15 percent of Covid researchers and scientists have received death threats

There was a time, long before the internet, when experts—whatever field they were in—were unquestionably revered. While that might be mostly true these days, there’s a worrying trend that’s emerged in the Covid era.

In August 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and head of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was forced to hire personal security.

Death threats and harassment against not just him but his family had become so bad, he didn’t feel safe at home or at work.

The worst of the Covid-19 pandemic was yet to hit the US, but Dr. Fauci’s support of vaccines and other preventative health measures like physical distancing, lockdowns, and masking, while popular among most of the population, incurred a level of contempt he had never experienced.

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“I wouldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that people who object to things that are pure public health principles are so set against it, and don’t like what you and I say, namely in the word of science, that they actually threaten you. I mean, that to me is just strange,” he told NPR at the time.

Dr. Fauci’s experience is, rather devastatingly, not a unique one among scientists and medical experts in the Covid-era.

In a survey conducted by the science journal Nature, 15 percent of the 300 scientists that have given media interviews about Covid-19 and/or posted to social media about the pandemic, say they have received death threats.

60 percent had received attacks on their credibility, while 40 percent had received threats of physical or sexual violence. Six of the 300 said they actually had been physically attacked. A healthcare worker in Sydney was assaulted by a maskless man back in August, who verbally abused her about vaccines before punching her in the head.

In June, the Science Media Centre in Adelaide had been alerted to online bullying and hate campaigns directed at researchers and, after examination, found one-third had reported experiencing emotional or psychological distress after talking publicly about Covid.

“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,” epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz told Nature.

But what has surprised him more is the aggressive defence of ivermectin, the antiparasitic drug that, though completely unproven as a treatment for Covid, has gained traction in the world of disinformation.

“I think I’ve received more death threats due to ivermectin, in fact, than anything I’ve done before. It’s anonymous people e-mailing me from weird accounts saying, ‘I hope you die’ or ‘if you were near me, I would shoot you’.”

The question is how much responsibility falls on social media platforms to better moderate their users. Researchers that have received abuse on Twitter, including pictures of hanged corpses, were told the tweets did not violate the platform’s terms.

Professor Julie Leask from University of Sydney’s school of nursing and midwifery recently wrote a blog post about how to manage online harassment and bullying with a STEADFAST strategy, after outlining some of the insidious messages she’d received just in the past week, including: “We the people will remember you and your mates and when this is over, we will take everything from you all just like you’re advocating doing to us.” What a delightful human being.

“Getting sucked into the vortex of an argument online can be incredibly time-consuming,” she writes.

“Your goal here should be to keep doing your work, engaging constructively and making a positive impact.”

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