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Scientists hit by trolling and death threats over discussion of COVID-19, survey finds

Of the 50 scientists who responded to the survey, 31 reported some level of troll.

An international survey by the journal Nature found a higher proportion of negative experiences among a larger group of scientists in the UK, Germany, Canada, Taiwan and New Zealand. Fifteen percent reported death threats, while 22 percent said they received threats of physical or sexual violence.

“Extraordinary personal attacks”

Professor Raina MacIntyre is one of those scholars. The senior scientist who leads the Biosafety Research Program at UNSW Medicine’s Kirby Insitute said a troll can occur on social media or through mainstream media.

“I’ve had some extraordinary personal attacks against me through the media, ones I’ve never seen targeted at whites,” she said.

“Racism and misogyny seem to be a factor.”

She said a troll is common and can be organized around specific agendas “to silence and discredit anyone who exposes the truth.”

“Classic tactics are being used, such as repeating a lie over and over again. The pandemic has seen an unscientific agenda become the main one, with issues such as anti-vaccination. [of children], masking and merging all public health measures with blocking, ”she said.

Professor MacIntyre said the “saddest” troll came from doctors and other health professionals.

“Some may be driven by an agenda, but others just seem to be broken by the pandemic, having lost their relationships and a sense of professionalism,” she said.

“They band together as schoolyard bullies and act like bullies and stalkers.”

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Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist at Wollongong University, said troll and harassment were a “real problem” during the pandemic.

“I get regular anti-Semitic hatred online, occasional death threats, and a lot of expected nasty lies about me posted everywhere just to discuss things in some research areas,” he said.

“And, frankly, as a white man, I’m much luckier than some of my colleagues who get big orders more hate than I do.”

“The abuse made them think twice”

Lyndal Byford of the AusSMC said scientists are being abused “simply for trying to help us all wrap our heads around COVID-19”.

“During the pandemic, many scientists became celebrities, appearing regularly on our television screens, radios and in our news. They helped us all understand this terrible virus,” Ms Byford said.

“But for some, the abuse they received for this public service made them think twice about appearing in the media again.”

About 40% of Australian scientists who responded, and 60% of international scientists said the troll and personal attacks had affected their willingness to speak to the media in the future.

More than 30 per cent of Australian respondents said it had emotional and psychological effects.

Professor Brendan Crabb, CEO of Burnet Institute, said his main concern beyond the mental health effects is that “we just quit”.

“I’m a little ashamed to admit that I already say no to a lot of interview requests for this reason and participate less on social media than I would like,” he said.

“Strongly arguing for intellectual reasons is a sport we enjoy, actually fueled by. The kind of arguments scientists face mostly in relation to COVID-19 is not at all like that. It’s just harassing abuse.”

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Professor Margaret Hellard, deputy director of the Burnet Institute, said she decided to report one particularly threatening email to police earlier this year to “set up a position” on behalf of younger female investigators.

“Speaking with younger female people, some said they were reluctant to post or post information online or participate in discussions / debates in the press because of the trolling that immediately follows and feels a threat. For me, this was a terrible thing,” she said. .

“In the same way that domestic abuse and violence have been ignored as minor for many years, abuse and threats on social networks are equally rejected, but they can have a profound effect on people’s lives in a variety of ways.

“For young women, it’s particularly difficult.”

The AusSMC says it hopes to develop training materials and resources to better prepare scientists to deal with trolling and abuse.

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue at 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyondblue.org.au. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.




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