Science Twitter Got Catfished

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Look I know that if you only watch these YouTube videos where I talk about science, women’s rights, religion, and politics you might not realize this so allow me to be clear: I am a messy bitch. Because honestly if you spend your entire day reading and evaluating scientific papers, sometimes you want to unwind by staring at a bloody car wreck. And I gotta tell you, Science Twitter has been, well, on fire lately.

I won’t bore you with the very serious worm discourse, in which the editor of a journal said worms are overrated because all they do is fuck and someone else thought that this was insulting to minorities — we don’t have time for that because while we were all processing that still something much more bonkers happened.

I followed a neuroscientist on Twitter named BethAnn McLaughlin. I’ve never met her, I’m not even sure why I started following her but if I had to guess it was probably because she started the #MeTooSTEM hashtag and nonprofit organization, focused on helping women in the sciences who had been sexually harassed in school and on the job. She also was the person who convinced RateMyProfessor to stop rating professors on their attractiveness, plus she convinced AAAS to start stipping honors from people who were proven to be sexual harassers. Good stuff!

Last week I noticed that McLaughlin tweeted that a friend of hers died from COVID-19. The friend was on Twitter as @sciencing_bi, and I didn’t follow her so I clicked through to learn more. McLaughlin said sciencing was a queer Indigenous Hopi archaeologist at Arizona State University, who was forced to keep teaching classes in person which led to her catching COVID-19 and eventually dying of the disease.

That sounded horrible, and I expressed my condolences to McLaughlin and retweeted her touching tribute to her friend. And then I wandered away to stare at my houseplants for awhile.

A few days later I got a DM from a friend letting me know “there’s a >0% chance that (McLaughlin) is just plain making (sciencing_bi) up.”

Now, I’ve been on the internet for a very, very long time. I have seen some shenanigans. And yet still I had one of those reactions where I had to reread the message several times and then spend a few moments connecting this new information with my previously held understanding that McLaughlin was a normal, functioning adult. Both of these things cannot be true! You cannot be a normal, functioning adult and make up a person who then dies of COVID-19. Can you?

So I poked around and I found a story I had managed to completely miss about McLaughlin: In May of 2019, the only people of color in the MeTooSTEM organization quit because they said the group’s leader was combative and unwilling to listen to anyone but white people. And then in February of 2020, even more people quit because after repeatedly pointing to racist, bullying behavior on McLaughlin’s part, the board refused to remove her from her position. 

It was all becoming a little easier to figure out that I was just terribly wrong in my initial assumption that McLaughlin was a normal, functioning adult. So I went back and read up on it and it turns out yeah, she absolutely definitely made up a queer Indigenous female scientist that was her super cool best friend you’ve never met because she goes to a different school, and then she gave her the ‘rona, and then she killed her. I basically know nothing about McLaughlin that I haven’t told you here but her motivations seem pretty clear to me: “I can’t be racist because my best friend is Indigenous!” And then you can only keep an imaginary friend alive for so long, so you may as well kill her off in a way that will get a lot of attention from your peers, reinforce a point many of us are pushing (that keeping schools open is dangerous), and getting max sympathy points.

This is obviously very upsetting for a number of reasons: in one fell swoop, McLaughlin made a mockery of academics concerned about COVID-19, women of color fighting discrimination in STEM fields, and marginalized people who need to remain anonymous on social media. For a lot of people, this may be their first time getting catfished. People are always trying to be someone they’re not on the internet, but it’s rare that it happens quite so publicly and with so much potential to fuck people up. After all, this has now actually hit the New York Times. Not even the worm fight got into the New York Times.

So yeah, a lot of people are feeling hurt and betrayed. While this entire situation IS completely bonkers, I’ve actually been through something like it before. Many, many years ago we had a Skepchick meetup in New York City. I was there along with a bunch of writers, and we met at a bar in Manhattan with some commenters who were in the area. One of the people who showed up was a frequent commenter named Rystefn. He off-handedly told some of the writers that he was dying, but he wouldn’t go into any detail about what he was dying of. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to affect him getting extremely drunk with us and closing down the bar. But we believed him, because why wouldn’t we?

Over the next few months, he would email us about his “condition” but still wouldn’t tell us what the problem was. Eventually, he was replaced by a woman named “Sabrina” who claimed to be his friend. She let us know that he was in the hospital and the end was near, but he absolutely forbade her from telling anyone his real name or revealing what he was dying of.

Now it’s worth noting that our website is called “Skepchick” and is literally about critical thinking and not believing everything you’re told without evidence. By the time Sabrina stepped in, we were beyond skeptical. Sure enough, she was emailing us and commenting on Skepchick from the exact same IP address as Rystefn and wrote with the exact same grammar and style. She claimed to be very upset and needing help but repeatedly refused to give us any information to verify she was telling the truth, so when she told us that Rystefn had died we just…didn’t do anything. I think he wanted a big memorial post or something, but at that point we were convinced that he was a fake. Sure enough, after we blanked him for a few weeks he came clean that it was all a big “art project,” because he is an “artist.” Or something. It was extremely embarrassing for him so we all just sort of blocked him and moved on.

A few months later one of my writers said that she had a commenter on one of her posts talking about killing himself and she said “I have to admit – I’m awfully jaded about this after Rystefn.” She had no idea how to handle it.

And that’s the problem with shit like this — it robs you of your empathy. The next time someone sees a person of color tweeting anonymously they are now more likely to think, “Is this person for real?” And on the one hand that’s good because we do have an epidemic of white people using people of color as personas to try on to elevate their cause. Gamergate did it, 4chan is constantly doing it, “Blacks for Trump” do it.

So it’s good to be skeptical. But as with most topics, it’s not good to be so skeptical that you become antagonistic to people that remind you of that one time you got catfished. There really are indigenous scientists working today who you can follow on Twitter and learn from, like Kim Tallbear, Debbie Reese, Katherine Crocker, Jacqueline Keeler, and Lydia Jennings (who is actually at University of Arizona!). Full disclosure, I was not following all of them but I am now! Don’t worry, I removed three random white people to replace them. Because I’m racist. Against white people.

I think that’s the biggest takeaway here, actually: we can all give less of our time and attention to people like Bethann McLoughlin, who says she’s off to a therapist, thank god — I noticed some people were annoyed because having a mental illness doesn’t mean you do horribly destructive things to marginalized people but speaking as a medicated mentally ill person, that bitch needs therapy. But yeah, we can spend less of our precious energy on bonkers white ladies and worm twitter so we can spend more of our energy on positive things like #BlackinNeuroWeek, a whole week of Black scientists standing up to talk about their lives and their research. There was also a week of #BlackBirders and #BlackAstronomers! These kind of hashtags make it super easy to find smart new people to follow, and if you’re at all nervous that one of them is secretly a white lady trying to make up a best friend, loads of them are Tweeting under their real names, with real photos and real links back to their labs. So don’t let the catfish get you down.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I actually recall the Rystefn event. I also remember becoming increasingly skeptical of him as his “disease” continued on with no real progress one way or another (though I am pretty sure I did the condolences thing even if I wasn’t so certain about the truthfulness of the claim).

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