A segment of science Twitter was rocked over the weekend by the discovery that a long-standing, pseudonymous online member had died of COVID-19-related complications. But grief quickly turned to shock, hurt, and anger when the deceased turned out to have never existed. Rather, it was a sock puppet account that we now know was created and maintained by BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist and founder of the #MeTooSTEM advocacy group whose Twitter handle is @McLNeuro.
“I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @Sciencing_Bi Twitter account,” McLaughlin said in a statement provided to The New York Times through her lawyer. “My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt. As I’ve reflected on my actions the last few days, it’s become clear to me that I need mental health treatment, which I’m pursuing now. My failures are mine alone, so I’m stepping away from all activities with #MeTooSTEM to ensure that it isn’t unfairly criticized for my actions.”
This certainly isn’t the first time a fake persona has manifested on social media. Way back in 2003, controversial American Enterprise Institute scholar John R. Lott Jr.. was outed by The Washington Post for creating a sock-puppet online persona, “Mary Rosh,” purportedly a former student, and using it to mount spirited defenses of his work online. In 2017, there was the case of “Jenna Abrams,” who boasted 70,000 Twitter followers; the fake persona was so convincing that she managed to spread a viral rumor that CNN’s local Boston station had accidentally aired 30 minutes of pornography late one night in November 2016.
In 2019, we had the strange case of Eugene Gu, a former surgery resident at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who went viral on Twitter a few years ago after taking a knee in his hospital scrubs in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. An investigation by The Verge revealed evidence that Gu operated several sock puppet Twitter accounts, most notably one under the name @MaryLauryMD (since deleted). And just last month, The Daily Beast exposed a network of fake op-ed writers who had been placing editorials on Middle East policy with conservative outlets, such as Newsmax and the Washington Examiner.
But the particular case of @Sciencing_Bi is unique because of its unusually long duration—the Twitter account was created in October 2016—and the absence of any obvious financial motive that is a common feature of catfishing scams.
“I’ve been acquainted with that account for years, and nothing seemed unusual about it,” Greg Gbur told Ars. He’s a physicist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and he interacted occasionally with @Sciencing_Bi on Twitter. He never noticed anything amiss. “She seemed like a nice person, passionate about STEM representation. No indication of a scam for money or anything like that. It’s all a bit mystifying.”
Tweets and sympathy
@Sciencing_Bi, identified on her profile only as “Alepo,” claimed to be a female bisexual Native American anthropologist at Arizona State University who was involved with combatting discrimination and sexual harassment in the scientific community. She had a modest follower count (about 2,400) and interacted frequently with several well-known scientists, science writers, and science communicators on Twitter. (Full disclosure: while I never interacted with the account myself, I know many of those on science Twitter who did.)
In April, she announced that she had contracted COVID-19 and subsequently documented a months-long struggle with the disease. She specifically blamed her employer, ASU, for her plight, and she claiming that she and other teachers, staff, and students had been forced to remain on campus well into April. She also asserted that the school had cut her salary by 15 percent while she was hospitalized. Then on Friday, July 31, McLaughlin tweeted that @Sciencing_Bi—purportedly a close friend—had died of complications from COVID-19, followed by a series of impassioned tweets eulogizing her late friend.
There was the usual online outpouring of condolences and grief alongside outrage at her plight and purported mistreatment by ASU. McLaughlin even set up a Zoom memorial service for @Sciencing_Bi; those attending included noted University of California, Berkeley, biologist Michael Eisen and Melissa Bates, a physiologist at the University of Iowa.
That’s when things got weird. Both Eisen and Bates were surprised that only five people, including themselves and McLaughlin, attended the virtual memorial—no former students, no colleagues, no friends, and no family members. As Bates noted in a twitter thread, “This is a community. And if this person was part of the community, where was the community?” Bates’ suspicions were aroused in earnest when McLaughlin told her that Sciencing_Bi had mentioned her in her will. “You don’t leave sh*t to randos on the Internet when you’re first gen and you’ve got an undocumented family,” Bates tweeted. “You do everything for your familia.”
Additional details revealed during the service seemed didn’t seem to add up. Several photographs that @Sciencing_Bi tweeted turned out to be stock photos. And while @Sciencing_Bi had been well-known online to many in the sci-comm community, it turned out that nobody had actually met her in real life—except for McLaughlin.
Others found it odd that there was no outside confirmation of @Sciencing_Bi’s death from ASU or a local obituary. “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 on Monday. “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.” ASU also denied that there had been any salary cuts and said that, like most other educational institutions, the university had shut down in March and switched to online classes. By Sunday, Eisen and many others publicly acknowledged that they’d been had: the person they had known as @Sciencing_Bi had never existed.
Attention next turned to identifying the person behind the fake account. For Twitter sleuths, McLaughlin was the most obvious suspect. McLaughlin is a polarizing figure within the community after having risen to prominence as an advocate for victims of sexual harassment in STEM. She shared MIT Media Lab’s Disobedience Award in 2018 with biologist Sherry Marts and #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke. She also founded #MeTooSTEM.
Twitter sleuths on the case
But allegations soon emerged that McLaughlin bullied and harassed others, especially people of color. She also faced accusations of a lack of transparency. The entire #MeTooSTEM board would eventually resign, leaving just McLaughlin herself and a single volunteer listed on the site.
Could McLaughlin actually have concocted the @Sciencing_Bi persona? There were strong hints this might be the case. For instance, a July 2018 tweet in which McLaughlin claimed to be with @Sciencing_Bi at Yosemite National Park was accompanied by a photograph, but the partially obscured person in the picture turned out to be McLaughlin’s daughter, not @Sciencing_Bi. (McLaughlin admitted as much to Gizmodo.)
@Sciencing_Bi was tagged in a group photo at a 2019 academic conference, along with several others, but she was not depicted in the photograph. Analytical chemist Amber Barnard tweeted about a 2019 exchange with @Sciencing_Bi when she volunteered to help with a campaign last year to get McLaughlin’s tenure restored at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. @Sciencing_Bi promised to send access to a Google doc, but when the invitation came, it was from McLaughlin’s account.
All of this is technically circumstantial evidence, of course. But most of those who were duped were soon convinced that McLaughlin was behind the account, even though she initially denied the allegations. Gizmodo’s Ed Cara spoke with McLaughlin on the telephone, reporting:
She stuck by her claim that @Sciencing_Bi had died from covid-19, as far as she knew. When I asked how she had learned of the death, she only would say that it was through a family contact. I then asked if she would be willing to reveal the identity of @Sciencing_Bi, and she said no. She also denied being the creator of the account. McLaughlin did admit, however, that she had access to the @Sciencing_Bi account, though she went on to state that it was not her who made the account private.
It might be surprising that so many smart people fell for what, in retrospect, seems to be a fairly obvious hoax. But the online science community has a long history of incorporating pseudonymous personas going back to the earliest days of science blogging, when many scientists—especially those without tenure—wanted to avoid being penalized by their departments for blogging. (I still occasionally think of science writer Bethany Brookshire by her early pseudonym, Scicurious.) So the inclination to give someone the benefit of the doubt for using a pseudonym was already established. All McLaughlin needed, according to Eisen, was plausibility, a connection, and a good hook to gain the community’s trust. The @Sciencing_Bi persona had all three elements.
“It’s not like we don’t know there are trolls and sock puppets, etc.,” Eisen told Ars. “But this account was good. It had a backstory. It had a reason for being a pseud that we all accepted easily because we understand how people who aren’t straight feel in a tenuous position with regard to employment, and a pseud is a natural for them. We also saw that people we know exist said they knew her. That was enough to pretty quickly elevate this person to reality. She just seemed like one of us.”
The account was so convincing that nobody who interacted with her on Twitter thought to verify her various claims, many of which were easily checked. For example, Eisen admitted that he naively took @Sciencing_Bi’s word for odd claims like the 15 percent paycut from ASU. “I was willing to excuse various idiosyncrasies of the account because I could chalk them up to her not being totally forthcoming in order to protect her identity,” he said. “Plenty of people either obscure or fake their institutional affiliations to maintain anonymity.”
McLaughlin’s motives for creating the sock puppet account are also puzzling to many. Here, one can only speculate. But attention on social media is a form of capital in its own right; we’ve all experienced the occasional rush of dopamine from a positive online interaction—or the shot of adrenaline when our sense of outrage is triggered. In McLaughlin’s case, it seems she sought to counter criticism for her alleged harassment of people of color by creating an indigenous sock puppet—a cool bisexual Hopi scientist—to defend her.
“‘I have POC friends’ is a line used across the racist spectrum, but inventing your POC friend is next level,” a researcher and organizer who frequently deals with misinformation, but asked not to be identified, told Ars.
McLaughlin also may have derived satisfaction from manufacturing a series of personal crises for @Sciencing_Bi in order to provoke an outpouring of sympathy without having to reveal her true self. The New York Times article quotes psychiatrist Dr. Marc Feldman, who specializes in what he has dubbed “Munchausen by internet.” This is the virtual version of Munchausen syndrome by proxy—and a behavior that he is seeing more of during the ongoing pandemic. “I think it happens online more than offline these days because it’s so easy to mislead people via social media,” Feldman told The New York Times. “Nobody wants to be near a Covid-19 sufferer so they say, ‘We can’t meet.’ There’s no way to arrange a face-to-face meeting.”
Ultimately, McLaughlin’s fatal mistake was the decision to kill off her @Sciencing_Bi persona and make false, easily disproven accusations against ASU. That drew the attention of actual ASU faculty members on Twitter, among others, who quickly weighed in to correct the record and sparked widespread suspicion. Twitter drama may be most effective when it’s relevant to the current sociopolitical discourse, but too much relevance risks real scrutiny—and the @Sciencing_Bi persona wasn’t created to withstand such scrutiny.