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The alleged COVID-19 death of a bisexual Native American academic supposedly employed by Arizona State University may in fact be nothing more than a “sick hoax,” according to persons familiar with the incident.
Jacquelyn Gill, a University of Maine climate scientist, told The Daily Beast she began to have doubts that a Twitter personality going by the handle @Sciencing_Bi using an account created in 2016 was real after hearing that ‘she’ had died from the virus.
“I went from thinking a Twitter friend and colleague died of COVID after being forced by her institution to teach, to doubting she had existed in the first place,” Gill said.
The account, which used a flower for an avatar and which had nearly 6,000 followers, went private over the weekend. For its duration, the account holder posted as a bisexual Hopi Native American anthropologist employed by the university.
The tweets included perspectives on racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination people of her orientation and background allegedly face. Most recently, though, the account holder began to document an alleged bout with COVID-19, The Daily Beast reported.
“This COVID f**ker is relentless. It feels like my skin [is] on fire. I mostly sleep and sweat,” @Sciencing_Bi noted. “The dreams are the worst things. Incredibly vivid terrible images and I can’t force myself awake. I was hoping to be in the mild symptom group.”
However, on Friday, former Vanderbilt University Assistant Professor of Neurology BethAnn McLaughlin posted on her now-suspended Twitter account that @Sciencing_Bi “died from COVID this evening.”
Responses to the alleged death came in from scores of Twitter users including Gill, “Slate staff writer Lili Loofbourow, California State University Northridge biologist Jeremy Yoder, University of New Hampshire cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and Johns Hopkins oncologist Tatiana Prowell, among others,” the news outlet reported.
Shortly afterward, however, allegations began to surface that McLaughlin, who founded MeTooSTEM, a group focused on exposing sexual harassment in the science community, created the account herself.
However, she has pushed back on the claim, telling The Daily Beast, “I knew this person.”
Gill remained unconvinced.
“My real concern, though, is that someone leveraged racism, sexism, homophobia, and COVID fears for their own personal gain,” she told the outlet.
“Any time someone fakes a marginalized identity, it provides fuel for people who don’t want social justice movements to succeed.”
Colleges and universities in Arizona are scheduled to reopen to in-person courses this month, though some professors and other staff are opposed. To bolster their case, the Coalition for Academic Justice at the University of Arizona, which is comprised of faculty, students, and staff, mentioned @Sciencing_Bi’s death in a tweet that has since been taken down.
Tweets from the @Sciencing_Bi account also alleged how bad it was to have been working at ASU.
“ASU kept teachers, staff and students on campus until April,” the account claimed, according to The Daily Beast, “Many got COVID. Including me.”
Those classes allegedly include a “giant seminar class and two smaller classes. I’m guessing 400 students.”
@Sciencing_Bi also claimed that ‘she’ received a 15-percent pay cut during the university’s coronavirus shutdown. In another tweet, she claimed, “Dean’s office asked if I have taken a DNA ancestry test to validate my BIPOC heritage.”
However, Gerardo Gonzalez, an ASU spokesperson, said that university staffers “have been in touch with several deans and faculty members and no one can identify the account or who might be behind it.” He added they “have had no one, such as a family member or friend, report a death to anyone at the university.”
“Unfortunately, we believe this may be a hoax,” Gonzalez said.
On Monday, Twitter suspended @Sciencing_Bi’s and McLaughlin’s accounts.
“We have suspended these accounts for violating our spam and platform manipulation policies,” Twitter spokesperson Jessyka Faison told the outlet.
Other hoax indicators include statements from faculty who said there were no across-the-board pay cuts during the pandemic. Also, they said that all Arizona colleges moved to virtual classrooms in March, meaning there would not have been in-person instruction in April.
Hopi Native American Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, a professor and head of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, is also skeptical.
“Here’s something to keep in mind,” he said. “There are very few Hopi faculty in the academy, and for the most part we tend to know each other.
“It sounds like a hoax to me,” he noted further. “If so, it’s a sick hoax.”
For her part, McLaughlin said she became familiar with @Sciencing_Bi through MeTooSTEM.
“I don’t talk about people’s real names, particularly when they have made allegations of sexual misconduct, and in this instance, that has happened,” she told the DB.
McLaughlin also posted pictures of what seemed to be in-person meetings with @Sciencing_Bi. One of them included a trip to Yosemite National Park.
“Where @Sciencing_Bi takes a paddle break to explain all of geology ever,” McLaughlin wrote.
However, the other woman in the picture was actually her daughter.
“I didn’t mean to misidentify my daughter,” she told the DB when asked about the photo.
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