What first seemed to be a tragic story — a professor was forced to work in-person and later died from COVID-19 — now seems to be a strange hoax.
Multiple reports and information uncovered from online sleuths suggest the Twitter account @Sciencing_Bi, who claimed to be a bisexual professor of Native American descent, may have actually been fake. It appears it was the creation of BethAnn McLaughlin, the head of a group called MeTooSTEM, which aims to fight sexual harassment in scientific fields.
In June, the account @Sciencing_Bi claimed on Twitter that her employer, Arizona State University, forced her to deliver lecturers in person in April to some 200 students, which led to her getting the coronavirus. On July 31, McLaughlin announced from her Twitter account, @McLNeuro, the @Sciencing_Bi had died from COVID-19.
But ASU officials said it had no reports of a faculty member dying from the coronavirus and that it never employed a professor matching @Sciencing_Bi’s description. The university had also closed its campus in March.
“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. “We have been in touch with several deans and faculty members and no one can identify the account or who might be behind it.”
An ASU representative, meanwhile, told Gizmodo that “unfortunately, this appears to be a hoax.”
Meanwhile, Twitter suspended both @McLNeuro and @Sciencing_Bi, telling multiple outlets the accounts had violated its “spam and platform manipulation policies.” All of the tweets from both accounts are no longer accessible but screenshots of some posts obviously live on.
Incredibly sorry to say that I am no longer confident – honestly no longer believe – that @Sciencing_Bi was real. I interacted with her Twitter account frequently. She seemed very real to me and many others. Don’t know what’s going on, but given implications, had to say something https://t.co/VH2BiBYO21
— Michael Eisen (@mbeisen) August 2, 2020
The account @Sciencing_Bi had apparently tweeted for years about their experiences as an indigenous woman, being LGBTQ in academic circles, and, more recently, their long, drawn-out suffering from COVID-19.
Lots of folks familiar with this particular corner of science Twitter pointed out inconsistencies with @Sciencing_Bi’s stories, including (now-inaccessible) instances where they apparently used stock images to accompany apparent real-life experiences.
At the end of June, after claiming her dean had asked her to take a DNA test to prove her ancestry, @Sciencing_Bi asked people to support her by sending donations to McLaughlin’s Venmo account.
McLaughlin has denied she had created @Sciencing_Bi out of whole cloth, but did admit she had access to the account. She claimed to Gizmodo that as far as she knew @Sciencing_Bi had died of COVID-19, a fact she said she gathered via a family contact. McLaughlin reportedly declined to reveal @Sciencing_Bi’s actual identity and also said she had met her in real life.
McLaughlin told BuzzFeed News: “I’m not going to dox anyone. Thank you for your interest.”
Yet after @Sciencing_Bi’s alleged death, McLaughlin seemed to suggest they were in an intimate relationship, tweeting: “Looking at her side of the bed and crying. Just a lot of crying. I literally can do nothing.”
McLaughlin even held a Zoom memorial for @Sciencing_Bi, to which just five people showed up. McLaughlin was the only person who claimed to have met her offline.
This is also not the first instance of controversy surrounding McLaughlin. A March report from Science Magazine detailed that McLaughlin, while heading MeTooSTEM, allegedly “sidelined people of color and bullied volunteers, activists, and fellow leaders.”