Illustration of sad young bullied woman character sitting in front of computer with online dislike in social media

Trolling, abuse of scientists during the pandemic

Around one in five Australian scientists surveyed by the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) say they’ve experienced abuse including death threats and/or threats of physical or sexual violence after speaking to the media about COVID-19.

The survey results represent the experiences of the 50 scientists who chose to respond. They are not a random sample of researchers who’ve given media interviews on COVID-19. The survey found that 31 of the 50 scientists reported some level of trolling after appearing in the media to talk about COVID-19.

“Scientists are facing pandemic levels of abuse for simply trying to help us all wrap our heads around COVID-19,” says AusSMC director of news and partnerships Lyndal Byford.

“It’s definitely affected my work and that of my team,” says Professor Brendan Crabb, director and CEO of the Burnet Institute. “Just yesterday Burnet’s head of comms said how much the negativity was effecting morale and motivation of her team.”

Crabb says that, as a manager, he’s less hands-on in science these days, but what he does has still “been influenced by abuse, trolling, and personal attacks in many different forms. It is time-consuming to address but more importantly simply takes the stuffing out of you.”

AusSMC also worked with the journal Nature to see if the same was true for scientists internationally. With the help of science media centres in the UK, Germany, Canada, Taiwan and New Zealand the survey was distributed to scientists in multiple countries.

Nature’s poll found an even higher proportion of negative experiences among a larger group of respondents, with 15% reporting death threats and 22% saying they received threats of physical or sexual violence.

How scientists are personally affected varies from individual to individual.

“I try not to let it get in the way of my regular life,” says Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, a chronic disease epidemiologist and PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong. “I know for some people it has. For me, fortunately, the tactic I’ve taken so far has proven to be relatively effective – which is when I see stuff I delete it from my mailbox and I block a lot of people on Twitter.”

Meyerowitz-Katz points out that, as a white male, he’s relatively fortunate: he says his female colleagues and colleagues of colour are targeted with much more concerted and uglier abuse. He surprisingly maintains a reasonably understanding view of what drives trollish behaviour.

“Public health is inherently political,” he says. “You are researching policy and you’re producing evidence that may or may not support policy.

“Usually that’s not of great political interest. But if…you’ve suddenly published a paper on COVID that has drastic and immediate impacts on people’s lives, the fact that people are passionate about that is not surprising. And, unfortunately, some people take that passion and use it to drive a lot of hate mail and abuse because there are very few consequences for doing so in our society as it stands.”

Around 40% of Australian and 60% of international scientists who responded to the survey said the trolling and personal attacks have impacted their willingness to speak to the media in the future. While scientists said their media experiences were largely positive, AusSMC’s Byford believes they must be better prepared and supported if we want their continued assistance through the pandemic and future crises.

“If experts take the understandable Naomi Osaka approach, and stop speaking to the media, all of us will be worse off,” she says.

Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity research program at UNSW’s Kirby Institute, has like many of her peers continued to give the public clear, evidence-based views throughout the pandemic, and remains focused on her role and purpose.

“I don’t need media attention and never did it for my own self-promotion,” she says. “I only do it now if I feel there is something important to say that others are not saying or not expert in.”

MacIntyre says that her research productivity remains high, and that her research citations have “skyrocketed” during the pandemic – “because many of my research publications have been sought after in the scientific sphere”.

“I can imagine for less established researchers it can be disheartening to experience abuse and it may affect their research,” she says. “But I have been in this game for almost 30 years, have been doing media for almost as long, and have been attacked for speaking truth to power in the 2009 pandemic and during the Ebola epidemic of 2014. I even play videos of some of that media when I teach students about handling the media.”

MacIntyre concedes that trolling and abuse has affected her willingness to do media, but she’s calmly clear-headed about the darker sources of modern information and how to regard their role.

“In the world of social media and mainstream media in Australia, we are in a post-truth environment where black is white and white is black,” she says. “Pseudo-experts are elevated and glorified when their message suits an agenda, and real experts like me are demonised.

“Research is a different world, and truth is not diminished in that world.”