“Extremely underhanded, disgusting and vulgar”: This is how Christiane Druml describes the around 200 emails that she received in the summer immediately after a newspaper interview. The chairman of the bioethics commission at the Federal Chancellery had spoken out in favor of compulsory vaccination in nursing professions. “Most of them write to my professional email address, not anonymously, but with their first and last name,” the lawyer told science.ORF.at. “I also get very long emails or letters that explain, for example, why the coronavirus does not actually exist and why there are no deaths at all.”
Fauci and Co: Extreme examples
The bioethicist has also received messages relevant to criminal law, which she does not want to speak about in public. Examples from all over the world document what can happen when the line between fake news and criminal law is crossed: The US top virologist Anthony Fauci needed personal protection after death threats against himself and his family; the German virologist Christian Drosten received threatening letters with a suspicious substance, his Belgian colleague Marc Van Ranst had to get to safety from a right-wing extremist.
Researchers around the globe have experienced hatred and threats since the coronavirus pandemic began. In its current issue, the journal “Nature” tries to quantify the phenomenon. For an article, 321 scientists from the USA, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan were asked about their experiences. 22 percent of them were threatened with violence, 15 percent even received death threats.
According to the – statistically unrepresentative – survey, more than 80 percent were exposed to personal attacks or troll comments, and a quarter received them “mostly or always when they spoke up”. 42 percent said they had experienced emotional or psychological stress as a result. About 60 percent said that their willingness to speak to the media in the future had decreased due to trolls and personal attacks, and 15 percent said they had decreased significantly.
Lightning rod for fears
Austria was not part of the survey, but all researchers involved in the pandemic in this country are also aware of hatred and threats. After newspaper interviews or TV appearances, the number swells every time, says the bioethicist Christiane Druml. In view of the low vaccination rates, she calls on the state to fight the spreaders of “conspiracy theories and fake news, because they are also directed against public health.”
Niki Popper, known from his forecasts since the beginning of the pandemic, sees this as ambivalent. “Of course, criminally relevant threats should be prevented,” he told science.ORF.at. “But I can also understand people who use e-mails like this as a lightning rod for their negative feelings. 99 out of 100 are simply overwhelmed and no longer grapple with the situation! ”Popper also received messages from hundreds of people who expressed their dissatisfaction with forecasts and associated measures in words such as:“ You anti-social, prepotent bastards, you will pay for it ”or“ We hate you!”.
However, anyone who is in public must expect negative reactions and learn to deal with them, says the simulation researcher. It is important that is takes the criticism and not the team behind the research – this is what he tries to protect. Incidentally, Popper does not only receive insults and hatred from “Corona deniers” who consider the protective measures to be excessive. Even people for whom the measures do not go far enough like to touch the keyboard and send hate messages. What unites them, and that makes the matter understandable to a certain extent, is fear – some fear the economic consequences of the protective measures, others fear the disease.
Women and men equally affected
Women are particularly affected by threats and hate messages in the pandemic, according to the experience of bioethicist Christiane Druml. The – not representative – current “Nature” survey (details here) did not show that. “That surprised us,” says Lyndal Byford of the Science Media Center (SMC) in Australia, an organization dedicated to promoting media expertise. She carried out the current survey together with SMC partners in many countries. “We thought that women would bear the brunt of the harassment,” said Byford, but according to the survey there are hardly any differences between women and men. However, every kind of group-specific hatred was very evident: for example towards ethnic minorities under the motto “go back to where you come from”.
According to the “Nature” article, some topics are particularly suitable for triggering threatening reflexes: for example everything that has to do with vaccinations, the use of senseless drugs (ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine) and the question of the origin of the coronavirus – both researchers report on this Researchers collecting evidence for the (more likely) natural origin thesis as well as colleagues who advocate the laboratory orthosis.
Individual and institutional responses
The question remains, what will help against the allegations from the Internet. On the one hand, there are individual strategies: for example, ignoring the messages, blocking mail senders and trolls or even deleting social media accounts. On the other hand, institutional answers: Universities or other academic institutions should take care of threatened employees, according to the “Nature” article, for example by filtering emails or removing email addresses from the homepage, in advanced cases also by deploying security personnel will.
None of this is really satisfactory. Neither for those affected nor for society, which needs experts who publicly share their knowledge. Personal attacks, possibly against family and children, reduce this willingness significantly, as the survey shows. “Many do not want to expose themselves to these insults. And many feel left alone, ”says science communication researcher Mike Schäfer from the University of Zurich. Those affected should therefore be better “supported: emotionally, socially, and if necessary even legally. In these areas, scientific communities, scientific research institutions, but also universities must become even better. “
A view that the Germanist Konstanze Marx from the University of Greifswald agrees with and adds: “Platforms are also obliged to monitor what is criminally relevant. So I see a need for action in a general climate of discourse and less in the individual people affected by hate speech. ”For scientists in particular, it is important that the contribution they make through their public relations work is recognized. “The fact that they are currently largely alone with their social media work must not remain permanent,” says Marx. “Institutionalized guidance and support are needed in the universities in the event of a crisis.”