LISTEN: Professor Margaret Hellard on ABC Radio National Breakfast
Burnet Institute Director Professor Brendan Crabb AC and Deputy Director Professor Margaret Hellard AM are among the one in five scientists surveyed by the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) who said they experienced death threats and/or threats of physical or sexual violence after speaking to the media about COVID-19.
The results, which are not peer-reviewed, represent the experiences of 50 Australian scientists who chose to respond to the survey and are not a random sample of researchers who have given media interviews on COVID-19.
The survey found that 31 of the 50 scientists reported some level of trolling after appearing in the media to talk about COVID-19.
“Scientists are facing pandemic levels of abuse for simply trying to help us all wrap our heads around COVID-19,” said Lyndal Byford, the AusSMC Director of News and Partnerships.
Professor Hellard said she believes trolling and threats should not be ignored but called out and reported to the appropriate authorities.
“After reflecting on one particularly threatening email earlier this year I decided to make a report to the police,” Professor Hellard said.
“Whilst not personally feeling anxious I decided to make a stand on behalf of the younger female researchers at our Institute.
“When talking with younger female staff, a number said they were reluctant to post or put information online or to engage in discussions/debate in the press due to the trolling that immediately follows and feeling threatened. For me, this was a terrible thing.”
Professor Crabb said when scientists speak to the media, they are overwhelmingly motivated by a duty to serve the public good given there is so much poor-quality information in the public domain and so much at stake.
“Apart from the mental health impact on the victims, my main concern about scientists being engulfed in trolling negativity is that we just stop, which, sadly, is the main purpose of the harassment,” Professor Crabb said.
“I am a little ashamed to admit that I already say no to many requests for interview for this reason and engage less in social media than I would like to.
“Debating robustly on intellectual grounds is a sport we enjoy, indeed are energised by.
“The type of argument that scientists face mostly in relation to COVID-19 bears no resemblance to that – it’s simply bullying abuse."
The AusSMC also worked with the journal Nature to see if the same was true for scientists internationally.
With the help of Science Media Centres in the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Taiwan and New Zealand the survey was distributed to scientists in multiple countries.
Nature’s poll found an even higher proportion of negative experiences among a larger group of respondents with 15 per cent reporting death threats and 22 per cent saying they received threats of physical or sexual violence.
“During the pandemic, many scientists became celebrities, appearing regularly on our TV screens, radios and in our newsfeeds. They helped all of us understand this awful virus,” Ms Byford said.
“But for some, the abuse they received for this public service has made them think twice about appearing in the media again.”
Around 40 per cent of the Australian scientists who responded and 60 per cent of international scientists said the trolling and personal attacks have impacted their willingness to speak to the media in the future.
These experiences are also taking a toll on experts’ mental health, with over 30 per cent of Australian respondents saying it has had emotional and psychological impacts.
While scientists said their experiences with the media themselves were largely positive, the AusSMC believes they must be better prepared and supported if we want them to keep helping us through the pandemic.
“If experts take the understandable Naomi Osaka approach, and stop speaking to the media, all of us will be worse off,” Ms Byford said.
The trolling of scientists is also not confined to COVID-19, with experts in other sectors also sharing personal tales of threats and abuse, although more research is needed to understand the full scale of the issue.