*Update, 4 August, 5 p.m.: On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that BethAnn McLaughlin had provided it a statement via her lawyer admitting involvement in fabricating a Twitter account. “I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @sciencing_bi Twitter account,” it said. “My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt.”
Twitter has suspended the account of MeTooSTEM founder BethAnn McLaughlin after allegations emerged that the former Vanderbilt University neuroscientist fabricated the Twitter account of an apparently nonexistent female Native American anthropologist at Arizona State University (ASU) who had claimed to be an anonymous victim of sexual harassment by a Harvard professor. McLaughlin announced on 31 July that Alepo, the woman supposedly behind the @Sciencing_Bi account, had died after a COVID-19 infection. The company has also suspended that pseudonymous account.
A detailed accounting of McLaughlin’s recent actions was published by Heavy.com. The episode began when McLaughlin issued a series of tweets on Friday memorializing @Sciencing_Bi, including: “She was a fierce protector of people” and “I wanted to go out there so bad when she went back in the hospital.”
At first, the tweets prompted expressions of sadness and sympathy, including a Zoom memorial service for @Sciencing_Bi on Saturday night, says Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was on that call. The account had claimed @Sciencing_Bi was a victim of sexual harassment by archaeologist Gary Urton at Harvard University. (A number of real women have also made that claim, as Science has reported.) But during the Zoom memorial service, Eisen and several others began to doubt that Alepo was real. After they learned new details about the supposed ASU professor during the service but could not find any evidence of her existence or death—or evidence that anyone on the Zoom call had ever met her—their grief turned to protests of anger and betrayal. Twitter denizens, including Peruvian-Australian sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos and the University of Maine, Orono, climate scientist Jacquelyn Gill, were among many who posted stinging comments; some, in particular, noted how hurtful it was that the account purported to be an Indigenous female scientist who was then said to have died.
Women connected to the Urton case at Harvard were also upset at having been duped. @Sciencing_Bi had tweeted that she had filed a Title IX complaint against Urton and the person using the account had even complained about an interview with the Title IX office at Harvard in a group direct messaging session with current and former students. On Saturday, when they heard she had supposedly died, many students were upset and crying, according to sources familiar with the case. One woman who asked not to be named said the false account “trivialized” the experience of the real women who have filed complaints against Urton.
McLaughlin did not respond to repeated texts today asking for comment. On Sunday, she tweeted at a reporter for The Arizona Republic who inquired about the identity of @Sciencing_Bi: “I’m afraid I can’t say much with regard to affiliation. To the extent that I have people engage with me on Twitter using accounts not associated with their names, I try to do that in good faith assuming they are authentic.”
McLaughlin grabbed the spotlight 2 years ago as a prominent leader of the #MeTooSTEM movement, advocating for survivors of sexual harassment in science through the nonprofit group she founded, MeTooSTEM. She won praise, funding, and a platform from entities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the National Institutes of Health, which featured her at a “listening session” for victims of sexual harassment in 2019. Science featured her in a profile and she pinned a laudatory email from Anita Hill to the top of her Twitter feed.
But as her profile grew, colleagues and volunteers at MeTooSTEM began to resign, saying she bullied them. Women of color repeatedly reported that she ignored or silenced them. More resignations followed, until the organization listed only McLaughlin and one volunteer on its website in March. MeTooSTEM board member Carol Greider, a Nobel prize–winning biologist, wrote to Science in an email today that she resigned from the board in early March because of other duties.
*Update, 3 August, 4:35 p.m.: This story has been updated to include information about allegations of sexual harassment made by the @Sciencing_Bi Twitter account.