A popular Twitter account claiming to be run by a queer, Indigenous Arizona State University professor who “died from COVID-19” on Friday was an elaborate catfishing hoax. Though the account, called @sciencing_bi, had gained some renown in Science Twitter circles, the professor does not seem to have ever existed at all.
For months, @sciencingbi had tweeted about their apparent battle with COVID-19, and being forced to teach in-person at Arizona State University in April. Early last week, @sciencingbi tweeted about needing help fighting COVID misinformation on a COVID survivor Facebook group. The account tweeted extensively about social justice, the professor’s Indigenous heritage as a member of the Hopi tribe, the LGBTQ experience in academia, and their battle with COVID-19.
“Who else is going to tell me that I’m not being strong enough? That the bigger fights are ahead That I have to do better,” McLaughlin tweeted. “Who else is just going to be there to call me out publicly for being soft on NIH and NSF? She wasn’t nice. She was powerful and she worked so stinking hard.”
But ASU told Motherboard in a statement that it has had no faculty member die of COVID-19 in recent days, Twitter has suspended McLaughlin’s and @sciencingbi’s account, and the Hopi tribe told Motherboard it is unaware of any professor who matches @sciencingbi’s description who has died of COVID-19. That @sciencing_bi was a catfishing hoax was worked out by several members of the academic community over the weekend.
“Unfortunately, this appears to be a hoax. We have been looking into this since this weekend and cannot verify any connection with the university,” an ASU spokesperson told Motherboard in an email.
“We have been in touch with several deans and faculty members and no one can identify the account or who might be behind it. Some of the past commentary this person posted is questionable, such as teaching in April. ASU went fully remote in March. The person also mentioned salary reductions. We have not implemented any salary reductions here,” the spokesperson said. “We also have had no one, such as a family member or friend, report a death to anyone at the university.”
On Friday, McLaughlin tweeted a memorial thread about the @sciencing_bi account, and the account’s Hopi culture: “She said she was suppose to get Hopi talisman for health as gifts for us but she ran out. The irony of running out of health talisman.”
The Office of the Chairman of the Hopi Tribe, of which the owner of @Sciencing_bi was a supposed member, told Motherboard in a phone call it had not heard of a member who worked as a professor at ASU who had recently died of COVID-19.
[Were you sent a "Hopi talisman" by @sciencingbi? Did you attend their Zoom memorial? Do you know of any other elaborate catfishing hoaxes? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org]_
Soon after McLaughlin tweeted news of @sciencing_bi’s death, condolences began flowing in from people in academia, who said they knew the professor behind the account; it appears they had been tricked.
Jacquelyn Gill, an associate professor at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, tweeted that “my friend @sciencingbi passed away yesterday from complications from covid-19, after a brutal 4-month recovery period. She was not expendable. She was not an acceptable cost of doing business.” Gill later tweeted, after learning of “irregularities,” that she had never met the person behind the account in person and that she became convinced the account was a hoax. “I’m now convinced @SciencingBi was a fake account,” Gill tweeted. “I’m so sorry to those of you whose trust was violated.Creating a fake pseudonymous account and pretending various marginalized identities is wrong. It’s evil.”
In an email to Motherboard, a spokesperson for Twitter said both McLaughlin’s and @sciencing_bi’s accounts were suspended for violating Twitter’s spam and platform manipulation policies.
“You may not use Twitter’s services in a manner intended to artificially amplify or suppress information or engage in behavior that manipulates or disrupts people’s experience on Twitter,” the policy reads.
Activities prohibited in the policy include operating fake accounts or “operating multiple accounts that interact with one another in order to inflate or manipulate the prominence of specific Tweets or accounts.”
Many in the academic community have suggested that McLaughlin was actually behind the @sciencing_bi account, but Motherboard has been unable to independently confirm this. McLaughlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent through MeTooStem. Over the weekend, Heavy.com compiled screenshots of since-deleted tweets.