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COVID-19 scientists faced death threats, threats of violence: survey

TORONTO — A new survey of 321 scientists who have spoken publicly about COVID-19 finds that 15 per cent received death threats and 22 per cent received threats of physical or sexual violence.

The survey, conducted by the journal Nature, was sent to scientists across the globe, including in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Canada, Taiwan and Brazil. Seventy-four per cent of the survey respondents are based in U.S., U.K. and Germany, and five per cent work in Canada.

The respondents could answer the survey anonymously, but some chose to include their names and emails.

The survey also found that more than 25 per cent of the respondents said they “always” or “usually” receive negative comments or personal attacks after speaking out about COVID-19. More than 40 per cent of the respondents said they experienced emotional or psychological distress as a result.

Social media matters

Many of the respondents reported using social media to discuss COVID-19 with the public. Nearly 63 per cent of the scientists reported using Twitter, 35 per cent used LinkedIn and 28 per cent used Facebook.

Some social media platforms were also a place where researchers faced trolling or personal attacks. For example, of those scientists who used Twitter to discuss COVID-19, 34 per cent said they “usually” or “always” faced online abuse.

Of the respondents, 71 per cent said they spoke with the media a few times a month or more. Despite facing negative commentary or personal attacks, 85 per cent of the scientists said their experiences with the media were “always” or “mostly” positive.

Nature notes that the results of its survey are not a random sample, as they only represent the experiences of the scientists who chose to respond. However, the Nature survey was based on a smaller, informal poll conducted in Australia.

The Australian poll surveyed Australian researchers and scientists. Of the 50 Australian respondents, six reported receiving death threats (12 per cent) and six reported receiving threats of sexual or physical violence.

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