BethAnn McLaughlin, the controversial founder of the advocacy group MeTooSTEM, has confirmed that she fabricated an entire persona whom she used for years to communicate through Twitter.
In an apology issued through her lawyers to The New York Times, McLaughlin admitted to “full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @sciencing_bi Twitter account. My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt.” She added that she will be stepping away from leadership of MeTooSTEM, “to ensure that it isn’t unfairly criticized for my actions,” and that she will be seeking mental health counseling.
The anonymous account, @Sciencing_Bi, first began tweeting in 2016, and over the years claimed to be a queer indigenous woman, a survivor of sexual harassment, and an anthropologist affiliated with Arizona State University (ASU). Through her seemingly candid stories about her own experiences, @Sciencing_Bi built up a loyal following, including McLaughlin, who frequently acted as a go-between to help preserve @Sciencing_Bi’s anonymity.
But after McLaughlin announced @Sciencing_Bi’s death from COVID-19 several days ago, people began trying to identify her, and her story began to fall apart. Scientists who had considered @Sciencing_Bi an online friend turned from mourning her death to accusing McLaughlin of inventing her outright. “Creating a fake pseudonymous account and pretending various marginalized identities is wrong. It’s evil,” tweeted Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at the University of Maine who had been friendly with @Sciencing_Bi.
@Sciencing_Bi had earlier claimed to be one of several women harassed by former Harvard University archaeologist Gary Urton, Science reports, and frequently used Twitter to interact with other survivors. When reports about him began to surface in the press, an anonymous complainant against Urton tells Buzzfeed News, @Sciencing_Bi “claimed she also had a title IX at Harvard against Urton and contacted me with a sob story about how much she suffered, while at the same time encouraging me to reach out to BethAnn.” Leveraging a traumatic event to gain clout among survivors, the complainant added, “is beyond messed up.”
In April, @Sciencing_Bi shared that she had been hospitalized for COVID-19, and she laid the blame at the feet of her supposed employer. “ASU kept teachers, staff and students on campus until April. That’s well after we knew this was a killer disease. Many got covid. Including me,” she shared in a May 23 tweet. She continued to tweet from her sickbed, Heavy reports, sharing details about salary cuts ASU had levied during her illness.
Despite a period of recovery following the hospitalization, McLaughlin posted news of her death last Friday (July 31) from complications related to COVID-19. Her followers reacted with stunned disbelief that quickly morphed into anger directed at ASU for forcing teachers to work in unsafe conditions. The incident comes at a time when schools worldwide are considering opening for in-person classes in the fall, and when indigenous communities in the US are being disproportionately affected by the virus.
It was during a subsequent memorial, held over Zoom by McLaughlin, that @Sciencing_Bi story began to come apart, according to Science. Only a handful of people attended the service, and it quickly became clear that only McLaughlin claimed to have ever met the woman in person. A reverse image search of @Sciencing_Bi’s posts showed that many images were stock photos, and McLaughlin later admitted that the only image purporting to show a small part of @Science_Bi’s face in profile was actually a picture of McLaughlin’s daughter, Gizmodo reports.
As more people began reaching out to ASU for accountability, the university could not identify any faculty members who had died. In a widely reported email statement released early this week, ASU spokesperson Gerardo Gonzales called the incident a likely hoax. “We looked into this over the weekend and were unable to verify any connection with the university. We were in touch with several deans and faculty members and no one was able to identify the account or who might be behind it,” Gonzales says. In addition, he shared that ASU had transitioned to remote learning as early as March and had not carried out any salary cuts during the pandemic.
Twitter suspended both the @Sciencing_Bi account and McLaughlin’s own account, @McLNeuro, by early Monday morning, telling Buzzfeed, “we’re aware of this activity and have suspended these accounts for violating our spam and platform manipulation policies.”
McLaughlin had initially denied running the @Sciencing_Bi account. In response to an email from a reporter at The Arizona Republic asking after the identity of @Sciencing_Bi, Mclaughlin responded, “To the extent that I have people engage with me on Twitter using accounts not associated with their names, I try to do that in good faith assuming they are authentic.” Yet she had previously tweeted about sharing a bed with @Sciencing_Bi. Responding to similar questions sent by email from Buzzfeed, McLaughlin simply replied, “I’m not going to dox anyone,” referring to the practice of publishing identifying information on the internet.
McLaughlin, a neuroscientist, has become a polarizing figure in academia. She established the sexual assault advocacy group MeTooSTEM in 2018, and left her position at Vanderbilt University the following year after being denied tenure (despite a petition pushed by @Sciencing_Bi urging her promotion). However, fellow members of the organization’s leadership team began to resign over what they claimed was bullying behavior towards women of color and survivors of sexual assault, Buzzfeed reported in February.
People who interacted with @Sciencing_Bi on Twitter or through private messages are now reacting with anger, horrified by what they say is blatant racism: a white woman impersonating a queer member of the Hopi tribe and then killing her off. Anna Fore Waymack, a PhD candidate at Cornell University, says her actions amount to “digital redface,” Inside Higher Ed reports.
“This faking being Native has a long history of being tied to the actual theft of resources and land,” Kim TallBear, a professor in native studies at the University of Alberta in Canada, tells BuzzFeed. “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.”
@Science_Bi had once solicited Venmo donations using McLaughlin’s personal account, supposedly in order to protect her anonymity, according to Heavy, while Gizomodo reports that she also claimed to have received support from MeTooSTEM, although whether that support was financial remains unknown.
Some observers worry about what McLaughlin’s actions will mean for MeTooSTEM and the broader practice of women sharing their experiences anonymously through social media moving forward. “The need to end rape culture everywhere, including in STEM, remains, and the struggle to end sexual violence and gendered discrimination will continue,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire, tells Inside Higher Ed. “BethAnn didn’t start that movement, and no single person owns it.”