A news feature from Nature looks at abuse received by scientists who have spoken to the media during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prof Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics, The Open University, said:
“Anyone who has ever looked on Twitter at the follow-up tweets, after a scientist tweets about aspects of Covid-19, will be aware that some horrible things are said, quite often of a personal nature. Unfortunately most people have come to expect that kind of thing on Twitter and other social media sites, in relation to Covid or just about anything else. As David Spiegelhalter and I warned statistical colleagues in an article* advising on how to comment to the media, “Twitter can be a nasty place”. What this Nature feature makes distressingly clear is that things can be much worse than attacks through Twitter, bad as those sometimes are, and that attacks and abuse are pretty widespread. Death threats happen, as do threats of physical and sexual violence. And it’s very plausible, from these results, that trolling and personal attacks can deter scientists from putting their views and findings before the public, and that can’t be good for public understanding of what’s going on.
“I should mention that, as a statistician who comments to the media through the SMC and otherwise, I was a respondent to the Nature survey. And, wearing my statistician’s critical hat, I should point out some limitations of interpretation. The survey certainly wasn’t one of those ones you see on websites, where just anyone can respond, perhaps many times, and the numbers mean next to nothing. The researchers did take considerable care to ensure that the request for responses went only to scientists (including statisticians) who had commented to the media or in the media about Covid-19, though they can’t guarantee that it never found its way to others. But it’s also not a survey of a statistically representative sample of scientists who make media comments, as the article makes clear. The survey was largely distributed through science media centres in several countries, and not all scientists who comment to the media are linked to those centres. And, of course, scientists who received the request to complete the questionnaire didn’t all decide to reply. How likely they are to reply might well depend on their experience after commenting in the media. Maybe those who had received abuse would be more likely to reply – or maybe they would be less likely to reply, because they had already been put off the whole business of media engagement, including replying to a Nature questionnaire about it. So I think it would be a mistake to treat the detailed numbers in these results as estimates of the general experience of scientists commenting in the media. That said, though, I don’t seriously doubt that abuse of the sort reported here is pretty common, even though (so far) I’ve been lucky enough to escape the worst excesses myself (though there have been a few nasty Twitter moments and the odd unpleasant email).
“Another limitation that I ought to mention is that, like pretty well all surveys, this is observational data and it’s therefore difficult to be sure about what causes what. I think the finding that there’s an association between the frequency of attacks a scientist experienced and their willingness to talk to the media in the future is likely to be valid, even allowing for the fact that the survey sample wasn’t necessarily representative. But I don’t think we can be certain that the reduced willingness to talk in future was caused by the previous experience of many attacks. That’s certainly very plausible, but there will be other differences between those who were frequently attacked in the past and those that weren’t, apart from the frequency of past attacks, perhaps to do with the specific topics they were commenting on. So we can’t be certain whether the past attacks caused the future unwillingness, rather than some other differences. But, although we can’t be certain, the survey results and the comments from individual scientists, quoted by Nature, do make it look very likely that frequency of attacks do act as a deterrent to future engagement, for quite a number of scientists at least. I’d just want to encourage my colleagues to stick to their guns and keep engaging, even though I do very much recognise how hard that can be.”
Prof Stephen Evans, Professor of Pharmacoepidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:
“This article makes it clear that for most scientists who’ve commented on Covid-19 related issues, this has been nearly two years of high demand from conventional media- TV, Radio, newspapers etc. Nearly all of those direct interactions with journalists and others are positive. The response from the public can be dominated by a very small minority who resort to abuse of various kinds. This is particularly prevalent on the different social media platforms. It is clearly difficult for those platforms to stop on-line abuse but there is a general sense that they could do more than they do currently. Automation of the scanning of comment is clearly the only practical solution but that is inevitably imperfect. What is poor is those social media organisations’ response to individual complaints.
“Undoubtedly there is a danger that scientists who have themselves been, or had colleagues who have been attacked in ways that disturb one’s equilibrium, may decide to disengage from the media. This will be sad and result in overall harm.
“There is room for disagreement in science in many ways but this pandemic seems to have amplified both good and bad aspects of human behaviours This has resulted in disagreement becoming personal rather than science-based. Getting to the truth is a goal for science and scientists; damaging that process and communication of science will mean that lies are in danger of winning.
“Many scientists avoid social media so that an extra burden may fall on those who do engage with those platforms. When things other than the science itself, such as appearance, gender, race or other aspects of the scientists’ characteristics themselves, become the focus of abuse it both demonstrates the sickness of some parts of our society but also has particularly damaging consequences for those abused scientists.”
Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton, said:
“There’s been a huge amount of abuse aimed at everyone contributing to the pandemic response. This has included NHS frontline staff, and also scientists and academics providing thoughts and explanatory comments to the public.
“I myself have received plenty of abuse throughout the pandemic. For those of us who have been pulling apart anti-vaccine misinformation from pre-pandemic times, the presence of these attempts at intimidation is very wearying, but not surprising. I would also add an important point – that as a white, male academic, I would imagine I’m far less likely to receive abuse than a scientist making similar points but from a different demographic.
“In my view, 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. This is not an action that was commonly seen in the UK previously, and it worries me that the intimidating anti-vaccine tactics seem commonly in USA and Australia might become embedded here too. These groups have become emboldened by the widespread presence of misinformation.
“The misinformation spread around Europe and North America also has far-reaching consequences in terms of inducing vaccine hesitancy further afield. In late September 2021, I was contacted by a Ghana Health Service colleague who was concerned about the widespread sharing and discussions of conspiracy theory videos across social media (particularly Whatsapp, a widely used platform in Ghana). The misinformation made a number of fabricated claims around COVID-19 vaccine failure in the UK. I wrote a rebuttal to that for Ghanaian colleagues to share with their networks, within social media platforms and elsewhere (https://figshare.com/articles/preprint/Update_from_the_United_Kingdom_the_vaccines_are_working_very_well/16727206).
“There have to be sustained attempts to reduce the level of the abuse and to avoid normalising it. I really don’t have the comprehensive answers in how best to do that. This will require joint efforts from everyone, and as we have seen during the pandemic, a ‘multi-stakeholder approach across different sectors’ is difficult to sustain. Reductions in visibility of misinformation can be helpful, to minimise the extent to which conspiracy theories become emboldened. Employer support is vital (I have felt supported by my employer, but others may report differently). But there are so many other factors that need to be discussed and pulled together.”
Professor Susan Michie, Director of UCL Centre for Behaviour Change, University College London, said:
“The findings of the Nature survey of harassment and abuse of scientists during the pandemic 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 facemasks or vaccination. These can be disturbing, especially when first experiencing the abuse. Many colleagues are able to deal with the online abuse by understanding that it is rarely to do with the person receiving the abuse and often highly organised including Twitter ‘bots’ (clues to these are no photograph, no or minimal description and very few followers).
“This abuse has not put off many women colleagues I know from speaking to the media. I think this is because they are well established in their careers and/or brave and very committed to communicating scientific understanding. They have also set up a variety of networks to support each other. However, I am concerned that it discourages early career scientists, especially young women and young women from minoritised ethnic backgrounds, from engaging with the media.
“Given the importance of science being communicated to the public, I would like to see two things:
Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading, said:
“This survey is a useful snapshot of the experiences of scientists who have played an important role to help the media and the public understand the science and facts around the pandemic.
“As one of the respondents to the Nature survey, I am glad to see so many fellow scientists took the time to reflect on their experiences.
“I am shocked and saddened to hear that so many fellow scientists have experienced death threats or threats of physical or sexual violence, simply for doing their job trying to communicate the scientific facts that are so important for society in understanding and responding to this global health emergency.
“I have had some bad experiences after appearing in the media, particularly after calling out conspiracy theorists and some politicians, who seem to dislike having their pet theories debunked. I have on occasion been threatened with various forms of death, violence and lifelong imprisonment. I am fortunate to have felt able to ignore the threats I’ve received, but I know that some colleagues have had far worse experiences.
“I suspect that these negative experiences reflect a wider malaise in public discourse in society, fuelled by social media and growing social and political tribalism. This is a problem for the whole of society, but this survey highlights that scientists are far from being immune to its effects. As in other areas of public life, there is a real risk to society if worries about threats of violence prevents people from engaging fully in debate and discussion about science. When discussions about scientific fact are only held behind closed doors, for fear of personal repercussions to the scientists, then we are taking a dangerous backward step. This will lead to greater distrust in scientists and frankly, lead to worse science.”
Prof Melinda Mills, Nuffield Professor of Sociology, Director Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, University of Oxford, said:
“This is an important article highlighting the abuse and threats received by many experts and scientists who have put themselves forward to produce evidence and advise during the pandemic. 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. A recognition of this abuse is a step in the right direction.”
Prof Robert Dingwall, Professor of Sociology, Nottingham Trent University, said:
“It seems to me that much of this abuse is a spill-over from the paradigm wars being waged within the scientific community itself, some of which have got pretty vicious as well. Although Kuhn’s account of scientific revolutions has been criticised as a depiction of scientific life, the emergence of a novel virus seems to fit his analysis pretty well. For older readers, it is not unlike the early days of HIV/AIDS, where the world of science was pretty much convulsed by the combination of existential threat, competition for resources and the dangling of prizes and awards. Today, this is amplified by social media, where scientists are also pursuing their conflicts and, directly or indirectly, seeking to enrol popular support for their positions on both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical interventions. Some of the language used here has been quite strong and personal in nature so it is hardly surprising that members of the public are also expressing themselves in robust ways. It is much easier to fire off a tweet than to write the sort of green ink letters that many of us would have received earlier in our careers. Greater openness in science, which we are all encouraged to pursue by research funders, governments and employers, who have their own promotional agendas, inevitably brings with it the risks associated with any public position. If politicians and journalists receive threats of death or sexual assault, why would prominent scientists be any different?”
Professor Chloe Orkin, Professor of HIV Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and President of the Medical Women’s Federation, said:
“While not surprising, these findings 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. Cyber-bullying is commonplace globally, completely unacceptable and is a major impediment to science communication.”
Nature conducted a survey of 321 scientists who have spoken to the media about COVID-19. This is a news feature in Nature, not a Nature research paper or article. It was published at 16:00 UK time on Wednesday 13th October.
All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:
The SMC sent round the Nature survey to all the experts on our COVID lists, some of whom make up the respondents of the survey. Although it was an anonymous survey, some commentators have said whether they completed the survey.
Prof Kevin McConway: “I am a Trustee of the SMC and a member of its Advisory Committee. I am also a member of the Public Data Advisory Group, which provides expert advice to the Cabinet Office on aspects of public understanding of data during the pandemic. My quote above is in my capacity as an independent professional statistician.”
Dr Michael Head: “Responded to the survey.”
None others received.