Death threats, trolling and sexist abuse: climate scientists report online attacks

Survey highlights experiences of dozens of climate researchers who have endured online harassment related to their work.

Close-up of the hands of a woman typing on a laptop at night
Among 468 survey respondents, 39% said they have experienced online harassment or abuse related to their climate research.Credit: Oscar Wong/Getty

In 2013, Richard Betts called the police because someone online threatened to string him up with piano wire. The threat happened after Betts, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter, UK, tweeted about the rising temperatures the world would experience the following year. This wasn’t the first time someone had responded negatively to his comments about climate change; nor would it be the last. And Betts isn’t alone.

survey by the international non-governmental organization Global Witness hints at the extent of online abuse faced by scientists working on climate topics worldwide, some of which takes a toll on their work or well-being.

The organization contacted thousands of researchers doing climate-related work. Among the 468 respondents, 39% said they have experienced online harassment or abuse related to their climate research. Many respondents reported anxiety, sleeping problems or a loss of productivity (see ‘Impacts of abuse’).

IMPACTS OF ABUSE. Graphic shows issues faced by some climate scientists who experienced online abuse.
Source: Global Witness

The survey suggests that women receive more online attacks related to gender than do men — 34% of the female climate scientists who experienced abuse said they had received attacks specifically relating to their gender, and 13% received threats of sexual violence.

“[People tell me] I should let the men take care of this kind of research,” said Helene Muri, an ecologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, in her response to the survey. Media outlets often want to interview her, and as a result she has received negative e-mails and violent comments on social media. “The more extreme cases are comments in the direction that I should kill myself.”

The results are concerning, says Henry Peck, who works for Global Witness in London, because such online attacks could discourage researchers from pursuing this line of work or sharing their findings. “The survey data show that people are feeling less willing, less likely to post on social media as a result of abuse,” he says.

Tackling the problem

Peck thinks social-media platforms should take more responsibility for tackling abuse. But scientists’ institutions can also put policies in place to protect them, says Fiona Fox, chief executive of the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London.

In 2019, the SMC published advice to help scientists stay safe when sharing their findings online. The guidance emphasizes the importance of not answering or engaging with the negative comments, and of researchers’ institutions supporting them. “Just straightforwardly saying, ‘we’ve got your back, we’ve got your back, you are not alone’” is a good start, Fox says. Many scientists might also benefit from tailored coaching in how to cope with online attacks. It is important to emphasize that the benefits of speaking out outweigh the costs, Fox adds. “It’s integral to science to be open.”

Nature 616, 421-422 (2023)



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