Of the 50 researchers who responded to the study, 31 reported a certain level of trolling.
An international study conducted by the Nature journal found a higher proportion of negative experiences among a larger group of researchers in the UK, Germany, Canada, Taiwan and New Zealand. 15 percent reported death threats, while 22 percent said they had received threats of physical or sexual violence.
‘Extraordinary personal attacks’
Professor Raina MacIntyre is one of these academics. The high-profile scientist, who heads the biosafety research program at UNSW Medicine’s Kirby Insitute, said trolling can take place on social media or through mainstream media.
“I have had some extraordinary personal attacks against me in the media that I have never seen directed at white men,” she said.
“Racism and misogyny seem to be a factor.”
She said trolling is common and can be organized around specific agendas “to silence and discredit anyone who reveals the truth”.
“Classic tactics are used, like repeating a lie over and over again. The pandemic has seen an anti-scientific agenda become mainstream with themes like anti-vaccination [of children], anti-masking and confusion of all public health measures with lockdown, “she said.
Professor MacIntyre said the “saddest” trolling came from doctors and other health professionals.
“Some may be driven by an agenda, but others just seem to have been broken by the pandemic, losing their bearing and sense of professionalism,” she said.
“They band together like bullies in the schoolyard and behave like bullies and stalkers.”
Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist at the University of Wollongong, said trolling and harassment have been a “real problem” during the pandemic.
“I regularly get anti-Semitic hatred online, occasional death threats and a lot of the expected ugly lies about myself that are posted everywhere just to discuss issues in specific research areas,” he said.
“And honestly, as a white man, I’m far luckier than some of my colleagues who receive orders of magnitude more hate than I do.”
‘The abuse has made them think twice’
AusSMC’s Lyndal Byford said researchers were being abused “simply to try to help all of us wrap our heads around COVID-19”.
“During the pandemic, many scientists became celebrities who regularly appeared on our television screens, radios and in our news feeds. They helped us all understand this terrible virus,” Byford said.
“But for some, the abuse they received for this public service has made them think twice about reappearing in the media.”
About 40 per cent of Australian researchers who responded and 60 per cent of international researchers said trolling and personal attacks have affected their willingness to speak to the media in the future.
Over 30 per cent of Australian respondents said it has had emotional and psychological consequences.
Professor Brendan Crabb, CEO of the Burnet Institute, said his biggest concern beyond the psychological consequences is that “we just stop”.
“I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’m already saying no to many interview requests for this reason and engaging less in social media than I would like,” he said.
“Debating robustly on intellectual grounds is a sport we enjoy and actually get energy from. The kind of arguments that scientists face most in the context of COVID-19 are not like that. It is simply bullying.”
Professor Margaret Hellard, deputy director at the Burnet Institute, said she decided to report a particularly threatening email to police earlier this year to “take a stand” on behalf of younger female researchers.
“When talking to younger female employees, a number said they were reluctant to post or post information online or participate in discussions / debates in the press because of the trolling that immediately follows and feels threatened. For me, this was a terrible thing, “she said.
“In the same way that abuse and domestic violence were ignored as insignificant for many years, abuse and threats on social media are rejected in the same way, but they can have a major impact on people’s lives in many different ways.
“For young women, it’s especially hard.”
AusSMC says it hopes to develop training materials and resources to better prepare researchers to deal with trolling and abuse.
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