Many scientists receive death threats after speaking about COVID, survey reveals

LONDON — Dozens of scientists have received death threats – or threats of physical or sexual violence – after speaking about the coronavirus pandemic, a new survey reveals.

Levels of abuse are much higher than previously feared, the international team found. One in seven scientists have received death threats. One in five (22%) have faced threats of physical or sexual violence.

Over a quarter of the more than 300 scientists in the survey by scientific journal Nature say they “always” or “usually” receive comments from trolls or personal attacks after commenting on the virus. Over four in 10 add it’s causing them emotional or psychological distress.

In June, the U.K.’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty was grabbed and shoved in the street. The survey of 321 scientists worldwide finds harassment is widespread. Six report that they have been the victim of a physical attack.

More than two-thirds say they’ve had negative experiences as a result of media appearances or posting comments about COVID-19 on social media. Some add that their employer has also received complaints about them or their home address has been revealed online.

Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was assigned personal security guards after he and his family received death threats. German virologist Christian Drosten received a parcel with a vial of liquid labeled “positive” and a note telling him to drink it. In one extraordinary case, Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst and his family had to enter a safe house when a military sniper went on the run after leaving a note outlining his intentions to target virologists.

Death threats an ‘accepted side-effect’ of sharing COVID information?

Some respondents say they’re learning to cope with harassment, accepting it as an unpleasant side-effect of sharing coronavirus information with the public. The survey also finds 85 percent say their experiences of engaging with the media are always or mostly positive, even if they face harassment afterwards.

“I think scientists need training for how to engage with the media and also about what to expect from trolls — it’s just a part of digital communication,” one scientist writes

Nature’s survey suggests that, even though researchers try to shrug off abuse, it might already have had a chilling effect on scientific communication. Those who reported higher frequencies of trolling or personal attacks were also most likely to say it had greatly affected their willingness to speak to the media.

That is concerning during a global pandemic which has been accompanied by a battery of disinformation and misinformation campaigns.

“It’s a great loss if a scientist who was engaging with the media, sharing their expertise, is taken out of a public debate at a time when we’ve never needed them so badly,” says Fiona Fox, chief executive of the U.K. Science Media Centre (SMC) in London, which collects comments and organizes press briefings.

Attacks might have little to do with the science itself and more to do with who’s talking.

“If you’re a woman, or a person of color from a marginalized group, that abuse will probably include abuse of your personal characteristics,” says historian Heidi Tworek from the University of British Columbia.

Social media can be a scary place for scientists

Two major triggers are vaccines and the anti-parasite drug ivermectin – controversially promoted as a potential COVID treatment with only little evidence of its effectiveness.

“Any time you write about vaccines — anyone in the vaccine world can tell you the same story — you get vague death threats, or even sometimes more specific death threats and endless hatred,” says epidemiologist Dr. Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz of the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Dr. Andrew Hill, a pharmacologist at Liverpool University, was besieged with images of hanged people and coffins, after he retracted a study suggesting ivermectin was beneficial over ethical concerns about the data on its efficacy. Attackers reportedly said he would be subject to “Nuremberg trials,” and that he and his children would “burn in hell.” He has since closed his Twitter account.

Much of this abuse happens on social media, raising the perpetual question of what responsibility the companies who run these platforms bear. Almost two thirds (63%) of the scientists use Twitter to comment on aspects of COVID. Around a third say they “always” or “usually” face attacks on the platform.

Harassment ‘becoming more organized and frightening’

“There’s been a huge amount of abuse aimed at everyone contributing to the pandemic response,” Dr. Michael Head of Southampton University tells SWNS in a statement.

“This has included NHS frontline staff, and also scientists and academics providing thoughts and explanatory comments to the public,” Dr. Head continues. “I myself have received plenty of abuse throughout the pandemic. For those of us who have been pulling apart anti-vaccine misinformation from pre-pandemic times, the presence of these attempts at intimidation is very wearying, but not surprising.”

“I would also add an important point – that as a white, male academic, I would imagine I’m far less likely to receive abuse than a scientist making similar points but from a different demographic,” Head says. “In my view, the intensity of such harassment has gone up significantly across the pandemic, including becoming more organized and frightening than simply mindless comments on social media. Right now in the UK, anti-vaccine activists are also harassing children coming out of school and making threats to teachers and staff carrying out teenage vaccinations.”

“This is not an action that was commonly seen in the UK previously, and it worries me that the intimidating anti-vaccine tactics seem commonly in USA and Australia might become embedded here too. These groups have become emboldened by the widespread presence of misinformation. The misinformation spread around Europe and North America also has far-reaching consequences in terms of inducing vaccine hesitancy further afield.”

Is societal ‘malaise’ to blame?

“The findings of the Nature survey of harassment and abuse of scientists during the pandemic tallies closely with that of myself and many UK women colleagues who have been prominent in speaking to the media,” Professor Susan Michie from University College London tells SWNS.

“The online abuse occurs most intensively after media engagements and especially after those that address restrictions to social mixing, the wearing of facemasks or vaccination.

Prof. Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University who took part in the survey, says he’s “shocked and saddened” by the findings.

“I have had some bad experiences after appearing in the media, particularly after calling out conspiracy theorists and some politicians, who seem to dislike having their pet theories debunked,” Prof. Clarke explains, noting he’s been on the receiving end of death threats, threats of violence, and threats of “lifelong imprisonment.”

“I am fortunate to have felt able to ignore the threats I’ve received, but I know that some colleagues have had far worse experiences,” Prof. Clarke adds. “I suspect that these negative experiences reflect a wider malaise in public discourse in society, fueled by social media and growing social and political tribalism.”

The survey followed an informal poll by the Australian Science Media Centre (SMC) which found six out of 50 (12%) had received death threats or threats of physical or sexual violence. Nature’s poll identified a higher proportion of negative experiences among a much larger group from the U.K., Germany, Canada, Taiwan, New Zealand, Brazil, and the United States.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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