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.