“Fall dead left-wing cancer whore!” “We know what time you cycle to the sports center.” Léonie de Jonge was shocked when she turned on her computer in the morning of 19 April and opened the e-mail. The university lecturer at the University of Groningen had been featured in the TV program the night before Medialogica as an expert on extreme right-wing groups. Now she sees what that performance has brought about: her name is on the website of the radical right-wing platform Vizier op Links and that causes an “disproportionate shit storm”.
De Jonge is quite used to it. There are always reactions when she talks about her research somewhere in the media, she says. “That is sometimes fun and interesting, sometimes annoying. I take it for granted.” But this time it goes further. She is overrun by “an organized troll army” that sends hate messages to her work email and social media and attempts to hack her accounts. In no time she receives dozens of cannonades, threats and death wishes.
Climate, earth or corona
Virtually every scientist who conducts research in a socially sensitive area and intervenes in the public debate has to deal with intimidation and threats. Want to participate in a discussion in a talk show about global warming, migration or corona measures? Swearing cannonades on Twitter, intimidating emails or stickers from Vizier on Links on your front door are yours.
Since corona it has happened more often and the tone is more threatening, universities say. They are concerned about the increase. “Unacceptable,” says Pieter Duisenberg, chairman of the VSNU, the association of universities. “Threats have a huge impact on scientists. Sometimes their private addresses are put online. It’s very intimidating and downright scary. I spoke to someone this week who is moving for that reason.”
It is not clear how many threats are involved; that is now being investigated. The VSNU now bases itself on what comes out through the various universities. “The tip of the iceberg,” according to Duisenberg. “We only hear the official reports. There is still a whole layer below that.”
Ineke Sluiter, president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), is also concerned. “We see a clear increase in the number of threats based on anecdotal evidence. And that is not reassuring.”
In 2018, Ira Helsloot, professor of safety management at Radboud University in Nijmegen, contributed to an advisory report on safety in higher education. In it, the authors point to “the threat to the security of opinion-forming posed by polarizing activism using social media.”
Since the corona crisis, Helsloot knows from personal experience what it is like to be a target of anonymous hate mail. When he joined the talk show in the fall On 1 critical of the corona measures, he received a thousand responses. These included positive messages (“Glad someone said it!”) but also “about a hundred very annoying emails”. He reads some of them over the phone. “You are a Nazi asshole who should be hanged.” And: “I also wish you and your family corona.” Intense, Helsloot thought. “I think I normally deal with it pretty relaxed, but if you get dozens of these kinds of messages, you’ll have a bad night’s sleep.”
It is, says Léonie de Jonge, psychological warfare. “Whether you like it or not, it gets under your skin. As a scientist I find this quite fascinating: I am suddenly part of my own research. But as a person I really like it.”
No more cycling around
A number of scientists are now permanently protected. Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst went into hiding with his family for weeks after threats from professional soldier Jürgen Conings, who had now been found dead. According to the KNAW and the VSNU, there are at least four scientists in the Netherlands. Jaap van Dissel, the chairman of the Outbreak Management Team (OMT), is one of them. He can’t leave the house to cycle around, he recently told in NRC.
Jaap van Dissel: ‘A fourth wave is unlikely’
Virology professor Marion Koopmans no longer puts where she goes on social media. Too unsafe. “I think about everything these days. What am I going to do and how do I get there? That sucks.” Koopmans talks about it with some reluctance. Because, she says, “everything I say about this subject creates new stuff.”
Since joining the OMT, the hate emails and name-calling come “in waves” and range from vulgar name-calling (“OMT witch,” “Frankenstein in Rotterdam”) to outright death threats. Her employer, Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, recently filed a report with the police. According to a spokesperson, this happened “at the request of the police, who considered the allegations so serious that there was reason to do so”.
Rules of authorities
According to Kees van den Bos, professor of social psychology in Utrecht who specializes in radicalization, the increase in the number of threats is directly related to the corona crisis. “It takes a long time, people feel insecure. And what do you do then? You look to the authorities and expect them to decide what needs to be done. But you also get angry and frustrated because your life suddenly looks completely different because of their rules.”
That anger and frustration is directed at the ‘elite’, says Van den Bos. Against politicians, against the media and against scientists. He is himself a regular target of threats and has an ‘Exotica’ folder on his computer containing all the hate and threatening emails he receives. Such as when he investigated abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses, or when he remarked in an interview in a subordinate clause that Muslims in the Netherlands would like to see the Sugar Fest as a day off. “Then it will come loose, you can say no to that.”
He received “weird and nasty” e-mails: “Hey, professor with your beautiful research. Now you shot your foot. You are squandering our culture.” It is, says Van den Bos, incomparable with what people like Jaap van Dissel and Marion Koopmans experience, “but it still scares you”.
The majority of the people who send these kinds of messages are harmless, KNAW president Ineke Sluiter suspects. “That’s a group that is just frustrated and slips out a bit. When you talk to those people, they often say sorry right away.” Another part is “fairly off track” and a small group is “just dangerous”. And that’s scary, says Sluiter. “Are we really waiting for an accident to happen?”
What do hate emails and threats do to scientists? Are you still on a talk show? Do you still dare to give your opinion on Twitter?
It is a split, says Sluiter: scientists are encouraged to be visible and to engage in public debate, but the price is sometimes very high.
Let me sit in the lab, Kees van den Bos hears his colleagues say more and more often. Koopmans also responds less often to invitations from talk shows, she says.
There is clearly a ‘chilling effect’, says Pieter Duisenberg of the VSNU. Scientists keep their mouths shut or engage in self-censorship to avoid disastrous reactions. Logical, he thinks. “But it goes against everything we want: scientists have to go public with their research and expertise.”
Moreover, self-censorship is exactly what the attackers want. Sluiter: “And fear is their main weapon.”
Léonie de Jonge spoke to many colleagues who said: ‘That’s why I don’t do media appearances.’ De Jonge: “I understand that like no other. It doesn’t stop me, but it’s complicated. My new book is coming out soon and I would like to tell you about it. How will I do that? Should I expect a new troll army? How findable do I want to be?”
The VSNU is now working on a ‘guideline’ for universities and scientists. This will mainly state what you should do as a university if one of your researchers is the target of intimidation. But it also offers practical advice for scientists: how do you secure your accounts? When and how do you file a declaration?
For Ineke Sluiter it is absolutely clear: the dean or the rector must stand right behind the scientist. They must accompany them when a report is made and they must publicly distance themselves from the threats. “Universities encourage their people to get involved in the debate,” she says. “That gives them an obligation to help. Know where you are sending your people, take immediate action when things go wrong and make it clear: we got your back. That is very reassuring.”
Corona prick chases ‘awake citizen’ to their own parallel society
Léonie de Jonge felt enormously supported by her dean, but came out of the police station slightly disillusioned after filing a report. The police couldn’t do much because the threats were “indirect”. “It didn’t say anywhere: I’ll be at your doorstep tomorrow at 10:00. They apparently know exactly where the boundary lies between what is punishable and what is not.”
A number of people who threatened Jaap van Dissel have been sentenced to prison terms in recent weeks and a discussion has started in the House of Representatives about a bill that should better protect scientists.
De Jonge has meanwhile installed a filter in her mailbox that stops messages with the word ‘cancer whore’ or ‘cancer woman’. Excited: “A relief. You should not encounter those words every day.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of June 30, 2021