A white neuroscientist has been revealed to have spent “years” pretending to be an Indigenous professor on social media, the hoax only coming to light after she killed off her creation via coronavirus.
Multiple news outlets reported on the strange case BethAnn McLaughlin, a professor who previously worked for Vanderbilt University and who had an influential role in the organisation #MeTooSTEM, although she was dogged by claims of bullying and racism.
But scientists on Twitter and laypeople were shocked this week when it was alleged McLaughlin had spent years posing as a “queer, Indigenous scientist” who worked at Arizona State University.
Under the handle ‘@Sciencing_Bi’, McLaughlin would tweet about supposed ‘experiences’ from the perspective of her alternate persona, eventually culminating in accusations that she had been made to work by her university during the pandemic, resulting in @Sciencing_Bi contracting coronavirus.
The account then ‘detailed’ @Sciencing_Bi’s supposed experience of the virus.
But on 31 July the story took an abrupt turn when McLaughlin announced @Sciencing_Bi’s death.
“Sad to report @Sciencing_Bi died from COVID this evening,” McLaughlin wrote.
“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”.
However, suspicions were quickly raised by the lack of a similar announcement from ASU and the dearth of mourners who could be found that had known @Sciencing_Bi in real life.
All communications about her death were being funnelled via McLaughlin, who already had a history of allegations surrounding her behaviour on social media.
Fellow members of the scientific community began to question the account’s veracity.
ASU also confirmed that they could find no matching profiles of staff members and hadn’t registered any faculty deaths.
Speaking to Gizmodo, they said it “appeared to be a hoax”.
Twitter also suspended both McLaughlin and @Sciencing_Bi’s accounts for violating their “spam and platform manipulation policies”.
For her part, at first McLaughlin tried to deny any involvement in the account, saying she had heard news of the death via a family contact.
However she subsequently suggested a more intimate relationship between the pair, according to Mashable, tweeting:
Looking at her side of the bed and crying. Just a lot of crying. I literally can do nothing.
As the media began clamouring for answers, McLaughlin finally admitted that the account had been fake in a statement to The New York Times on Tuesday.
“I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @sciencing_bi Twitter account,” read the statement, delivered via her lawyer.
“My actions are inexcusable. I apologise without reservation to all the people I hurt”.
This revelation is making people view her tweets about @Sciencing_Bi – including claims the pair were going to get matching Hopi tattoos – in a different light.
Others have spoken of a darker experience with both accounts, including bullying allegations.
The debacle has also taken attention away from #BlackInNeuroWeek, a campaign attempting to amplify the voices of Black neuroscientists.
A tough week for both the scientific and catfishing communities combined.