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5 Australian COVID experts on receiving abuse and trolling amid the pandemic

A survey by the Australian Science Media Centre, published today, found around 20% of the 50 Australian scientists who responded have received threats of physical or sexual violence when speaking about COVID in the media.

Around 62% said they’d been subjected to trolling.

The Centre also worked with science journal Nature to survey scientists internationally, and found 15% said they’d received death threats, and 22% were subjected to threats of physical or sexual violence.

The Conversation spoke to five researchers in Australia who’ve lent their expertise extensively to media and public discussion around COVID.

Here’s what they said about their experiences of abuse and trolling amid the pandemic.

Raina MacIntyre, Professor of Global Biosecurity, UNSW

I’ve been subjected to abuse or threats on a regular basis after sharing my expertise on COVID in the media.

This has included threatening and abusive emails and abusive, bullying social media posts, often orchestrated by gangs of trolls who aim to silence and discredit me.

Racism and misogyny are part of it. They simultaneously spruik pseudoscience and anti-science agendas which have come to Australia from overseas.

Everything during this pandemic has been polarising. Public health measures for epidemic control are draconian in nature (such as masks and movement restrictions). Many people want to shoot the messenger and think they can magically return to 2019 if people who understand pandemics are silenced and discredited.

We really do live in a post-truth world, where pseudoscience and anti-science have become mainstream. Vaccines and masks have been polarising at different times.

I try to shut out negativity from my life – negative people and negative social media. I block trolls. It’s hard when people you know are part of a gang of bullies and trolls, because it feels impolite to block them – so I mute them instead.

It does dissuade me from sharing my expertise. I avoid media mostly and focus on my research. The pandemic will play out regardless of what media I do, so I have taken the opportunity to refer journalists to younger researchers, to give them an opportunity to do media.

Read more: New research shows trolls don't just enjoy hurting others, they also feel good about themselves

Holly Seale, Associate Professor and infectious disease social scientist, UNSW

It’s been an eye-opening experience in the last 18 months. Prior to 2020, my media appearances were more sporadic than they are now. So COVID was a baptism of fire.

To date, I’ve not received any threatening remarks, nor have there been any attacks on my appearance. But I have had emails, letters and phone calls questioning my judgement and expertise. I’ve also received commentary about how I respond to questions, the language and phrasing that I use.

All the commentary I’ve received has been from men and it has included numerous phone calls where I’ve been instructed to listen to the person outline all the reasons why I’m wrong. The sense they’re entitled to refute what I’m saying comes across the strongest during these calls.

Conversations with other academics have helped! Having a network of colleagues, who are often experiencing similar issues, to debrief with has also been critical.

Training to support media engagement must also include examples about how to navigate abuse, negative feedback and threats, and how to support your mental well-being. Media appearances happen at all hours, weekends, and weekdays. Late on a Friday night, I received a suggestive email following a TV appearance. Having a contact person to flag the email and to receive guidance about next steps (if any) may also help alleviate some anxiety.

Adrian Esterman, Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, University of South Australia

It hasn’t been a major issue for me. Just the odd comment about people in ivory towers shouldn’t comment about what is happening in real life, and someone objecting to my style of writing! Nothing major.

But it is always a bit of a jolt to the system when you cop some abuse.

About once a week I get someone on Twitter not being very polite, and even emails from them. Things like, “How dare you say……”, and if lots of people die from being vaccinated, it will be your fault!

I simply ignore them – my daughter has taught me never to respond to trolls.

It doesn’t dissuade me from sharing my expertise at all. I think if you’re going to be a public figure, then you have to expect to cop some abuse. There will always be a small element of people who disagree with you, and are happy to say so in a rude way.

Read more: How do we counter COVID misinformation? Challenge it directly with the facts

Fiona Russell, Professor and paediatrician, epidemiologist and vaccinologist, The University of Melbourne

Surprisingly I have very few trolls and I haven’t been threatened in any way. However, I have been mansplained on the topic of COVID epidemiology in children and the public health measures to keep them safe.

I’m a paediatrician, infectious diseases epidemiologist and vaccinologist. I have training in infectious diseases modelling. I have won Australia’s leading infectious diseases research prize (along with seven other women), and won the Chancellor’s PhD Prize from the University of Melbourne for a clinical trial that helped change WHO vaccine policy. I advise DFAT and WHO on COVID vaccine use in the region, and am a member of WHO COVID in schools advisory group.

And yet, I’ve been described on Twitter as having “no special skills” when it comes to interpreting clinical and public health data pertaining to COVID in children. Thanks to others on Twitter for calling this out. I’m sure many of my female colleagues and peers can relate!

Nial Wheate, Associate Professor of the Sydney Pharmacy School, University of Sydney

I’ve been writing for The Conversation now for nearly ten years, and since the outbreak of COVID, I’ve authored ten articles on medicines thought to treat either the virus or the symptoms of its infection.

These have included established drugs like remdesivir and interferon-beta, new drugs like sotrovimab and molnupiravir, and publicly controversial drugs like ivermectin.

With my pre- and post-COVID writing I have never received what I would define as abuse or threats because of what I have written.

Read more: How to deal with the Craig Kelly in your life: a guide to tackling coronavirus contrarians

Often, my articles receive quite a few comments, and occasionally I receive personal emails as well. This is especially true when I write on medicines people have strong opinions about, such as cannabis or ivermectin.

Usually, these sincere but condescending comments are an attempt to tell me that what I have written is wrong, and the authors usually back up their comments with links and articles. The information the commenters base their stance on is usually obviously poor quality, at least to an expert in the area, or published by organisations with a clear agenda or conflict of interest.

Because their comments are usually aimed at “educating me” I’ve thankfully never felt that my well-being was at risk and I’ve never needed to take measures to protect myself.

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