Twitter is lousy with brands, bots, fakes, personas that read one-dimensional even as we take for granted a real person is trying to express something true about themselves. Less common, perhaps because less discussed, are accounts with all the markings of a genuine, committed poster whose IRL identity is something of a fabrication. Some serious scientist Twitter drama that’s been unfolding all week falls into this latter category.
On Tuesday the New York Times reported that a Twitter account claiming to belong to an anonymous female anthropology professor at Arizona State University and was said to have recently died from the coronavirus was in fact the invention of the woman who first announced her death. The anonymous professor (whose handle is @Sciencing_Bi) claimed to be bisexual and of Hopi Native American descent. She claimed to be born in Alabama but “fled the south because of their oppression of queer folk.” Since 2016 she’d been posting about issues of social justice and sexual harassment in the sciences. She was a geologist or perhaps a paleontologist.
On July 31, BethAnn McLaughlin — a neuroscientist known for being the founder and leader of MeTooStem, an organization founded to address sexual harassment in the sciences — tweeted she was “sad to report” that the anonymous scientist had “died from COVID this evening.” At this point it was still to be several days before McLaughlin admitted the anonymous professor was her own creation, and she wrote “No one has ever had my back like that. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” McLaughlin tweeted that she and the anonymous professor had been planning on getting matching tattoos in Hopi before she died.
The announcement prompted grief from fellow scientists who had interacted with the account online, and a Zoom memorial was even held in the account’s honor. Erica Smith, a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University, told the Times that she was “pretty shocked” because “I thought that she was a whole real human who had just died.” But just a few days later a spokesperson for Arizona State said that the account was a “hoax” and that there had been no recent reports of a death among the university’s faculty. The same day, both @Sciencing_Bi and McLaughlin were suspended under Twitter policies that ban the operation of fake accounts.
On Tuesday, McLaughlin finally admitted she’d made it all up, telling the Times through her lawyer, “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.” McLaughlin was last in the headlines in 2019 when BuzzFeed News reported that seven members of MeTooStem’s leadership team had resigned over concerns about McLaughlin’s behavior, including excessive secrecy about the group’s finances and being weirdly aggressive on Twitter. During this time, the McLaughlin’s anonymous professor had been particularly supportive of her plight.
BuzzFeed News reports that the account tweeted that ASU had “forced me to teach 200 person lectures instead of closing the school in April,” and had previously claimed that her employer cut her salary by 15 percent while she was in the hospital.
Just another day in which the internet has allowed us to witness the human condition play out its most perverse longings for a different reality, or personality, or follower count.