Jacquelyn Gill was angry. First, she heard that an academic she knew online had perished at the hands of the raging coronavirus pandemic. Then things got weird.
“I went from thinking a Twitter friend and colleague died of COVID after being forced by her institution to teach, to doubting she had existed in the first place,” Gill, a University of Maine climate scientist, told The Daily Beast.
Gill was referring to the mysterious Twitter account known as @Sciencing_Bi, which was created in 2016, had a flower for an avatar image, and had about 6,000 followers before it went private over the weekend. The account holder posted from the perspective of an outspoken bisexual anthropologist at Arizona State University who came from a Hopi Native American background. Her tweets, varyingly about racism and sexism and other discrimination that marginalized people in academia confront, became all the more urgent when they began to document the experience of being sick with COVID-19.
“This COVID fucker is relentless. It feels like my skin [is] on fire. I mostly sleep and sweat,” @Sciencing_Bi, wrote, adding, “The dreams are the worst things. Incredibly vivid terrible images and I can’t force myself awake. I was hoping to be in the mild symptom group.”
Sciencing_Bi, though by no means a celebrity, had made enough of a splash online that messages of sympathy, grief, and general COVID-19 awareness related to the tragedy poured in from users like Gill. She was joined by California State University Northridge biologist Jeremy Yoder, University of New Hampshire cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and Johns Hopkins oncologist Tatiana Prowell, among others.
But accusations on Twitter quickly emerged that McLaughlin, award-winning founder of the group MeTooSTEM that takes aim at sexual harassment in the science world, created the @Sciencing_Bi Twitter account herself. She contradicted those claims in a phone interview with The Daily Beast, asserting categorically, “I knew this person.”
Meanwhile, Arizona’s Native American population was hit disproportionally hard by the COVID-19 outbreak as cases spiked throughout June and July.
“My real concern, though,” Gill added, “is that someone leveraged racism, sexism, homophobia, and COVID fears for their own personal gain. Any time someone fakes a marginalized identity, it provides fuel for people who don’t want social justice movements to succeed.”
Arizona’s colleges are scheduled to resume later this month, including Arizona State—a development being met with some pushback amid such a massive spike in coronavirus cases and deaths across the state. A mention of @Sciencing_Bi’s death was retweeted by the Coalition for Academic Justice at U-Arizona, an organization made up of faculty, students, and staff at the University of Arizona—not to be mistaken for Arizona State University—who are actively advocating against the push for in-person classes as the fall semester approaches.
Perhaps no academic was more effusive in his grief and rage than Terry McGlynn, a biologist at California State University Dominguez Hills, whose tweet amounted to a fiery rebuke of ASU. In a now-deleted post, he wrote, “The death of @Sciencing_Bi is on the hands of those who compelled her to teach in the midst of COVID.”
@Sciencing_Bi’s Twitter account became private around the time McLaughlin indicated she had died, but several of her tweets have been documented and preserved as screengrabs, and as of this writing, the text in those images still exists in Google’s search records, including many with timestamps.
Additionally, a few of the tweets have been posted on the blog Lawyers Guns and Money. They document the claim that her employer had been Arizona State University, and that @Sciencing_Bi had professed to have had an absolutely rotten time there. “ASU kept teachers, staff and students on campus until April,” she once claimed, adding, “Many got COVID. Including me.” Those classes included a “giant seminar class and two smaller classes. I’m guessing 400 students.”
During what @Sciencing_Bi described as a period of coronavirus-related hospitalization, she tweeted about receiving a 15 percent salary cut. Perhaps most damning of all, on June 22, she wrote, “Dean’s office asked if I have taken a DNA ancestry test to validate my BIPOC heritage.”
But according to Gerardo Gonzalez, a spokesperson for Arizona State University, university staff members “have been in touch with several deans and faculty members and no one can identify the account or who might be behind it,” and that they “have had no one, such as a family member or friend, report a death to anyone at the university.”
“Unfortunately, we believe this may be a hoax,” Gonzalez told The Daily Beast.
“We have suspended these accounts for violating our spam and platform manipulation policies," Twitter spokesperson Jessyka Faison told The Daily Beast. The company did not immediately respond to a request for more details on the case.
The Maricopa County Health Department did not immediately return a request for comment about whether someone matching @Sciencing_Bi’s biographical details had been documented as dying of COVID-19 in the past week.
There are also inconsistencies in the account @Sciencing_Bi gave of her employment at ASU. Faculty who spoke to The Daily Beast said there were no across-the-board pay cuts during the pandemic. The pay cut she describes would have had to have been strangely targeted, and horrifically timed, though not impossible. And all colleges in Arizona switched to remote learning in March, so it’s hard to imagine an instructor having taught any classes on campus in April, let alone the “giant seminar” @Sciencing_Bi described.
“Here’s something to keep in mind,” Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, professor and head of the department of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, and a Hopi himself, told The Daily Beast. “There are very few Hopi faculty in the academy, and for the most part we tend to know each other.”
“It sounds like a hoax to me,” he added. “If so, it’s a sick hoax.”
Alex Trimble Young, a lecturer in English in ASU’s honors college, seemed to bolster that contention. “To the best of my knowledge, no faculty working at ASU matches the profile of @Sciencing_Bi that can be derived from her profile and @mclneuro’s tweets,” he said, referring to McLaughlin’s handle. “The Hopi scholarly community is fairly small and tight knit, and ASU generally is very public about celebrating its indigenous scholars.”
McLaughlin currently works for a nonprofit she founded called MeTooSTEM, where she campaigns against sexual harassment in science. In 2018, she shared the MIT Media Lab’s Disobedience Award with #MeToo pioneer Tarana Burke and consultant Sherry Marts. In May of last year, MeTooSTEM faced a slew of resignations amid apparent clashes between McLaughlin and the organization’s other members, BuzzFeed News reported. Then, in February of this year, the organization’s other two leaders besides McLaughlin resigned, along with a Chinese-American volunteer named Jaedyn Ruli, who told BuzzFeed News, of McLaughlin, “Time and time again, she doesn’t listen to people of color.”
McLaughlin told The Daily Beast that she became acquainted with @Sciencing_Bi while working with MeTooSTEM. “I don’t talk about people’s real names, particularly when they have made allegations of sexual misconduct, and in this instance, that has happened,” she said in a phone interview. She did not immediately respond to subsequent requests for comment about questions surrounding the account’s validity and the situation at MeTooSTEM.
On Twitter, McLaughlin claimed to have been quite close to @Sciencing_Bi—close enough to be gifted Hopi bandannas, take advice from her, and be encouraged to get matching tattoos with her. And yet, in addition to adamantly concealing her identity, McLaughlin declined to provide any details over the phone about @Sciencing_Bi’s life, interests, or worldview.
“I know she had a tattoo that had said something. I don’t even know if it’s in Hopi or whatever language the Hopi people use,” she told The Daily Beast when asked to provide details about @Sciencing_Bi’s relationship to Hopi culture.
McLaughlin had also posted photos of what had appeared to be in-person meetings with @Sciencing_Bi, including an apparent trip to Yosemite together. A tweet from July 2018 includes a photo of a woman in front of water and mountains, and a caption explaining that the photo is, “Where @Sciencing_Bi takes a paddle break to explain all of geology ever.”
On the phone, McLaughlin described this as “a photo of me and my daughter rafting.” She said she didn’t know how the mixup happened. “I didn’t mean to misidentify my daughter,” she told The Daily Beast.