Burnet Institute Director Professor Brendan Crabb AC and Deputy Director Professor Margaret Hellard AM are among the one in five scientists surveyed by the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) who said they experienced death threats and/or threats of physical or sexual violence after speaking to the media about COVID-19.
The results, which are not peer-reviewed, represent the experiences of 50 Australian scientists who chose to respond to the survey and are not a random sample of researchers who have given media interviews on COVID-19.
The survey found that 31 of the 50 scientists reported some level of trolling after appearing in the media to talk about COVID-19.
“Scientists are facing pandemic levels of abuse for simply trying to help us all wrap our heads around COVID-19,” said Lyndal Byford, the AusSMC Director of News and Partnerships.
Professor Hellard said she believes trolling and threats should not be ignored but called out and reported to the appropriate authorities.
“After reflecting on one particularly threatening email earlier this year I decided to make a report to the police,” Professor Hellard said.
“Whilst not personally feeling anxious I decided to make a stand on behalf of the younger female researchers at our Institute.
“When talking with younger female staff, a number said they were reluctant to post or put information online or to engage in discussions/debate in the press due to the trolling that immediately follows and feeling threatened. For me, this was a terrible thing.”
Professor Crabb said when scientists speak to the media, they are overwhelmingly motivated by a duty to serve the public good given there is so much poor-quality information in the public domain and so much at stake.
“Apart from the mental health impact on the victims, my main concern about scientists being engulfed in trolling negativity is that we just stop, which, sadly, is the main purpose of the harassment,” Professor Crabb said.