Covid-19: ‘Pandemic’ levels of abuse aimed at scientists, public health experts around the world

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The Covid-19 pandemic has propelled leading scientists and public health experts into the public eye, creating a new brand of celebrity. But the newfound fame brings abuse, trolls and death threats too.

Surveys of scientists and experts across the ditch and around the world – including New Zealand – found many experienced vitriolic abuse after talking to media about the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Scientists are facing pandemic levels of abuse for simply trying to help us all wrap our heads around Covid-19,” said Lyndal Byford​ the director of news and partnerships at the Australian Science Media Centre (Aus SMC) who conducted a survey of 50 Australian experts.

In Australia alone, one in five scientists surveyed said they experienced death threats and/or threats of physical or sexual violence after speaking to media about the pandemic.

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Building on this, 31 of the 50 scientists reported at least some level of trolling following media appearances.

Aus SMC collaborated with the journal Nature to see if the same experience was true for Covid-19 commentators overseas.

Surveys issued by Science Media Centre in the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Taiwan and New Zealand and directly sent to prominent researchers in the United States and Brazil found an even higher proportion of negative experiences. In total, 321 experts were questioned, most of whom were from the UK, Germany and US.

Fifteen per cent​ reported receiving death threats, 22 per cent​ had received threats of physical or sexual violence, and more than two-thirds​ reported negative experiences as a result of their media stints. Six​ scientists were even physically attacked.

One element of the survey that surprised Byford was that women weren’t targeted more than men.

“We really felt women would be bearing more of a brunt in terms of the abuse that they got.”

Epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz​, from Australia’s University of Wollongong​, said two major triggers for his trolls were vaccines and ivermectin​ – a controversial drug that had previously been touted as a Covid cure.

Significant amounts of misinformation about vaccines is spread online.

Valentina Bellomo/Stuff

Significant amounts of misinformation about vaccines is spread online.

“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.”

Meyerowitz-Katz told Nature he had received more death threats due to ivermectin than anything else he had done before. Most threats came from anonymous people emailing him from “weird” accounts saying “I hope you die” or “if you were near me, I would shoot you”.

New Zealand experts weren’t exempt from the Covid-themed abuse. Although none had their experiences highlighted in the studies, their experiences had been publicised in the past.

Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles was one example. The associate professor at the University of Auckland quickly emerged in the early days of the pandemic as a voice of influence. She had spoken to Stuff on many occasions, explaining anything and everything about SARS-CoV-2.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles had been subject to online and in-person abuse and bullying during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Dr Siouxsie Wiles had been subject to online and in-person abuse and bullying during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wiles had many times been a target for ignorant and abusive comments from faceless internet trolls, and in August was subject to bullying and harassment while having breakfast at a Wellington hotel.

Similar experiences were being reported by scientific and health figures around the world.

In Germany, virologist Christian Drosten​, director of the Institute of Virology at the Charite Hospital​ in Berlin and who was one of the people to identify Sars in 2003, in May received a brown parcel carrying a small bottle of liquid. The vial was labelled “positive” with a note reading: “Drink this – it will make you immune”.

Dr Anthony Fauci, a prominent health figure in the US, also wasn’t immune to the attacks. Throughout the pandemic, he had been fielding threats to his life and to the safety of his family, resulting in a security detail trailing him full time. He even drove an armoured vehicle.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci had been targeted by death threats during the pandemic.

Drew Angerer//Getty Images

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci had been targeted by death threats during the pandemic.

Naturally, this conversation turned to social media and the responsibility these platforms had to curb this kind of abuse. Of those who responded to Nature’’s survey, 63 per cent​ used Twitter to comment on aspects of Covid-19, and around one-third​ of those were “always” or “usually” attacked in response.

Complaints to Twitter were rendered almost useless, as the platform claimed it already had features in place to reduce abuse, including technology to detect abusive language. But some researchers were asking for more to be done.

For others, they’ve grown accustomed to just ignoring the hate.

“I just don’t read the comments and I don’t engage,” infectious disease physician Krutika Kuppalli​, from the World Health Organisation (WHO), told Nature.

But not every expert took that approach.

Andrew Hill​, a pharmacologist from the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool, deleted his Twitter account.

“It is very harrowing if every day, you open up your emails, your Twitter, you get the death threats, you get abuse every single day, undermining your work.”

Byford said the abuse this industry had received made some think twice about appearing in the media again – this was true for 40 per cent​ of Australian scientists and 60 per cent​ of international experts surveyed.

Fiona Fox​, chief executive of the UK Science Media Centre said it would be a “great loss” if a scientist who engaged with media and shared their expertise was “taken out of a public debate at a time when we’ve never needed them so badly”.



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