After 'Professor' Dies of COVID, Bizarre Hoax Theory Emerges

It appears the professor never existed and the related Twitter feed was bogus
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 4, 2020 10:40 AM CDT
Updated Aug 8, 2020 2:30 PM CDT
A 'Professor' Dies of COVID, but Maybe She Never Existed
The Twitter logo on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.   (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

It's a convoluted tale without a lot of answers at the moment. It revolves around an apparently fictitious professor at Arizona State University, the announcement of that professor's death on Twitter of COVID-19, and a prominent crusader against sexual harassment in the sciences. Digging in:

  • The death: Last Friday, a Twitter post announced the death of a female professor at Arizona State University. The professor, thought to be a Native American member of the LGBTQ community, was known only by her Twitter handle of @Sciencing_Bi, and she had written critically of ASU's coronavirus policy as well, as of sexual harassment in academia, reports BuzzFeed. Soon, though, the story began to fall apart.
  • Other player: The death announcement came from neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin, a former Vanderbilt professor who founded MeTooSTEM, a group dedicated to ridding the sciences of sexual harassment, per the Arizona Republic. She is perhaps best known for getting Rate My Professors to ditch its "hotness" rating for instructors.

  • The doubts: The death announcement prompted condolences from followers of @Sciencing_Bi, including fellow professors. People began reaching out to ASU to find out her identity, and it soon became all but certain that the professor didn't actually exist. "Unfortunately, this appears to be a hoax," an ASU spokesperson tells "We looked into this over the weekend and were unable to verify any connection with the university." For one thing, @Sciencing_Bi claimed to be a Hopi, which would have narrowed the search. And a closer inspection of posted photos revealed that they were stock photos of rock climbing, etc.
  • The accusations: Quickly, accusations began to fly that McLaughlin herself created the professor's persona (she was believed to be an anthropologist or perhaps a geologist) and had been operating the bogus account, reports Science. This hasn't been confirmed, but Twitter has suspended both accounts.
  • What she says: Reporters have been asking McLaughlin what's going on, but little has been cleared up. "I knew this person," she told the Daily Beast. And she tweeted after the death announcement that she was "looking at her side of the bed and crying," suggesting a close relationship. But in an email with the Republic, she seemed to distance herself from the apparently fake professor: "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."
  • Anger: There's lots of it, much of it directed at whoever created the apparently bogus account. In particular, people are ticked that @Sciencing_Bi interacted with victims of sexual harassment, claiming to be one herself and soliciting their stories. "To me this is the most damaging thing that happened,” Michael Eisen, a computational biologist at UC-Berkeley and editor of the journal eLife, tells BuzzFeed.
  • Anger, II: "I'm now convinced @Sciencing_Bi was a fake account," writes University of Maine climate scientist Jacquelyn Gill, who initially had posted condolences. "I'm so sorry to those of you whose trust was violated. Creating a fake pseudonymous account and pretending various marginalized identities is wrong. It's evil."
(More Twitter stories.)

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