To better understand the level of intimidation, its effects, and the ways scientists cope with it, Science asked 9585 researchers who have published on COVID-19 to fill out an online survey about their experiences. Of 510 who responded, 38% reported at least one type of attack, ranging from insults to death threats, delivered on social media, by email or phone, or sometimes even in person. Those who were harassed described a range of effects on their lives, including workplace problems and mental health issues.
The findings broadly align with other indications that harassment is hitting science and related fields. The Geneva-based nonprofit Insecurity Insight reports 517 instances of physical violence related to COVID-19, including 10 health workers killed, 24 kidnapped, and 89 injured.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health on April 13, 2022 (https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2021.306649) found harassment experiences at 57% of 583 U.S. local health departments and 80 departures by officials who reported harassment.
A Nature survey published in October 2021 (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02741-x) gave a startling figure: Eighty-one percent of 321 scientists who had frequently discussed COVID-19 in the media reported receiving at least occasional personal attacks, with 25% saying these attacks were common or constant.
The pandemic has nonetheless made things far worse for some researchers. More than half of the COVID-19 researchers who reported harassment said it was a new experience for them, and a further 31% said the pandemic had increased the problem. One reason is greater exposure: These researchers grew their audiences during the pandemic or entered the public sphere for the first time. The pandemic also struck at a time when polarization was already on the rise.
Many other people working in the public interest—from election officials to school board members—are under attack as well, says Sarah Sobieraj, a sociologist at Tufts University who studies digital abuse and harassment. The widespread vitriol, she says, “impacts not just those people who are attacked, but all of us who rely on these kinds of professionals to do the work to keep societies functioning in a healthy way.”
Some commentators say increased attention to the new victims and the shocking experiences they describe may be the catalyst for research institutions to finally pay some attention to the issue, rather than treating it as a problem for researchers to solve on their own—or, worse, blaming and even punishing them for the abuse they experience.