News and Commentary

Prof Who Founded Anti-Harassment Group Created Hoax Professor Dying Of COVID
BethAnn McLaughlin, a Vanderbilt professor and one of three women being awarded the "Disobedience Award" by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, poses for a portrait in Boston on Nov. 29, 2018.
Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the woman who founded the advocacy group MeTooSTEM, which was created to fight harassment in the sciences, admitted that she was the creator of a hoax Twitter account of a queer, Hopi scientist supposed to be an Arizona State professor who died of COVID-19 over the weekend.

On July 31, BethAnn McLaughlin, the founder of MeTooSTEM, announced on Twitter that the supposed professor, who went by the name “@Sciencing_Bi” on Twitter, had died of COVID-19 after battling the virus for months. She wrote on Twitter, “She was a fierce protector of people. No one has ever had my back like that,” as Inside Higher Ed noted.

But after numerous Twitter users who communicated with or followed the @Sciencing_Bi account started questioning whether the account was real, McLaughlin finally confessed on Tuesday she had faked the account, with her attorney releasing this statement to The New York Times: “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.”

“The account had blamed ASU for the illness earlier this year, but got basic details about the university’s response to the pandemic wrong. After McLaughlin announced the death, other people began sleuthing out details that tied the accounts together. ASU said on Sunday that the alleged death appeared to be a hoax,” the Times reported.

In May, @Sciencing_Bi wrote, “ASU kept teachers, staff and students on campus until April. That’s well after we knew this was a killer disease. Many got COVID. Including me.” The @Sciencing_Bi account had “said they were not named because of a fear of retaliation because they were bisexual and because they did not have tenure,” AZ Central noted, adding, “In mid-April, @Sciencing_Bi posted that they had tested positive for COVID-19.”

Inside Higher Ed reported:

Twitter sleuths traced Sciencing_Bi’s posted photos, such as a cozy night at home by the fire, to stock photo websites. Others said their own online exchanges with Sciencing_Bi had been strange, as if they’d really been talking to McLaughlin. Once, Sciencing_Bi even asked her supporters to send her cash through McLaughlin’s Venmo app account, so she wouldn’t have to “break pseud.” The occasion for the request? Sciencing_Bi said her dean asked her if she’d taken a DNA test to prove her ancestry.

McLaughlin wrote, “Please read her timeline. Campus closed and she was in the hospital a week later. Be mad about COVID but be more mad that BIPOC community is most vulnerable and underrepresented on campus. We are killing them.”

On Sunday, McLaughlin emailed The Arizona Republic, writing, “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.” But a story published on Monday in The Daily Beast quoted her as saying that she “knew this person.”

Prior to McLaughlin’s admission on Tuesday, but after the alleged death had been announced, Josh Fessel, a scientist and medical doctor who had interacted with @Sciencing_Bi on Twitter, stated, “After the last couple of days, I don’t know who or what to believe. I believe I’ve been profoundly deceived for a long time, along with a lot of other people.”

In July 2019, McLaughlin, who was denied tenure at Vanderbilt University in 2017, left the university after an appeal to reverse the denial of tenure was rejected, Science reported.

Twitter suspended both McLaughlin and @Sciencing_Bi’s accounts. The @Sciencing_Bi account had been tweeting since at least 2016.

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