A neurology professor named BethAnn McLaughlin earned a reputation as a social justice warrior in her field. She started a group called MeTooSTEM which was focused on sexual abuse claims among scientists. In 2018, McLaughlin shared an MIT Media Lab award with two other women including Tarana Burke, founder of the MeToo movement.
But it turns out MeTooSTEM wasn’t the only thing McClaughlin had created. In 2016 she also created an online persona on Twitter with the name @Sciencing_Bi. That name claimed to be a distinct person who was a bisexual, Native American geologist:
The anonymous account, @Sciencing_Bi, was an active participant in the corner of Science Twitter that frequently discusses issues of sexual misconduct in the sciences. It claimed on at least one occasion to have grown up in Alabama, to have “fled the south because of their oppression of queer folk,” and to have attended Catholic school. The account began to pointedly make reference to being Native American and, earlier this year, began to identify as Hopi.
Since 2016, it has posted often about issues around social justice in the sciences, with a focus on activism and research about sexual harassment.
In April, @Sciencing_Bi announced she was ill with the coronavirus. She publicly blamed her illness on Arizona State University for making her teach in a large lecture hall with 200 people.
The account interacted with a number of people through DMs and in the past few weeks she told anyone she spoke with that she was experiencing a difficult recovery from the virus. And then last Friday, BethAnn McLaughlin announced that @Sciencing_Bi was dead.
And it gets even weirder. After her “death” BethAnn McLaughlin suggested that she’d been in an intimate relationship with the woman known only as @Sciencing_Bi. “Looking at her side of the bed and crying. Just a lot of crying.”
this is one of my big hangups. if SB was a real and autonomous human, she was allegedly interacting with MTS in a client/support capacity, and should not have been anywhere near BA’s bed, much less had an established “side.” pic.twitter.com/LkqDEuC5hM
— Isabel Ott (@IsabelOtt) August 2, 2020
But pretty quickly McLaughlin’s story began to really fall apart as people noticed that details @Sciencing_Bi had claimed about Arizona State University were false, e.g. she didn’t know the correct dates for the school’s closing. Also, looking back over her tweets it seemed that she had only referenced her Native American ancestry fairly recently.
Here’s some more weirdness on the Indigenous ID claims, shared by a friend. Prior to 2020, their tone re: “Native Americans” indicated ID’ing as exterior to that group; first claims of Indigeneity seem to have arisen this spring/summer and seem…fishy to me. pic.twitter.com/0H7kwMIpbC
— Isabel Ott (@IsabelOtt) August 2, 2020
And Sciencing_Bi’s claims about meeting BethAnn McLaughling in person used stock photos:
SB tweeted this photo about arriving in Nashville to meet with BA. This photo is a generic pic from an airline's website. It couldn't have been taken by herhttps://t.co/SL6t1cbt1v pic.twitter.com/rYWHpw6YNi
— Fieldwork Initiative (@MeTooFieldwork) August 2, 2020
The whole thing finally collapsed when Twitter suspended both accounts at once. Also, ASU told Buzzfeed they had no record of any such person connected to the university:
As the questions swirled, the account settings were switched to private. Then late on Sunday, Twitter suspended both McLaughlin’s and the @Sciencing_Bi accounts.
“We’re aware of this activity and have suspended these accounts for violating our spam and platform manipulation policies,” a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News by email. The company declined to comment on whether it had any forensic evidence linking the two accounts to the same device or person.
A spokesperson from ASU told BuzzFeed News they had no record of any faculty matching @Sciencing_Bi’s description. And other parts of @Sciencing_Bi’s accounts did not match up: The university closed its campus in March, switching to online instruction, and did not implement salary cuts.
“We have been looking into this for the last 24 hours and cannot verify any connection with the university,” ASU spokesperson Katie Paquet told BuzzFeed News by email on Sunday. “We have been in touch with several deans and faculty members and no one can identify the account or who might be behind it.”
Today, McLaughlin, through her lawyer, finally admitted the truth to the NY Times: “I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @sciencing_bi Twitter account. My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt.” McLaughlin is now saying she’s aware she needs mental health treatment and will be seeking it.
No doubt what McLaughlin did seems crazy but it’s not crazy in a random sense. McLaughlin understood that in the left-wing activists circles she was traveling in being white was a disadvantage. She created a false persona who was gay, Native American, and allegedly a victim of sexual assault, i.e. someone whose intersectional identity gave her an authority that couldn’t really be challenged. I wonder how long she could have continued pull off this ruse if she hadn’t decided to kill off @Sciencing_Bi. Four years is a long time to fool people.
McLaughlin clearly crossed a line inventing a person but she wasn’t wrong in her assessment of how identity politics creates social power online. How many more fake minorities are out there on Twitter pressing for social justice?