Coronavirus: Scientists in NZ and overseas reveal the abuse they get for talking about COVID-19, including 'death threats and endless hatred'

Scientists who've gone out of their way to try and help the public understand the pandemic say they're being increasingly targeted for abuse and threats of violence. 

An international survey of scientist who've made media appearances to talk about COVID-19 has found more than a fifth - 22 percent - have "received threats of physical or sexual violence", 15 percent have had their lives threatened and about two-thirds are having second thoughts about sharing their expertise ever again. The results were published in journal Nature on Thursday. 

"During the pandemic, many scientists became celebrities, appearing regularly on our TV screens, radios and in our newsfeeds," said Lyndal Byford of the Australian Science Media Centre. "They helped all of us understand this awful virus. But for some, the abuse they received for this public service has made them think twice about appearing in the media again."

Nature tells the story of US infectious diseases expert Krutika Kuppalli, who endured months of abuse online before going to the police after receiving a threatening phone call - they told her to get a gun. Also mentioned are a virologist in Belgium was placed in a safehouse in May after a military sniper threatened him and went on the run, and an expert from Melbourne who critiqued claims the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan and received an email telling her "eat a bat and die, bitch" for her efforts. 

New Zealand scientists have not been immune. 

"This is not completely new but it has become much more intense and vitriolic during the pandemic," Shaun Hendy, a disease modeller at University of Auckland research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini, told Newshub. 

"While academics have been targeted online by people like Cameron Slater for some time, it has now become much more widespread with a small minority of people becoming attracted to conspiracy theories that claim the threats from COVID are exaggerated, faked, or part of a plot. 

"These notions are currently being promoted by the far right and anti-vax groups and it's very sad to see this is such a widespread phenomenon with scientists around the world being targeted in this way."  

A prominent far-right extremist and conspiracy theorist said he received a visit from the police at the weekend, which he blamed on Te Pūnaha Matatini. The man, whom Newshub has chosen not to name, took to Telegram - an encrypted messaging platform favoured by extremist groups and criminal enterprises - to call police officers "soldiers of socialism" who were "defending treasonous assholes". Police declined to comment on the alleged incident. 

The extremist - who is known to police and has been banned from using YouTube and Twitter - has previously shown up at Dr Hendy's office to question him about "communist infiltration" at the university. 

Slater, best-known for his defunct Whale Oil blog and close connections to the National Party leadership, recently targeted prominent University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles - publishing video of her and a friend at a local beach during Auckland's level 4 lockdown online. Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield later said she hadn't broken any rules. Text messages between Dr Wiles and Dr Bloomfield revealed the latter didn't think Slater had "much cred these days". 

Dr Wiles has received more than her fair share of abuse since the pandemic began. Anyone who emails her nowadays gets a lengthy auto-reply directing haters to the 'Dr Siouxsie Wiles' Complaints Service', a series of tweets in which she reveals some of the common abuse she gets, including that she "has pink hair because she’s an attention-seeking whore", "is a Satanist because she works with the luciferase enzyme from fireflies and other glowing creatures" and "is part of a global conspiracy trying to harm you with vaccines". 

Dr Wiles is also frequently told she's "too fat to be an expert or ride a bicycle", is "a Big Pharma shill" and can't be an expert because she's a woman. She also singles out Slater specifically. (Dr Wiles declined to comment for this story, except to say she was happy for Newshub to quote her 'Complaints Service' and wanted people to know she isn't paid to speak to the media - they call her, not the other way around.) 

Siouxsie Wiles.
Siouxsie Wiles. Photo credit: Supplied

Unexpectedly, the survey found male and female scientists were equally targeted when it came to violent threats, though anecdotally women and scientists of colour were more commonly treated to personalised abuse, such as sexism and racism. 

Vaccines and ivermectin the biggest triggers 

Two particular areas seem to trigger trolls more than others, Nature said - vaccines and alternative treatments. 

"Any time you write about vaccines - anyone in the vaccine world can tell you the same story - you get vague death threats, or even sometimes more specific death threats and endless hatred," said epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz of Australia's University of Wollongong. But that was nothing compared to the abuse from fans of anti-parasitic drug ivermectin.

Despite there being no solid evidence that ivermectin works as a treatment for COVID-19, like hydroxychloroquine in 2020 it's been promoted heavily amongst anti-vaccination activists and on far-right social networks and blogs. 

“I think I’ve received more death threats due to ivermectin, in fact, than anything I’ve done before," said Dr Meyerowitz-Katz. 

Even a scientist whose work suggested ivermectin had some benefit got targeted with death threats after he retracted the study, Nature said, after one of the studies his analysis was based on was retracted over concerns about its data. Andrew Hill of the University of Liverpool says he was sent images of "hanged people and coffins" and told he and his children would burn in hell. He shut his Twitter account to end the abuse.

Most - 85 percent - of the scientists surveyed said their experience with the media itself was "always or mostly positive, even if they were harassed afterwards". 

"If experts take the understandable Naomi Osaka approach, and stop speaking to the media, all of us will be worse off," said Byford, referring to the tennis champ who in May said she'd rather pay a fine than talk to the media and risk giving her trolls more ammunition. 

"If a scientist has helped you understand COVID in some way, why not write a kind or encouraging comment on the news story or on the social media pages.? If you see someone being trolled, ask if they need help, and listen to their concerns."