On 17 May 2021, former Belgian soldier Jürgen Conings stole a submachine gun, a semi-automatic pistol and four rocket launchers and loaded them into the trunk of his Audi Q5. The 46-year-old then positioned himself in front of the residence of Belgium’s chief virologist Marc Van Ranst and scouted out the surroundings, waiting for Van Ranst. Prior to that, the military had sanctioned Conings twice for issuing threats against Van Ranst.
The police put Van Ranst and his family under protective custody in a safe house where they remained in hiding for three weeks. Instead of staying off the grid, Van Ranst joined an online messaging group on Telegram populated with 1,000 users who supported not only Conings’ drastic measures but also his far-right and anti-Covid-measures mindset. A Facebook group in support of the sniper with 50,000 members was swiftly set up after the incident.
While the planned attack on Van Ranst is certainly one of the most extreme examples of targeting scientists who purvey inconvenient truths, many scientists experience online bullying after appearing in the media. Like Van Ranst, many outspoken high-profile researchers have been at the centre of targeted campaigns intended to silence them.
Threats Change Scientists’ Lives
A recent Nature survey shows that these threats are not without consequence. More than two thirds of the 321 surveyed scientists reported facing negative experiences following media appearances. About 60% had to deal with attempts to damage their credibility, 15% received death threats, and six were physically attacked. Some had their private addresses revealed online; others had professional complaints filed against them.
Scientists also responded that a high volume of negative reactions affected their future willingness to engage with the public via the media. Some, however, prove threat-hardy and refuse to let themselves be intimidated. One of them is social psychologist Pia Lamberty, whose research focuses on conspiracy theories. Despite ongoing threats, she has continued her outreach but has had to substantially change her life.
Pia Lamberty, social psychologist researching conspiracy theories: “I received a lot of threats even before the pandemic because of my research focus. So I had to change my behaviour. You won’t find private information about me anywhere, nor would I ever post a picture that discloses where I am currently having a coffee. When I give offline talks, there are security personnel present, and I don’t advertise these talks at all”. – Read the full interview
Outreach is impossible without support
Like Lamberty, many high-profile scientists who do public outreach do so for free. Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, virologist Van Ranst was appointed as crisis manager and Belgian flu commissioner, and oversaw the government’s health and crisis communication strategies. Van Ranst called his appointment “an unpaid hobby” in a lecture he gave at the Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Stakeholders Conference organised by the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza and Chatham House in 2019.
Others, like Christina Pagel, depend on the support of their employers to ensure they can publicly set the record straight on vaccine mandates and other hotly debated topics. Pagel, who works as a mathematician at University College London (UCL), is a member of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), a conglomerate of scientists who advises the UK Government and the UK National Health Service on emerging health threats. Pagel has gathered a following of some 165,000 users on Twitter. She says her Covid-19 outreach would not be possible without the support of her employer.
Christina Pagel, Professor of Operational Research (a branch of applied mathematics) at University College London (UCL): “In January, we prepared for the worst, and I told my department head that I would not be able to do my normal job for a month in order to focus on pandemic-related outreach….I manage a team of thirteen, and they have all been very supportive as well. But not everyone is that lucky. A colleague of mine is also very outspoken, but her superiors did not take Covid-19 seriously and discouraged her from doing outreach. They basically told her, ‘you are not going to get promoted at this university’.” – Read the full interview
Pagel says that she was already an established professor at UCL before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, which gave her a lot of security. Colleagues of hers who are in less secure positions occasionally ask her to raise questions that they would not dare to pose in public, fearing backlash from both their institutions and from an enraged public.
There is little data on how much support universities offer. In the Nature survey, when asked how supportive their employers were, 44% of the 226 respondents indicated that they had not told their employers at all, while 80% of those who did, found them to be supportive. Around 10% of respondents claimed to have received no support at all.
Pagel and Lamberty have developed different strategies to cope with the online abuse, ranging from tightening security measures to simply deleting offensive emails. Both scientists prove resilient in dodging threats. Van Ranst appears to be more belligerent. When attacked at a train station, he brandished his cell phone and posted a picture of his attacker on Twitter. While in the safe house, the virologist wrote an email to the Belgian public broadcaster VRT stating that it would take more than a safe house to silence him. After three weeks in the safe house, the sniper Conings was found dead in Belgium. He had committed suicide in the woods. Van Ranst and his family could leave the safe house.
Yet, the danger for him and other outspoken scientists is far from over. During crises, scientists will continue to be the target of conspiracy theorists. While individual coping strategies are helpful, more data needs to be gathered on how online attacks against scientists unfold. Only then can governments and universities take measures to protect those who deliberately expose themselves in order to contribute facts to controversial discussions.
• Interview with Pia Lamberty: “This is the price you pay, but I still think it’s worth it”
• Interview with Christina Pagel: “You have to accept that people will attack you and you cannot defend yourself”