Covid scientists subjected to ‘disturbing’ physical and sexual threats

‘Highly charged and polarised’ climate and social media anonymity create ‘ideal breeding ground for online abuse’

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 13 October 2021 18:57
<p>Vaccines and lockdowns have been the focus of many abusers </p>

Vaccines and lockdowns have been the focus of many abusers

More than a fifth of scientists who have spoken publicly in the media about Covid-19 have been subjected to physical and sexually violent threats, according to new research.

Of 321 experts surveyed by the journal Nature, some 15 per cent said they had experienced death threats, while more than one-quarter of the respondents said they “always” or “usually” received comments from trolls or personal attacks after speaking about Covid.

Scientists said the abuse has made their work “exceptionally challenging” and impacted on their mental health. More than 40 per cent said they had experienced emotional or psychological distress as a result of the threats.

Respondents who reported most frequently being trolled online or receiving personal attacks were also most likely to say that their experiences had greatly affected their willingness to speak to the media in the future.

Some said that they were hesitant to speak about certain topics because they saw the abuse that others faced.

Chloe Orkin, professor of HIV medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said the results of the survey “demonstrate that the highly charged and polarised anti-science views surrounding Covid-19 coupled with the relative anonymity of social media have provided an ideal breeding ground for online abuse”.

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said he believed the “intensity of such harassment has gone up significantly across the pandemic, including becoming more organised and frightening than simply mindless comments on social media.

“Right now in the UK, anti-vaccine activists are also harassing children coming out of school and making threats to teachers and staff carrying out teenage vaccinations,” he added.

Nature’s poll was distributed to scientists in the UK, Germany, US, Canada, Taiwan, New Zealand and Brazil who have been prominently quoted in the media throughout the pandemic. Around three-quarters of all respondents were from the UK, Germany or US.

Some 22 per cent said they received threats that were physically or sexually violent in nature.

Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London, said the results “tallies closely with that of myself and many UK women colleagues who have been prominent in speaking to the media.

“The online abuse occurs most intensively after media engagements and especially after those that address restrictions to social mixing, the wearing of masks or vaccination. These can be disturbing, especially when first experiencing the abuse.”

She said the abuse had not deterred “many” of her female colleagues from continuing to speak to the media about Covid. “They are well established in their careers and very committed to communicating scientific understanding,” Prof Michie said.

However, she did express concern over how the abuse could discourage early career scientists, especially young women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds, from engaging with the public via the media.

Melinda Mills, a professor of sociology the University of Oxford, said a “recognition” of the abuse was a “step in the right direction”.

“Personal death and other threats against me and my colleagues has made this work exceptionally challenging and stressful and impacted mental health and willingness to contribute.”

Despite the negative experiences of many scientists, most said they generally appreciated their interactions with the media.

Overall, 85 per cent of surveyed experts rated their experiences with the media during the pandemic as “always” or “mostly” positive; some 84 per cent said they were able to get their message out to the public; and 63 per cent said speaking to the media was personally rewarding.

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