I recently retracted a post that repeated the story of a pseudonymous Twitter account belonging to an instructor at Arizona State University contracting and then dying of COVID-19. On Saturday night, multiple accounts familiar with the field had given their condolences, so I assumed the story was true without checking it out, for which I apologize.
Anyway, I had inadvertently stumbled across a bizarre story of a scholar creating a sockpuppet and then killing it off dramatically:
Scientists who had interacted with @Sciencing_Bi online first grieved her passing. But by Sunday, many grew alarmed at evidence suggesting the whole thing was a catfish, potentially linking McLaughlin — who has been accused of sidelining people of color and bullying victims of sexual harassment — with the pseudonymous account.
As the questions swirled, the account settings were switched to private. Then late on Sunday, Twitter suspended both McLaughlin’s and the @Sciencing_Bi accounts.
“We’re aware of this activity and have suspended these accounts for violating our spam and platform manipulation policies,” a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News by email. The company declined to comment on whether it had any forensic evidence linking the two accounts to the same device or person.
A spokesperson from ASU told BuzzFeed News they had no record of any faculty matching @Sciencing_Bi’s description. And other parts of @Sciencing_Bi’s accounts did not match up: The university closed its campus in March, switching to online instruction, and did not implement salary cuts.
“We have been looking into this for the last 24 hours and cannot verify any connection with the university,” ASU spokesperson Katie Paquet told BuzzFeed News by email on Sunday. “We have been in touch with several deans and faculty members and no one can identify the account or who might be behind it.”
“We also have had no one, such as a family member or friend, report a death to anyone at the university,” Paquet added.
The @Sciencing_Bi account was created in October 2016 and frequently mentioned McLaughlin. Over the past couple of years, with McLaughlin facing mounting criticism after MeTooSTEM volunteers left the organization complaining of mistreatment and a lack of transparency, @Sciencing_Bi had supported McLaughlin in these disputes.
And this isn’t a case like Lee Seigel, where a vain public intellectual creates allies to fight for them in a way that’s a pathetic but doesn’t do any real harm. Here, the sockpuppet was doing harmful stuff like involving in real Title IX disputes:
After the Crimson article appeared, @Sciencing_Bi approached complainants in the Harvard cases directly. “She claimed she also had a title IX at Harvard against Urton and contacted me with a sob story about how much she suffered, while at the same time encouraging me to reach out to Bethann,” one of the Harvard complainants, who asked not to be identified by name, told BuzzFeed News.
This complainant alleged that @Sciencing_Bi then used details of her case to gain the trust and sympathy of other victims and supporters. “It is beyond messed up,” she said.
“To me this is the most damaging thing that happened,” Michael Eisen, a computational biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and editor of the journal eLife, told BuzzFeed News.
Eisen said @Sciencing_Bi claimed in group DMs that she had been sexually harassed while studying for a PhD at Harvard. And she indicated that McLaughlin’s organization, MeTooSTEM, had helped her.
“The whole thing is really insidious,” Eisen told BuzzFeed News. “The clear purpose here was to get a lot of prominent people behind this person and behind MeTooSTEM.”
So much about 2020 is stranger than fiction.