It’s been an exciting week for science, hasn’t it? The second Falcon Heavy launch went off without a hitch and Israel came very close to landing a probe on the moon. The cherry on the cake might have been the publication of the first photograph of a black hole. But for one person involved with that photo, the week that should have been a celebration of a notable achievement went downhill quickly. That would be Dr. Katherine “Katie” Bouman, one of the imaging scientists involved in processing the massive mountains of data that went into creating the image.
As soon as the photo was released, a picture of Dr. Bouman clasping her hands over her face in delight went viral. While not claiming all the credit herself (she was actually quite modest about it), people in the media, the government and across Facebook and Twitter quickly began treating her as if she had flown across the universe to snap the picture herself. And then came the trolls. (NBC News)
Researcher Katie Bouman, 24, quickly gained internet fame after her role in helping to publish the black hole image that went viral. But internet trolls soon followed, questioning Bouman’s work and floating false claims that she did not have much of a part in the project. “Woman Does 6% of the Work but Gets 100% of the Credit: Black Hole Photo” was the top video result when searching her name on YouTube.
Colleagues rallied to her defense, but the situation highlighted the vitriol women continue to face on the internet and the continued vulnerability of major internet platforms to trolling campaigns.
One of the worst examples of this backlash came in the form of a YouTube video titled, “Woman Does 6% of the Work but Gets 100% of the Credit: Black Hole Photo.” The video itself is based on inaccurate information and seeks to shift the credit for the project to a “straight white male.” (The straight white male in question later came out and announced that he was also only one part of a vast team, that claims about the code he supposedly wrote were hugely overblown, and oh, by the way… he’s gay.) The video quickly collected more than 50,000 views.
While it would be easy to blame this misconception about how much of a role Bouman played in creating the photo on the internet troll that created that video, it’s just not the case. Nor did Katie Bouman once claim to be the driving force behind the project. The photo she posted doesn’t even insinuate as much. As Bouman herself said, she was one of many people contributing. And it turns out that the algorithm she developed didn’t wind up being used in this project, though she was still heavily involved in the process.
But that’s not we were seeing online or in the media. The Washington Post quickly put out a video titled “Meet the woman behind the first photo of a black hole.” The New York Times ran with a similar theme, though they later softened it a bit.
Perhaps one of the biggest cheerleaders was Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. To say that AOC was a bit “over the top” is putting it mildly.
Take your rightful seat in history, Dr. Bouman! 🔭
Congratulations and thank you for your enormous contribution to the advancements of science and mankind.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) April 10, 2019
And AOC was reacting to this tweet which was similarly lionizing Bouman as if she’d handled the entire project by herself.
So in the end, Dr. Katie Bouman was a valuable, contributing member of a 200 person team that developed the black hole photo. And after posting one innocent photo of herself enjoying the team’s moment in the sun she was turned into a feminist hero and then a glory-grabbing monster, all in the space of a few hours. Is anyone really surprised? That’s life on social media in 2019.