An Arizona State University professor who posted on Twitter for years about social justice issues and recently detailed her fight with COVID-19 was said to have died last week — but she actually never existed.
BethAnn McLaughlin — who announced the made-up professor’s death on July 31 — admitted to The New York Times on Tuesday that she was behind the hoax.
“I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @sciencing_bi Twitter account,” she said in a statement through her lawyer.
“My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt.”
Since 2016, the anonymous account @Sciencing_Bi had posted frequently about sexual harassment and diversity in science, making connections with other academics online.
The account claimed to be an anthropology professor who had grown up in Alabama and “fled the south because of their oppression of queer folk,” according to the Times.
It also made pointed references to being Native American and began to identify as Hopi earlier this year.
And it was active in the career of McLaughlin, a neuroscientist, even promoting a petition for her to receive tenure Vanderbilt University, which was ultimately unsuccessful.
In April, @Sciencing_Bi announced its coronavirus diagnosis and then documented the symptoms including a loss of language fluency, according to Buzzfeed News
The account blamed ASU for her condition, tweeting in June that the school “forced me to teach 200 person lectures instead of closing” in April.
She also claimed the university cut her salary by 15 percent while she was in the hospital.
Then, a seemingly distraught McLaughlin wrote in a lengthy, mournful Twitter thread on Friday that the anonymous professor had died.
“Looking at her side of the bed and crying. Just a lot of crying. I literally can do nothing,” she wrote.
The supposed death spurred outrage from others in academia, with a professor saying: “This person was a scientist who got Covid because they’d been forced to teach.”
“@Sciencing_Bi is a Native American anthropology professor who first contracted #COVID19 April 11, likely from her college forcing her to teach well after the virus had established itself at her college,” another person posted on Facebook.
But suspicions then began to swirl on Twitter that the whole account had been a scam, according to Buzzfeed.
A few days later, on Sunday, Twitter suspended both @Sciencing_Bi and McLaughlin’s accounts for violating policies that, among other things, bar the coordination of fake accounts.
The same day, an ASU spokesperson, described the anonymous account as a hoax, saying it had posted bogus information about the school, which closed its campus in March and did not implement salary cuts.
“We also have had no one, such as a family member or friend, report a death to anyone at the university,” a statement said.