The journal Nature recently published a report that makes it clear that scientists are receiving more threats during a pandemic than ever before. Online comments, phone calls, emails, letters – the wave of hate takes many forms. The report concerned English-speaking countries, but as it turns out, the same phenomenon also affects scientists in Poland.
There are still echoes of the attack on Sir David Amess, a Conservative MP, who was attacked by a stabber at a meeting with constituents. This is just one of the many instances of aggression and violence we see during the pandemic. They affect more than just politicians.
June 27, 2021, St. James’s Park in London. Professor Chris Witty, the chief health adviser to Boris Johnson’s government, is approached by two young men as he walks along an alleyway in the park. They jerked and shouted at him, additionally recording the whole incident.
The incident was widely reported in the British media. Many observers have pointed to the atmosphere of hatred being spread by some groups around the coronavirus crisis as the source of this and similar behavior.
The pandemic has unleashed attitudes in some of us that were previously considered marginal. It has also shown what a powerful tool the Internet is, especially in the hands of people who want to achieve concrete benefits by sowing disinformation and hejt. Financial, political or social.
“I wish you dead, professor”.
A team organized by the prestigious journal “Nature” conducted a survey among 321 scientists, asking them what reactions they encounter when they speak or write through the media about coronavirus. The results are alarming.
Two-thirds of the respondents disclosed that their activity, whether a media appearance or an online post about the pandemic, had been met with negative reactions. When asked how often they read hateful comments under their posts about COVID-19, a quarter of the researchers said “always.”
But that’s not the worst part. One in five respondents (22 percent to be exact) admitted to having received direct threats of violence or, mostly in the case of women, sexual violence against them because of their statements about the pandemic. Every seventh person had received death threats at least once. Six people were directly attacked on the street or in a park, like Professor Witty.
Poles in the fire of hatred, not hegemony
The “Nature” report concerned mainly people of science from English-speaking countries, but the problem of hatred towards scientists, which intensifies during the pandemic, is a common issue. Read: it also does not avoid Poland. What is more, as Dr. Piotr Karwowski, spokesman of the Polish Academy of Sciences, says in an interview with Interia, it probably has even greater dimensions than in the UK.
– Hatred, I prefer to talk about hatred, and not about hejt, because “hejt” is such a substitute word, is unfortunately common on the Internet – comments Karwowski. – Does it affect Polish scientists? Absolutely. Almost every entry of a Polish scientist on the pandemic in social media is met with a wave of comments full of hatred. Most such reactions can be observed on Twitter. This platform gives the greatest sense of anonymity. It is also a medium that has no mechanism for reporting false information. Only direct threats can be reported
– Our researchers appear daily in traditional media and are very active in social media – he adds. – They publish posts, try to disseminate scientific knowledge about coronavirus, and present a scientific approach to fighting a pandemic. Unfortunately, opponents of this approach are also active on the Internet. Any information about the coronavirus given by a Polish researcher, results in an immediate attack.
Comments are the lowest form of such actions. There are those who break the apparent barrier of anonymity provided by the Internet and go one step further, reaching directly to people associated with Polish science. It is no longer just typing a few words on the keyboard. It’s an effort to track down the office of a particular person, find a phone number, dial it and cough out threats into the receiver.
– Some academics get direct phone calls and threatening e-mails,” says Dr. Karwowski. – I myself have received strange phone calls at times. People impersonate journalists just to force a position from me and use it later.
Hate, I prefer to talk about hatred and not about hejt, because “hejt” is such a substitute word
Dr. Piotr Karwowski
In December 2020, we spoke with Tomasz Gondek, PhD, who coordinates the study “Assessment of the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on mental health” in Poland. Already then he was signaling symptoms of the phenomenon of massive hatred towards Polish researchers.
– I tried to promote our study among many people, to encourage them to participate – he said. – I was met with verbal aggression, there were comments that the purpose of the study was to collect data that could be used against the respondents or that it was prepared and financed by people who “run the world”.
According to participants in a study conducted by “Nature,” attacks on scientists sometimes have nothing to do with science, but are just irreverent personal excursions.
– If you’re a woman or a person with skin color other than white, the aggressor is most likely to refer to that,” says historian Heidi Tworek.
The best defence is attack
What drives a man who writes to a woman he doesn’t know that he will rape or kill her just because she publishes vaccination data?
– Sometimes it’s a way to create a sense of security, to protect himself, Dr. Gondek explained in December 2020. – Cutting ourselves off from thinking about the threat, because denial gives us peace of mind, takes off a burden we wouldn’t be able to carry. Another reaction is also to give oneself the status of an “enlightened” person, knowing more and better. Such people imply to everyone, but especially to themselves, that they have access to knowledge that others do not have access to, are special, and are blinded and controlled by others because they read, listen to, and watch what the media is reporting. This reinforces self-esteem, especially now, in uncertain times.
– This is, of course, a result of shortcomings and deficiencies related to the education system,” he assessed. – Poor education results in claims that statists are lying in hospitals or that vaccines are harmful because someone read about it online. Various online, unverified sources seem more credible to some than the scientific knowledge that should have already been taught at school.
However, not every case is a matter of a toxic personality or defense mechanism. Sometimes there’s just a vested interest. According to Dr. Karwowski, the pandemic has highlighted and intensified the problem of hatred among Poles, but this phenomenon was already visible earlier. Moreover, he believes that even before the coronavirus emerged, there were “organized attacks” on scientists when discussing the climate crisis.
– Scientists started talking about climate change, which was met with strong negative emotions, he says. – It was not on the same scale as now, but you could say it was the first wave of these attacks. Unfortunately, such actions are often organized or fueled by certain groups of influence who see some interest in it.
– In the case of climate change, the signing of the Paris Agreement resulted in the mobilization of certain circles that used the Internet to spread disinformation,” says a spokesman for the Polish Academy of Sciences. – For example, the involvement of some oil companies in such actions has been proven. There are also people who fuel resentment against scientists in an attempt to gain popularity. I’m talking about celebrities here, but some politicians do it too. They seek support and applause by denying science, human impact on climate change, or anti-scientific theses on pandemics.
Another reaction is to give oneself the status of an “enlightened” person who knows more and better. Such people suggest to everyone, but especially to themselves, that they have access to knowledge that others do not have access to, that they are special
Tomasz Gondek, MD
Scientists in the West also talk about organized attacks. – The number of cases of harassment of anyone involved in the fight against a pandemic is frightening, but these are attacks that are very targeted at those very people,” says Dr Michael Head of Southampton University in an interview with SWNS. – This includes scientists, but also medical staff and anyone who speaks out publicly about the problem, even children in schools or teachers who support vaccination. I myself received a lot of threats and hate-filled messages during the pandemic.
– What is most concerning is the degree to which this is planned, as it is becoming more and more organized,” adds Head. – It doesn’t appear to be a chaotic and random throwing of threats and slander. On the contrary, these groups have their tactics, spreading false information across North America or Europe on a massive scale.
According to the authors of the U.K.-based report, the two most potent hotspots triggering the wave of threats against scientists are vaccines and the controversial drug ivermectin, promoted as a cure for COVID-19 despite a lack of medical evidence for its effectiveness.
– Every time you write about vaccines, and anyone in this community tells you, you get rained down with endless hatred, veiled threats, and even outright death threats, says study participant, epidemiologist Dr. Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz.
Another scientist, Dr Andrew Hill, a pharmacologist at Liverpool University, told of how he was inundated with pictures of people hanging from gallows and coffins. This happened after he published the results of analyses of the efficacy of ivermectin, which concluded that the data we have to date on the drug is inadequate. – It was repeatedly written that I would face a Nuremberg trial and my children would burn in hell,” he recalls. After the incident, Hill deleted his Twitter account.
Poles are brave
Some can’t stand it and remove themselves from the shadows, not wanting to read threats and vulgar comments about themselves every day. However, most have learned to cope with attempts at bullying and aggression, treating them as side effects of being in the media. In addition, a British study found that 85 percent of scientists observe positive reactions in addition to negative ones.
Paradoxically, hatred has a motivating effect on many people. Many researchers, especially those most often the target of heckling, admitted that the more they want to appear in the media and defend the scientific approach, the more attacks are directed in their direction.
It is similar with Poles. – In the vast majority, our academics continue their presence in the media despite the hatred – says Piotr Karwowski. – I have heard about individual cases of removing themselves in the shadow, but generally Polish scientists are brave.
– What’s more, some of them take part in discussions with people who still have doubts,’ he continues. – The Polish Academy of Sciences together with the Copernicus Science Center has been organizing a series of online meetings “Coronavirus on target” for several months. We are putting a bit of a stick in an anthill, because we are addressing people from outside the scientific community and giving them a chance to ask questions and express their doubts. It’s an ideal opportunity to confront your opinion with scientists who don’t get discouraged, even if they have to answer basic questions.
– Of course we had to introduce moderation – says Karwowski. – You can ask any question, but you can’t insult anyone, attack or undermine scientific facts, and unfortunately there are people who join the conversations just for that.
It has been written repeatedly that I am facing a Nuremberg trial and my children will burn in hell
Andrew Hill, University of Liverpool
The assassination of David Amess has shocked the public, and the culprit will certainly face punishment. The incident at St. James’s Park is different. Both men who attacked professor Chris Witty were arrested and are awaiting sentences, but the sentences should not be too high because the harmfulness of the act was low. Especially that the detainees apologized for their act.
However, it does not change the fact that hatred towards scientists is growing. And it is spilling out of the media circuit, crawling onto the streets and sidewalks. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, responsible for fighting the pandemic in the U.S., has been moving in the protection of a small army of private bodyguards for months after he and his family received death threats. German virologist Christian Drosten received a package with a vial labeled “positive” and an incentive to drink it. Belgian researcher Marc van Ranst had to hide with his family for a while in a special shelter after a sniper prowled his neighborhood, who had earlier left a note promising to kill van Ranst.
Will such incidents also occur in Poland? Until recently, the victims of attacks were doctors, nurses and their families, suspected of spreading the coronavirus. Today, hatred manifests itself in comments, letters and phone calls. But there’s no telling when hatred will go offline again in our country, too, if it continues to be widely condoned.