Once upon a time, when I first heard about BethAnn McLaughlin, I posted approvingly about her. She was a founder of #MeTooSTEM, and she was struggling to get tenure at Vanderbilt, but it was held up by “allegations that she had posted anonymous, derogatory tweets about colleagues” — those accusations were made by someone being investigated for sexual harassment. It seemed like she was fighting a righteous battle.
Later it turns out that McLaughlin abused her positions as leader of #MeTooSTEM to bully and harass. Large numbers of people resigned rather than work with her.
I still followed her on Twitter, but with reservations. There was something askew there.
Then, recently, one surge of news on that medium was the death from COVID-19 of @sciencing_bi, a Hopi bisexual scientist. Something seemed off about it, though, in part because McLaughlin was promoting the story hard, and in larger part because it was drama entirely on Twitter — there were no corroborating news stories, no obits, no press releases from @sciencing_bi’s university. It felt like a bubble floating entirely in the virtual world of the Twitterverse, which was odd, given that this was the kind of tragedy that would at least have students begging local papers to tell the story.
Now the bubble has popped. @Sciencing_Bi has been revealed to be a sockpuppet of BethAnn McLaughlin.
As the questions swirled, the account settings were switched to private. Then late on Sunday, Twitter suspended both McLaughlin’s and the @Sciencing_Bi accounts.
“We’re aware of this activity and have suspended these accounts for violating our spam and platform manipulation policies,” a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News by email. The company declined to comment on whether it had any forensic evidence linking the two accounts to the same device or person.
A spokesperson from ASU told BuzzFeed News they had no record of any faculty matching @Sciencing_Bi’s description. And other parts of @Sciencing_Bi’s accounts did not match up: The university closed its campus in March, switching to online instruction, and did not implement salary cuts.
It was truly a sockpuppet, in the traditional sense of the term — @Sciencing_Bi was created to support McLaughlin, and donations sent to @Sciencing_Bi to assist in their struggle with chronic disease went to…McLaughlin.
The @Sciencing_Bi account was created in October 2016 and frequently mentioned McLaughlin. Over the past couple of years, with McLaughlin facing mounting criticism after MeTooSTEM volunteers left the organization complaining of mistreatment and a lack of transparency, @Sciencing_Bi had supported McLaughlin in these disputes.
Recall that one of the accusations that halted McLaughlin’s progress towards tenure at Vanderbilt was that she had posted anonymous accusations against other faculty. That begins to fit her standard MO now, as someone who takes advantage of anonymous online narratives to build an imaginary claque. Worst of all, though, she did deep harm to real causes while flailing about for attention.
As @Sciencing_Bi’s narrative seemed to fall apart, scientists reacted with outrage that someone would fabricate a persona who was a COVID-19 patient, an Indigenous person, and a victim of sexual harassment.
“This faking being Native has a long history of being tied to the actual theft of resources and land,” Kim TallBear of the University of Alberta in Canada, who studies the engagement of Indigenous people with science and technology, told BuzzFeed News. “The fact that this woman thought she could get away with this tells you how little she understands about the actual state of affairs for Native people in the United States.”
“I am disgusted that anyone would take advantage of persistent sexism, racism, homophobia, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and COVID fears for their own personal gain,” Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at the University of Maine, told BuzzFeed News. “This is a person that did harm to very real movements and people.”
The terrible thing is that BethAnn McLaughlin will be back, under a new pseudonym, trying to recover the attention she formerly held while poisoning the discourse with lies yet again. These people always creep back. It’s what they do.
“My real concern, though,” Gill added, “is that someone leveraged racism, sexism, homophobia, and COVID fears for their own personal gain. Any time someone fakes a marginalized identity, it provides fuel for people who don’t want social justice movements to succeed.”