Something was off about the memorial service for the anonymous anthropology professor who’d died of COVID-19. For one, only four people showed up. The facilitator of the service, BethAnn McLaughlin, co-founder of the support network MeTooSTEM, had recently been accused of harassment herself. When Michael Eisen, a genetics professor at UC Berkeley, tried to search for information about the anthropologist online, he couldn’t find any. Her distinguishing characteristic on Twitter was that she really, really seemed to love McLaughlin.
That made sense, in retrospect, because McLaughlin had fabricated her whole cloth. According to a report in The New York Times, since 2016, she’d been posting about sexual harassment in the science community using the Twitter handle @Sciencing_Bi, which she passed off as a Native American professor who’d “fled the south because of their oppression of queer folk.” McLaughlin is white. She constructed a person of color to guard herself against criticism from actual people of color, who were beginning to come forward with worrying complaints about her leadership.
Then, on July 31st, McLaughlin took the grift even further. In a series of tweets, she announced @Sciencing_Bi had died of COVID-19. She’d been forced to teach in person until April, McLaughlin claimed, and had landed in the hospital a week after campus finally closed. When people responded with shock and grief, she let out a virtual wail. “Looking at her side of the bed and crying. Just a lot of crying,” she wrote, according to BuzzFeed. “I literally can do nothing.”
Eisen told the Times that he realized @Sciencing_Bi was McLaughlin shortly after the memorial service. “The combination of the weird things that were happening on the call and looking at the tweets and seeing how much they circled BethAnn, it just became obvious to me,” he said. “‘Oh, this is BethAnn.’”
McLaughlin admitted as much to the Times. “I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @Sciencing_Bi Twitter account,” she said through a lawyer. “My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt.”
Why construct a Twitter persona only to kill them off in a moderately high-profile COVID-19 scandal? I can think of a few reasons (money, insecurity, boredom, fame), but none fully explain the lengths McLaughlin went to to make @Sciencing_Bi seem real. It veers into the territory of Munchausen syndrome, where people fake illnesses in order to get attention.
So I asked an expert: Marc Feldman, a psychiatrist who studies this disorder. He says it’s typically a play for sympathy or attention — and it’s gotten much worse with the internet. “You can go to Wikipedia and become an expert on any medical ailment in 10 or 20 minutes,” he says. “If you go to a support group and say you have that ailment, these groups are supportive by nature, it’s considered uncool to question someone’s illness.”
Feldman has a name for this grift — he calls it “Munchausen by internet.” Unlike the offline disorder, which can be uncovered by doctors or friends, Munchausen by internet is often undetectable. “The majority of these cases are never identified as scams,” he says. On social media, people like McLaughlin can construct detailed backstories that make their characters seem real. They only get caught when they take the deceit too far or introduce inconsistencies that lead to questions.
A woman who faked multiple miscarriages on mothering message boards told Cosmopolitan that she did it out of boredom at first, but when the flood of sympathetic messages came in, she became addicted to the attention. “I became obsessed with being someone I wasn’t, and I felt like I was trying to have something I never had but really wanted. I don’t want money. I don’t want someone else’s child. I’m not going to go into a hospital and steal a child,” she said. “All I want is for someone to care about me.” Eventually, she reached out to Feldman for help after realizing she had a serious problem.
On platforms like GoFundMe, these types of schemes have existed for a while. While most of the fundraisers for accidents or illnesses are real, some are not, and the platform is in the uncomfortable position of deciding who actually has cancer. At times, people have been outed after raising thousands of dollars for chemotherapy or other cancer treatments.
Feldman says that for people with Munchausen, the financial component is secondary. If someone is talking about going through chemotherapy in a cancer support group on Facebook and adds that they don’t have insurance, another user might set up a fundraiser for them. “At that point they kind of have to go along with it because it doesn’t make sense not to,” he says.
It seems plausible that McLaughlin’s grift evolved over time. At first, she used @Sciencing_Bi to promote MeTooSTEM. Then she used it to engage with people who were advocating for diversity in science. Then, as people involved with MeTooSTEM started to come forward with stories about McLaughlin’s leadership, her lack of transparency, and mistreatment of people of color, @Sciencing_Bi became the person she wanted to be — a more sympathetic character in the scientific community than the one she was in real life.
By 2019, seven members of the MeTooSTEM leadership team had resigned due in part to McLaughlin’s combative tweets. Two years earlier, she’d been passed over for tenure at Vanderbilt University due to what she said was retaliation for her decision to testify against a colleague who’s been accused of sexual harassment, according to a report in BuzzFeed.
@Sciencing_Bi reflected these struggles. As the professor started to document her battle with COVID, she wrote: “My state university just cut my salary by 15%. They also kept my school open and me teaching well past when they knew it was unsafe to be in crowds. No. I won’t answer questions. I don’t have tenure.’”
Then McLaughlin killed her. In a tweet thread announcing the death, McLaughlin wrote: “she was meaner and more loving than everyone else.” Later, she added “she wasn’t nice. She was powering and she worked so stinking hard.” Reading the messages, it doesn’t feel like a grift; it feels like a fantasy. McLaughlin wasn’t talking about a made-up professor anymore. She was talking about herself, the way she wanted to be seen. The outpouring of sympathy was immediate.