For several years, academics and activists around the country interacted with the Twitter account @Sciencing_Bi, which was supposedly run by an LGBTQ Native American Anthropology professor at Arizona State University. They reacted with tributes and grief when a controversial former professor and anti-sexual harassment #metoo crusader named BethAnn McLaughlin announced on Twitter that @Sciencing_Bi had died of COVID-19, blaming the university where @Sciencing_Bi supposedly worked for making people teach on campus during the pandemic.
However, what unfolded next is a complex and bizarre tale of accusations and confusion, as academics and others on social media are now accusing McLaughlin of being @Sciencing_Bi and masquerading as a fake Native American professor online, ASU is saying it can’t come up with a death of any professor from COVID-19 recently and believes the death report is a “hoax,” and Twitter has suspended both the accounts of McLaughlin and the now mysterious @Sciencing_Bi (as of the early morning hours of August 3).
McLaughlin has now admitted to The New York Times that she created the fake Native American professor saying, 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.”
A few days before, she was writing an elaborate eulogy for the persona she made up.
“Sad to report @Sciencing_Bi died from COVID this evening,” McLaughlin wrote on July 31, 2020. “She was a fierce protector of people. She let me take my shoulders away from my ears knowing she was meaner and more loving than everyone else. No one has ever had my back like that. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” In a eulogy on Twitter, she spun an elaborate narrative, saying that @Sciencing_Bi wanted them to get matching tattoos in an indigenous language and texted her daily.
“Please read her timeline. She was forced by her university to teach in person until April,” McLaughlin tweeted. “Campus closed and she was in the hospital a week later. Be mad about COVID but be more mad that BIPOC community is most vulnerable and underrepresented on campus. We are killing them.”
@Sciencing_Bi wrote about her supposed battle with COVID-19 in dramatic terms. “ASU kept teachers, staff and students on campus until April. That’s well after we knew this was a killer disease. Many got covid. Including me,” read a May 23 tweet by @Sciencing_Bi, whose name on Twitter was given as only “Alepo” next to a rainbow flag.
Dr. Jacquelyn Gill, associate professor at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, has written extensively about the controversy. “I’m angry about the harm done to Black, indigenous, and other people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks in our community whose trust was violated. I’m angry that someone would pretend to have a disease that has killed so many, and which *disproportionately affects BIPOC,*” she tweeted.
“Update: I’m now convinced @Sciencing_Bi was a fake account. I’m so sorry to those of you whose trust was violated. Creating a fake pseudonymous account and pretending various marginalized identities is wrong. It’s evil,” added Gill on Twitter, who wrote earlier as the drama started to unfold, “Some irregularities have been brought to my attention. @Sciencing_Bi was an important tweep to many of us, but I did not know her in person.”
The Twitter page Aspiring Leftist Academic alleged on Twitter that “people trying to look for ASU press releases on the death found that every photo posted by sciencing_bi was a stock photo, and that the only person who communicated with them outside of twitter DMs was bethann.”
Heavy has reached out to McLaughlin for comment through her website, MeTooSTEM.com, which she founded in 2018 to combat sexual harassment in STEM professions.
McLaughlin is well-known in academia for being the person who convinced the site RateMyProfessors.com to remove its red hot chili pepper rating for “hot” professors and who created online petitions to go after top institutions like the National Academy of Sciences on sexual harassment response. In 2019, Science Magazine described McLaughlin as “a 51-year-old neuroscientist” who “has in the last nine months exploded into view as the public face of the #MeToo movement in science.”
She left Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2019 after tenure controversies and created the website called MeTooSTEM.com to document stories of women in STEM careers who were sexually harassed. According to The Scientist, she left the university – her lawyer said by “mutual agreement” – after “a long and flip-flopping tenure review process.” But she soon made headlines when former staffers at the new website raised allegations against her in resignation letters.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. ASU Hasn’t Been Able to Find a Faculty Member Who Died of COVID-19 & Believes the Situation is ‘a Hoax’
Jerry Gonzales, with Arizona State University’s Office of Media Relations, told Heavy:
Unfortunately, this appears to be a hoax. We looked into this over the weekend and were unable to verify any connection with the university. We were in touch with several deans and faculty members and no one was able to identify the account or who might be behind it. Some of the past commentary this person posted was questionable, such as teaching in April. ASU transitioned to fully remote teaching in March. The person also mentioned salary reductions. We have not implemented any salary reductions here. It also appears the account was made private over the weekend and several of the folks who had been posting for/about this individual admitted yesterday that they never met or knew them. I understand from what another journalist said, that Twitter has suspended that account and another one. We also have had no one, such as a family member or friend, report a death to anyone at the university. That’s what I have on this situation.
Rachel Leingang, a reporter with the Arizona Republic, wrote on Twitter, “For what it’s worth, ASU’s spokesperson said they have been looking into reports about a potential death of a person claiming to be a faculty member for the last 24 hours, and have not been able to verify any connection to the university.”
In other tweets, Leingang described trying to piece together the bizarre tale. “I have been trying to verify any connection to ASU myself and have come up empty. DMs are open,” she wrote.
It turned out that some people offering tributes never really met @Sciencing_Bi off Twitter. “Several people who had recognized the alleged death yesterday have since said they had not met them in person,” wrote Leingang.
She also posted an email she said she received from McLaughlin about the matter after asking McLaughlin to comment on the tweets she sent about @Sciencing_Bi “and their affiliation with ASU.”
McLaughlin wrote the journalist: “Thanks for reaching out. I’m afraid I can’t really say much with regard to affiliation. To the extent that I have people engage with me on Twitter using accounts not associated with their names, I try to do that in good faith assuming they are authentic.”
The @Sciencing_Bi account was suddenly privatized after the accusations began to swirl before Twitter suspended it.
2. McLaughlin Wrote a Lengthy Tribute to @Sciencing_Bi on Twitter, Describing How @Sciencing_Bi Sent her a Hopi Bandanna & Helped Her Website Get Indigenous Contacts
On July 31, McLaughlin wrote a lengthy series of tweets announcing the death of @Sciencing_Bi, indicating that the supposed person behind the account had helped her website gain indigenous contacts.
“I don’t know what her students or my students who loved her will do. She made million first nations indigenous contacts for metoostem. I don’t have the lifetime of good will or knowledge of everyone she helped,” she wrote.
McLaughlin claimed that @Sciencing_Bi sent her and two others Hopi bandannas.
She claimed that @Sciencing_Bi was supposed to get a “Hopi talisman for health as gifts for us but she ran out” and said she was “powerful and she worked so stinking hard.”
“Selfishly I knew she’d get better,” she wrote. “She had to be here in a month to help me with being deposed in my harasshole case. I didn’t bother to think if I had reserves because she did. She did for the students and stuff. She’d happily bare knuckly fight a grabby field assistant.”
She quoted @Sciencing_Bi as saying, “Take them out with a sucker punch to the throat.”
McLaughlin wrote a series of tweets on August 2 that alluded to controversy.
“My social media and email has, and will continue to be, part of legal discovery,” she wrote. “I try hard to stay out of DMs that expose people. It will likely get worse before it gets better. I’m trying to brace myself. I don’t know how to brace others. I don’t wish this on anyone.”
3. Many People Interacted With @Sciencing_Bi Over the Years & Expressed Grief Over Her Death at First, Calling Her a “Prominent Native American Anthropologist’
Initially, Gill joined others in writing a heartfelt tribute to @Sciencing_Bi, which you can read above.
Gary Wright II describes himself on Facebook as “a #LGBTQ Alabama activist, and the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Clever Things, LLC.” He wrote, “The news of @Sciencing_Bi (a prominent Native American anthropologist) losing her >3 month battle with COVID-19 is especially painful. She meant so much to so many, and in so many diverse communities. Rest In Power our sweet angel!😭”
He added: “This is what she posted on Day 5 in the hospital with her infection: ‘I am on day five in the hospital with COVID. My state university just cut my salary by 15%. They also kept my school open and me teaching well past when they knew it was unsafe to be in crowds. No. I won’t answer questions. I don’t have tenure.'”
A woman wrote on Facebook, “…If anyone is following this story, here’s an update. Rest in power @Sciencing_Bi. Are any friends/colleagues (esp. OSUDN folks) filling out wills, medical power of attorney, designated other paperwork? What do we need to know that’s not obvious?”
People filled McLaughlin’s comment thread with expressions of grief and shock.
Another woman wrote on Facebook, “This is a heck of an odd weekend, even for 2020. I and several others were led to believe that a regular voice in the #MeTooPhD community, Sciencing_Bi, had died from COVID. She and I had certainly had our disagreements around BethAnn McLaughlin’s handling of #MeTooSTEM but, I thought, had shared goals and mutual respect.”
She wrote that it is “looking increasingly like Sciencing_Bi, ostensibly a queer indigenous academic” was not a real person.
On Twitter, other people have been putting the pieces together, now claiming it was a “catfish” account.
People wrote McLaughlin that @Sciencing_Bi was “someone who was so loved and valued in our academic Twitter community” and “Her feed was inspirational daily, and she fought so hard.” McLaughlin responded, “My heart too. Like, literally if my eyes weren’t so swollen, I’d probably notice more.”
4. McLaughlin Created a Website Devoted to Outing Sexual Harassment Stories but Faced Accusations of Mismanagement by Staff
The about us section on the MeTooSTEM website says the organization was founded in 2018 by Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin, “a neuroscientist who, like most women in science, experienced years of retaliation, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination.”
The page continues:
Unlike most women at the time, she spoke out about her experiences protecting students, navigating Title IX and losing faith in leaders and institutions. She blogged, protested, spoke and eventually garnering the national spotlight in 2018 when she was awarded the MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award. Funded by LinkedIn Founder Reid Hoffman, the award is given to recipients who ‘engage in ethical, nonviolent, disobedience aimed at challenging norms, rules, or laws that sustain society’s injustice.’
McLaughlin, the website says, “was compelled to provide meaningful help, informed counsel and change that improves the lives of survivors and whistleblowers. What began as a website where survivors could speak their truth sharing stories of sexual misconduct, gaslighting and isolation has evolved into an advocacy network that provides legal, safety, professional, health and community support.”
However, according to Buzzfeed, “seven members of the leadership team have resigned, citing concerns about the behavior” of McLaughlin. They accused McLaughlin of keeping them out of “key decisions” and reacting “with hostility when they asked about the small organization’s finances and legal structure” and they were concerned about her “combative tweets,” Buzzfeed reported, adding that some of the staffers felt that “white leadership input” was prioritized at the organization.
“I am aware that BethAnn is a polarizing person. Much of her effectiveness has been in bringing truth to power and being in your face,” said Carol Greider, a Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins University, to Buzzfeed. “And sometimes those approaches do undermine the effectiveness.”
5. McLaughlin Was Denied Tenure at Vanderbilt
At Vanderbilt, according to The Scientist, McLaughlin “testified in a sexual harassment investigation” into accusations against another neuroscientist.
The university started investigating McLaughlin’s tweets, according to The Scientist, freezing her tenure process. “In 2017, McLaughlin’s tenure was approved—then the decision was reversed,” the site reported, and McLaughlin appealed. She lost the appeal, according to Science Magazine.
An online petition criticized the tenure process and urged the university to give McLaughlin tenure, painting her as a sexual harassment crusader.
A 2016 article on Vanderbilt’s website read, “BethAnn McLaughlin, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, has been invited to serve as a reviewing editor for the Journal of Neuroscience, the flagship publication of the Society of Neuroscience, one of the world’s largest scientific societies.” See a biographical sketch of her here.