‘Pandemic levels of abuse’: What some scientists face while educating the public

‘Pandemic levels of abuse’: What scientists face while aiming to educate the public

Around one in five researchers in Australia have reported receiving death threats or threats of physical or sexual violence, after speaking out about COVID-19 in the media.

One in five.

It’s disturbing to think about anyone receiving such threats in any context at all.

But it’s especially disturbing to consider that this is happening particularly in science – a sector that aims to understand our world better and has been absolutely pivotal in saving lives in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A sector that provides evidence, information and advice that sometimes people just don’t want to hear but will ultimately benefit from – with scientists taking such information to the media in order to better communicate and share what they’ve learnt, to better educate the public on what they can do to prepare or protect themselves.

According to the survey by the Australian Science Media Centre, that was replicated then in the journal Nature for an international response, 31 of the 50 scientists questioned in Australia said they had received trolling following media interviews.

Director of news at ASMC Lyndal Byford described the findings as indicating “pandemic levels of abuse”, saying the experience of public appearances that aimed to better educate the public on COVID-19 has made them “think twice about ever appearing in the media again”.

Internationally with 321 scientists surveyed across the UK, Germany, Canada, Taiwan and New Zealand thanks to the leading scientific journal Nature getting involved in the project, 22% reported receiving threats of physical or sexual violence, while 15% reported death threats.

“Scientists are facing pandemic levels of abuse for simply trying to help us all wrap our heads around COVID-19,” she said.

Director of news at ASMC Lyndal Byford

Byford said that if scientists stop talking to the media, “all of us will be worst off as a result.”

The surveys found these threats take a significant toll on the mental health of such experts, while 40% of Australian scientists and 60% of international scientists said their experiences had impacted their willingness to speak to the media again in the future.

But it’s not just COVID-19 that brings out the threats: scientists in these surveys reported receiving such threats for years, even up to a decade for one scientist. They described a “near-continuous flow of hate mail”. Scientists say it’s also not just social media or digital. They’re having letters and other things posted to their home addresses, and have even experienced threats in person – a consequence of building up a public profile.

Margaret Hellard (pictured at top of page), deputy director of the Burnet Institute, said that too often threats across social media are easily dismissed, but they can have a huge impact on people’s lives, especially for women. She said she’s reported the death threats she received to the police, to help send a message – especially to young women – that it’s not ok.

“Whilst not personally feeling anxious I decided to make a stand on behalf of the younger female researchers at our Institute,” she said.  “When talking with younger female staff, a number said they were reluctant to post or put information online or to engage in discussions/debate in the press due to the trolling that immediately follows and feeling threatened. For me, this was a terrible thing.

“I know we are sometimes instructed to ignore trolling and threats but I disagree. I think we should be reporting these activities to the police (and ensuring they follow it up which they did in my situation) and calling it out in multiple forums.”  

Earlier this week, we published finings from a different study noting the exhaustion scientists are feeling right now, with one in five reporting that they’re thinking about leaving the sector altogether.

Sadly, it’s not hard to see the myriad of factors contributing to such fatigue.

Not only are they contending with fierce competition for research grants (as we reported on across medical research this week), alongside laboratory closures during lockdowns and a system of career rewards that prioritise publishing papers and other things that mean career breaks and periods of part time work can hinder ‘success’, scientists are also dealing with public backlash when attempting to communicate their expertise. The backlash that can become threats of abuse and death threats.

So for those looking to support a scientist, what can you do? Byford suggests that if you have learnt more about COVID-19 due to a scientist, then consider make a deliberate attempt to thank them.

“Why not write a kind or encouraging comment on the news story or on the social media pages,” she recommended.

“If you see someone being trolled, ask if they need help and listen to their concerns.”

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