Scientists talking about covid-19 in the media suffer from harassment and threats | World and Science

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Published 10/13/2021 4:25 PM

Internet harassment, death threats and even attempted murder. The consequences for scientists who have had a media presence because of the covid-19 pandemic have been violent on some occasions, according to research published by the journal Nature on Wednesday.

When he thought of taking a day off on the afternoon of May 17, Belgian virologist Marc van Ranst was unaware that this detail would save his life. This scientist was the target of Jürgen Conings. Persecuted by the police, this far-right military man managed to escape and ended up committing suicide on June 20 with a firearm. In his car ammunition and four grenade launchers were found.

The investigation showed that Conings was near Van Ranst’s home that May 17th. “Surveillance cameras show that his car was parked on the street, waiting for him to return” from work, the virologist tells AFP. “What he didn’t know is that for the first time in 18 months he had taken half a day off and was at my house.”

Marc van Ranst and his family have been under police protection ever since, and for about a month they were housed in various secret locations. This Belgian scientist became the enemy of people against the wearing of masks because of his media participation during the health crisis.

“I have a folder with about 150 threat messages. Some compare me to Hitler or the Nazi doctor Mengele, but others are death threats.”

“extremely violent”

He is not the only one. According to a survey by the journal Nature released on Wednesday, scientists who appeared in the media to talk about the coronavirus were often the target of threats and harassment.

In total, 321 scientists, mostly from the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany responded to the prestigious scientific journal’s survey.

Only a third said they had not suffered any negative consequences after having spoken publicly about covid-19. More than half believe their credibility has been called into question and 15% say they have received death threats.

“It was extremely violent. I had never experienced anything like this,” explains French infectious disease specialist Karine Lacombe, who co-authored in December 2020 a letter published in the medical journal The Lancet denouncing the harassment suffered by women scientists.

A media figure during the pandemic, Lacombe became the target of threats when he took a stand against the use of hydroxychloroquine, a treatment promoted by the controversial French physician Didier Raoult. “That’s where it all starts,” he remembers. “I was insulted in the street. They sent anonymous letters, threatened to rape me with wire. Things like that. It was a very difficult time.”

“Post-traumatic stress disorder”

“One day I received 1,000 emails with the same text and some people put a very humiliating personal message at the beginning of the text. In the end, repeating the same message drives you crazy,” insists Karine Lacombe.

Lacombe is part of a collective of doctors and scientists known for their commitment against covid-19 misinformation. In early September, they denounced the insults and threats they have been suffering for months, as well as political inaction and passivity.

“I failed to file complaints”, laments Lacombe, “psychologically overloaded” admits. “I developed a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder: for several days I didn’t return to my house because I thought there would be people waiting for me.”

To “get perspective”, he relied on “psychologists who know the mechanisms of hate on the internet well” and on “groups that fight against hate and misinformation online”. In the end, “they reinforced my convictions”, he assures: “They want to silence us. Above all, we must not give in to blackmail”.

The same diagnosis as Marc van Ranst: “I haven’t become more prudent, I continue to strongly oppose anti-vaccination messages and disinformation. Otherwise, they win.”