Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Never do this as a representative of #sciencetwitter

I'm in a different space than the neurosciences, and definitely a different space than those who have been vying to represent the #metoo movement in the sciences. I try to be an ally as best as possible. That's all. I do expect a level of honesty, but I don't think that's too much to ask. A lot of people, especially early career researchers and others who are in tenuous situations use platforms such as Twitter to express concerns of theirs pseudonymously. In and of itself, that doesn't matter much. People share their experiences, they seem to add up, and we figure out how to best support them. That's swell.

Sometimes, we experience something else.

I'll start with something fairly basic: It's hard to be alive in the US right now without directly knowing at least one person who has tested positive for COVID-19. I am personal friends with someone who was eventually diagnosed as COVID-19 positive, and who, after roughly two months, made a complete recovery. Keep in mind that I live in a more remote part of the US, and your mileage may vary.

So imagine that I catch wind that someone I had some vague recollection of is reported to have died from COVID-19, after her institution allegedly kept her in classrooms for several weeks after it was very obvious that the proverbial truth had hit the fan (to borrow from proto-rapper Gylan Kain). Keep in mind that although I had no direct interaction with this particular cyberfiction, as far as I know, the thought of a faculty member being placed in harm's way was one that would concern me for very obvious reasons. Would a US college or university continue to coerce a faculty member to teach seated courses after early to mid-March? The odds are unlikely. In my very Red state of Arkansas, we were given an extra week of spring break starting the second week of March to enable faculty to flip classes to online. My understanding is that Arizona did something very similar.

Here's the thing. The story did not add up. The cyberfiction's alleged university (Arizona State University - I had to make sure that it was not Arkansas State University, which is also referred to as ASU and which has grad programs) had no clue as to who this person was or any indication that one of their own faculty had allegedly died from COVID-19. Turns out those who considered this cyberfiction as personal friends had never met the person. Note that when dealing with pseudonymous bloggers and social media accounts, there may well be a real person. Note too that it is possible to know someone who wrote under a pseudonym who really did die, and that said death could be confirmed independently. Been there. It hurt. A bunch of us mourned. We got on with life. That said, I also have experienced at least once where someone used a sockpuppet to fake a suicide (that was back in Usenet days). Let's just say that did not go over well. A sleuth was able to put two and two together and sort out that perp of the hoax was the alleged victim. Thankfully, the truth came out, and the perp was deservedly roasted.

In the meantime, someone who was once considered the face of #metoostem is facing a lot of inconvenient questions she will likely never answer. I expect nothing less. Cosplaying on Twitter an identity that one would have no way of rightfully identifying creates a lot of collateral damage. For those who actually believed that they were interacting with a real individual, there was an initial sense of a genuine loss, followed by a sense of being duped. For those who had less of a horse in the race, as it were, this episode may reinforce the worst of #metoostem. That latter lesson is one I hope is not reinforced. For every liar, there are a ton of people who have been abused, dismissed, etc. who deserve to be heard. That a privileged White woman may well have faked a relationship that was professional and personal for whatever reason is beyond the pale. That this person may have faked being an indigenous person - and especially one belonging to the LGBTQ community - is beyond the pale.

In the meantime, #metoostem deserves new and diverse voices. The one person who was most vocal may not have been much of an ally.

Following are some Twitter threads and articles to provide some much needed context.

Here's some sleuthing from Aspiring Leftist Academic, and Keiko has a good thread summarizing this situation as it unfolds. More sleuthing by Isabel Ott.

Here's an article from Buzzfeed.

Gizmodo weighs in.

Heavy had its own deep dive into this particular saga.

Daily Beast had its own article, which did include a brief interview with BethAnn McLaughlin.

Science Magazine has its own coverage, noting that the apparently faked account in question (what I refer to as a cyberfiction), @sciencing_bi and @mclneuro are both suspended under Twitter's rules. Twitter has also restricted the @MeTooStem account due to unusual activity.

And yes, this story has made its way to Inside Higher Ed, as does Chronicle of Higher Ed (note Chronicle article is paywalled)

Since this was a situation that initially appeared to have some connection to Arizona State University, it is reasonable to expect that AZcentral would cover it.

Note that depending on the media outlet, McLaughlin has varied in her willingness to respond. Her responses themselves are troubling - including an admission that she had access to the @sciencing_bi account. I suspect that the media outlets own reporting was aided considerably by various sleuthing efforts on Twitter (@endlesswarrio, @mbeisen, @isabelott, and probably others I am forgetting at the moment), who dug up inconsistencies, as well as dug up stock photos that were passed off as authentic events, including alleged meetups between @sciencing_bi and @mclneuro, as well as the supposed trip to Yosemite that turned out to just be @mclneuro and her daughter.

There are some questions that have been circulating for a while about whether or not BethAnn McLaughlin was involved in some data image manipulation/duplication. That's above my pay grade, but certainly worth a look.

In the meantime, my sympathy and empathy to anyone who got hurt during this debacle. I expected more out of Science Twitter than a bunch of wannabe authors of really bad fanfic. Yet here we are. This is a cautionary tale. I really hope that those who are genuinely under-represented as scholars - not only on Twitter but within our various disciplines writ large - were not unduly harmed here, and that their voices get heard and respected.

Note that I have added some new links to this post as I become aware of them.This post was last updated on August 4.

One last update for this post: Bethann McLaughlin finally admits it (through her lawyer), as reported in the NYT. Make of her apology what you will. Not sure if it is sincere, or more of a move to avoid being held accountable. I am not intending on commenting further on the matter unless there is some blowback that is relevant to those who work hard to make the sciences more inclusive. Otherwise, we're done here as of August 4.

Last update as of August 6: This article from ArsTechnica slipped through the cracks. It's useful for describing how a fake account could be seen as a plausible real person, and how @Sciencing_Bi would have fooled a lot of otherwise skeptical people. Also included are plenty of screen shots. The fallout is still to be determined. I am guessing this will make it easier for trolls to attack pseudonymous Twitter users who have legitimate reasons to not be identified by name, as well as add more ammo to push back against the Me Too Movement more broadly, as well as those who are marginalized to begin with. Okay. We're done here.

No comments:

Post a Comment