting in June that the university “forced me to teach 200 person lectures instead of closing the school in April.” Earlier, she had claimed the university cut her salary by 15% while she was in the hospital.
Then, on Friday, the leader of MeTooSTEM, an organization founded to combat sexual harassment in science, suddenly tweeted that @Sciencing_Bi was dead.
“Sad to report @Sciencing_Bi died from COVID this evening,” BethAnn McLaughlin wrote.
Scientists who had interacted with @Sciencing_Bi online first grieved her passing. But by Sunday, many grew alarmed at evidence suggesting the whole thing was a catfish, potentially linking McLaughlin — who has been accused of sidelining people of color and bullying victims of sexual harassment — with the pseudonymous account.
As the questions swirled, the account settings were switched to private. Then late on Sunday, Twitter suspended both McLaughlin’s and the @Sciencing_Bi accounts.
“We’re aware of this activity and have suspended these accounts for violating our spam and platform manipulation policies,” a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News by email. The company declined to comment on whether it had any forensic evidence linking the two accounts to the same device or person.
A spokesperson from ASU told BuzzFeed News they had no record of any faculty matching @Sciencing_Bi’s description. And other parts of @Sciencing_Bi’s accounts did not match up: The university closed its campus in March, switching to online instruction, and did not implement salary cuts.
“We have been looking into this for the last 24 hours and cannot verify any connection with the university,” ASU spokesperson Katie Paquet told BuzzFeed News by email on Sunday. “We have been in touch with several deans and faculty members and no one can identify the account or who might be behind it.”
“We also have had no one, such as a family member or friend, report a death to anyone at the university,” Paquet added.
The @Sciencing_Bi account was created in October 2016 and frequently mentioned McLaughlin. Over the past couple of years, with McLaughlin facing mounting criticism after MeTooSTEM volunteers left the organization complaining of mistreatment and a lack of transparency, @Sciencing_Bi had supported McLaughlin in these disputes.
After tweeting about her death, McLaughlin appeared to suggest that she had been in an intimate relationship with @Sciencing_Bi: “Looking at her side of the bed and crying. Just a lot of crying. I literally can do nothing.”
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News about whether she faked the account, and tweets in which she had tagged @Sciencing_Bi, McLaughlin said, “I’m not going to dox anyone. Thank you for your interest.”
On Tuesday, she admitted in a statement issued through her lawyer to the New York Times that she had invented the persona: “I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @sciencing_bi Twitter account. My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt.”
Over the weekend, scientists who had interacted with @Sciencing_Bi online had pointed to various instances connecting her activities with McLaughlin.
In late June, @Sciencing_Bi induced supporters to donate to her through McLaughlin’s Venmo account, after she said she’d been asked by her dean whether she’d taken a DNA ancestry test to prove her status as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color).
“If people venmo me $ for day drinking, I may email them and ask if they have taken a DNA test to prove they are an asshole,” she wrote, going on to ask: “@McLNeuro would you be Venmo intermediary to the end of my career so I don’t have to break pseud?”
Another scientist revealed that in 2019 she had interacted with @Sciencing_Bi when the pseudonymous account was advocating for McLaughlin’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win tenure at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. @Sciencing_Bi said she’d give access to a Google document, but the invitation actually came from McLaughlin’s Google account.
In some of the most disturbing exchanges, @Sciencing_Bi interacted on Twitter with victims of sexual harassment and their supporters, coming to be regarded by some of them as a friend even though they had not met her in person.
In early June, shortly after the Harvard Crimson revealed a history of Title IX sexual harassment complaints against three Harvard professors in anthropology, Theodore Bestor, Gary Urton, and John Comaroff, @Sciencing_Bi claimed to have been assaulted by Bestor at a scientific meeting.
After the Crimson article appeared, @Sciencing_Bi approached complainants in the Harvard cases directly. “She claimed she also had a title IX at Harvard against Urton and contacted me with a sob story about how much she suffered, while at the same time encouraging me to reach out to Bethann,” one of the Harvard complainants, who asked not to be identified by name, told BuzzFeed News.
This complainant alleged that @Sciencing_Bi then used details of her case to gain the trust and sympathy of other victims and supporters. “It is beyond messed up,” she said.
“To me this is the most damaging thing that happened,” Michael Eisen, a computational biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and editor of the journal eLife, told BuzzFeed News.
Eisen said @Sciencing_Bi claimed in group DMs that she had been sexually harassed while studying for a PhD at Harvard. And she indicated that McLaughlin’s organization, MeTooSTEM, had helped her.
“The whole thing is really insidious,” Eisen told BuzzFeed News. “The clear purpose here was to get a lot of prominent people behind this person and behind MeTooSTEM.”
After @Sciencing_Bi’s death was announced, McLaughlin invited Eisen and others to a Zoom call on Saturday that they expected to be a memorial attended by many people including her former students. But there were just five attendees, and Eisen said that McLaughlin was the only one who claimed to have met her in person.
Eisen said that McLaughlin told him that he was mentioned in @Sciencing_Bi’s will and that her family wanted him to take on the task of fighting coronavirus misinformation on Facebook. (@Sciencing_Bi had tweeted the same request at him earlier.)
Another participant on the call, Melissa Bates, a physiologist at the University of Iowa, did not respond to queries from BuzzFeed News. On Twitter, she also described confusion over being one of the few people invited and being included in the scientist’s will, even though they had never met.
During the Zoom call, Eisen said he started searching online for information to corroborate details of @Sciencing_Bi’s story. “It took five minutes during that call to work out that this person didn’t exist,” he said.
As @Sciencing_Bi’s narrative seemed to fall apart, scientists reacted with outrage that someone would fabricate a persona who was a COVID-19 patient, an Indigenous person, and a victim of sexual harassment.
Marisa Duarte, a Native American researcher at ASU who studies how Indigenous communities build Internet infrastructure, told BuzzFeed News that the deception was “sickening,” given that Indigenous communities in Arizona have been devastated by COVID-19. “We’ve gone through emotional periods of ups and downs for the whole summer as many people we know personally have died,” Duarte said. “For this to happen at this time is really exhausting and frustrating.”
“This faking being Native has a long history of being tied to the actual theft of resources and land,” Kim TallBear of the University of Alberta in Canada, who studies the engagement of Indigenous people with science and technology, told BuzzFeed News. “The fact that this woman thought she could get away with this tells you how little she understands about the actual state of affairs for Native people in the United States.”
“I am disgusted that anyone would take advantage of persistent sexism, racism, homophobia, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and COVID fears for their own personal gain,” Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at the University of Maine, told BuzzFeed News. “This is a person that did harm to very real movements and people.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Kim TallBear.
This story has been updated to include comments from Marisa Duarte.