According to a study published by the journal Nature, researchers speaking in the media have been increasingly targeted by threats and harassment since the onset of the health crisis.
Marc Van Ranst is a Belgian virologist practicing at the Catholic University of Louvain. Last May, he and his family were placed under police protection in a secure house. The scientist was the target of Jürgen Conings, sniper and sympathizer of the ultra-right, on the run and hunted by the police. For good reason: his presence in the media to talk about the Covid-19 pandemic.
If this case is extreme, it is nevertheless not isolated. Anthony Fauci, American immunologist and face of the fight against Covid-19 in the United States, was assigned personal security guards after receiving death threats against him and his family.
Nature, scientific journal of British origin, publishes this Wednesday investigation carried out on more than 300 scientists who have expressed themselves on the subject of Covid-19 in the media or on social networks. Two-thirds of respondents reported negative experiences following these appearances.
The investigation reveals a wide range of attacks, threats, harassment or abuse against scientists. Since the start of the pandemic, 22% of those questioned have received threats of physical or sexual violence. For many, their home address has been revealed online. 15% of them also claimed to have received death threats.
For scientists, receiving attacks on social networks, messages or threatening calls is not necessarily new. Topics like climate change or vaccines have sparked attacks in the past. However, even researchers already in the media before the pandemic say that Covid-19 has given rise to a different phenomenon: more malicious and more recurrent.
Vaccination, wearing a mask, hydroxychloroquine and other potential treatments, origins of the virus … Many subjects around Covid-19 have led to attacks against scientists and experts.
Even if researchers try to ignore these abuses, they can still have a chilling effect on science communication. The investigation of Nature shows that the scientists most targeted by the attacks are also the most likely to say that it strongly affects their willingness to speak to the media.
In fact, 40% said they had experienced emotional or psychological distress after making comments in the media or on social networks. A deterrent effect that can prove problematic in a period of disinformation.
Steps to take
Faced with this alarming situation, scientists recommend several measures. Nature highlights the importance of training for researchers who are called upon to express themselves in the media and who therefore expose themselves to threats. Second, with abuse often perpetuated on social media, the report raises the perennial question of the responsibility of social media companies for what is said on their platforms.
In France, professionals in the sector are also sounding the alarm. In September, a conference chaired by Jérôme Marty, president of the French Union for Free Medicine (UFML), to point the finger at the inaction of power in the face of the situation. Gathered in the #StopMenaces collective, health professionals and frontline scientists call on the State to be protected from the threats to which they are subject.
“Any verbal or physical violence must be punished. Beyond the relay, what shocks me is the impunity enjoyed by people who ignite the fuse. Who question the scientific word and make the population doubt. Face to face. to the inaction of justice, it is we who are obliged to file a complaint, but we can spend our days and nights there … “lamented Karine Lacombe, infectious disease specialist at Saint-Antoine Hospital.
Women particularly targeted
“If you are a woman, or a person of color belonging to a marginalized group, the abuses will probably be more virulent and targeted on these personal characteristics”, one reads in the survey of Nature.
A finding shared by many scientists since the start of the pandemic. In December 2020, three female doctors, including the French Karine Lacombe, signed a tribune in the review The Lancet to denounce the cyberbullying of which health experts are victims.
The survey carried out by Nature shows, however, that a large part of scientists have mostly derived positive from their experiences in the media since the start of the health crisis. 70% of the people questioned consider them, on the whole, positive or rather positive.