“A Toxic Milieu Dominated by Opportunists, Dilettantes, Racist/Misogynist Assholes, and Trolls”
How Media Darling Angela Rasmussen Tweeted Her Way Past Post-Doc Mediocrity to COVID-19 Fame and Glory
7 minute read
Update, June 9, 2022: After this article published, Angela Rasmussen responded on Twitter claiming she had never downplayed the dangers of COVID-19. “I was wrong about the virus. So was basically everyone else.”
This is false. On February 20, 2020, the World Health Organization reported a “high” global risk assessment for COVID-19, with 75,748 confirmed global cases and 2121 deaths in China. That same day, Rasmussen downplayed risk of COVID-19, tweeting, “Bottom line: practice good hand hygiene to avoid getting a respiratory virus at all. And while you’re washing your hands, stop wringing them over the potential Typhoid #coronavirus Marys in the population. You’re still more likely to get the flu.” (This new information has been added.)
When Sheryl Sandberg wrote “Lean In” back in 2013 it sold 4 million copies in five years, becoming a biblical guide for women seeking to succeed in a male-dominated workplace. In brief: ignore judgments like “she’s too bossy” and persist.
“I still sometimes find myself spoken over and discounted while men sitting next to me are not,” wrote Ms. Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook. “But now I know how to take a deep breath and keep my hand up. I have learned to sit at the table.”
But critics soon began chewing at the author, noting it was easy for Sandberg to demand professional consideration when she was White, Harvard-educated, and incredibly wealthy—months after the book published, she became one of the world’s youngest-ever billionaires. Speaking from her lofty social perch, Sandberg ignored millions of women lacking similar dispensations and failed to confess how her company was dividing the country and coarsening public discourse.
Unfortunately, we now know what it looks like when someone lacking Sandberg’s privilege, poise, and grace harnesses social media to “lean in” and punch, shove! and KICK! colleagues on their way to the table, before telling them to fuck off: virologist Angela Rasmussen.
“At this point the origins debate has become a toxic milieu dominated by opportunists, dilettantes, racist/misogynist assholes, and trolls,” tweeted Rasmussen, in one of many examples of her lashing out at people questioning if the pandemic started from a lab accident in China. Her tweet promoted an article by Nature’s Amy Maxmen, one of several science writers who—because they share similar politics and disdain for traditional journalism—has helped elevate Rasmussen’s profile as a purported COVID-19 policy expert.
More on that later.
Illusion rules where social media amplifies misperceptions of scientific expertise. With a personal PR agent and over 370K Twitter followers, Rasmussen strides with confidence across the media universe, slapping down and berating reporters, scientists, and physicians—anyone with the temerity to voice an opposing opinion on COVID-19, vaccines, lab safety, and even foreign policy with China.
On her personal website, she displays a list of TV gets that includes Nova, BBC, CNN, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and CBS, as well a tally of dozens of quotes in print and online outlets. The TV appearances tapered off last year, but it’s with Twitter that Rasmussen transformed herself from ignored, middle-aged post-doc to closely followed COVID-19 expert—and continues to thrive.
Here she punches up, she punches down, she punches all around. Unlike everyone else, Rasmussen brings the “evidence” and “objective investigations” to counter “conspiracy theories.”
Engage with that or “fuck off.”
Especially if you’re a prestigious virologist such as Robert Redfield who ran the CDC. His “zero evidence” is mere “viral bullshit” that deserves “viral scorn.”
In the last week, Rasmussen turned up the Twitter temperature (is this even possible?) and started spitting broadsides at Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, who chairs a commission on COVID-19 run by The Lancet. Sachs crashed into Rasmussen’s disapproval by daring to co-author an essay in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that called for an independent investigation into how the pandemic began and killed millions across the planet.
In a long Twitter tirade, Rasmussen berated Sachs for suffering from “the delusion that he knows what the fuck he’s talking about,” operates with “zero evidence,” works with “a well-known grifter” as well as “several academics who have been chronically dishonest,” had another scientist ghostwrite the essay, and “knows fuck all about viruses or pandemics.”
However, Rasmussen ended with a plaintive plea for objectivity. “It’s a pity that Sachs has chosen to wield his influence so irresponsibly & has not himself committed to the objective inquiry he demands.”
Dare to disagree and one encounters Rasmussen in full-combat DARVO, in which she will Deny her behavior, Attack you for disagreeing, and Reverse the roles of Victim/Offender, so that she becomes the victim and you the aggressor. Goodbye girlboss, hello crybully.
Picking up on a theme recounted to me by several professors, Stanford’s Dr. Jay Bhattacharya pointed out that Rasmussen’s influence is mostly unnoticed in science. Her published expertise is in lab biology, Bhattacharya explained by email, not public health, epidemiology, or health policy—topics for which the media seeks her input.
While academics bicker endlessly over impact, one measure is called the “h-index” which calculates how often other academics cite someone. Rasmussen’s h-index is a little over average for a junior academic, but rests mostly on a slew of publications she helped author during the white hot COVID-era.
“Excluding her COVID papers,” Bhattacharya explained, “she would have an h-index of 16, which would be below average for an associate professor at a top university.”
The disconnect between her minor influence in science but enormous impact in the media can be explained by looking back through Twitter history.
Twitter killed the peer review star
Shortly after COVID-19 appeared in early 2020, Rasmussen tweeted that the emerging virus wasn’t a problem and that people should focus on getting their flu shots.
And on February 20, 2020, the World Health Organization reported a “high” global risk assessment for COVID-19, with 75,748 confirmed global cases and 2121 deaths in China. That same day, Rasmussen downplayed risk of COVID-19, tweeting, “Bottom line: practice good hand hygiene to avoid getting a respiratory virus at all. And while you’re washing your hands, stop wringing them over the potential Typhoid #coronavirus Marys in the population. You’re still more likely to get the flu.”
But by March, her personal PR agent Annie Scranton posted a video of her appearing on MSNBC. At this point, Rasmussen pivoted when prompted by a long lead in by the host.
“People in this country aren’t panicking,” the MSNBC host said. “They’re not taking this seriously, because the President and others have been saying it’s not a big deal and continuing to point to the flu. Does it concern you that huge swaths of our population are blowing this off and not taking the necessary precautions and, thus, putting entire communities at risk?”
“Yes, it concerns me greatly,” Rasmussen answered, deviating from her previous concern about the flu. “We need to have the public on board.”
On her PR agent’s website, they carried this message: “Who doesn’t love to see themselves — or their companies — featured on TV? … Every PPR client can proudly say he or she has appeared on television.”
Nonetheless, Rasmussen grew her Twitter presence enormously in the pandemic’s early days. From around 300 Twitter followers before the pandemic, her efforts at self-promotion resulted in over 155K followers by the end of the 2020 summer. As her media presence grew, she began pushing a narrative promoted in the media by multiple scientists and NIH officials that a lab accident could not have started the pandemic.
While part of of her success can be attributed to zipping past science to focus on social media, Rasmussen must also thank lazy reporters eager to have a warm body with a Ph.D. talk about COVID-19, all without bothering to ask what that someone did for a living. (After leaving a post-doc at Columbia, Rasmussen transitioned to an “affiliate” at Georgetown, but who was based in Seattle. Whatever that means.)
However, in late 2021, Ramussen landed a full-time position as a Research Scientist at a vaccine developer associated with the University of Saskatchewan.
“Nobody moves to Canada to be a pipetter in a lab, when they are a successful scientist,” said a professor who works on pandemic policy but did not wish to be named in any story that discussed Rasmussen. “I’m sure she hates it there.”
Scicomm cannot, will not succeed, without science writer help
Since launching herself into the upper echelons of #Scicomm, Rasmussen has wasted little time shooting at those she views as beneath her.
In January 2021, Rasmussen tweeted that a scientific analysis published by Yuri Deigin resembled “The Turner Diaries,” a white supremacist end-of-times novel published in the 1970s.
Rasmussen then harangued Deigin’s co-author—molecular biologist Rossana Segreto, alleging without evidence that Segreto had criticized her as a lackey of the Chinese Communist Party during a private faculty meeting at the University of Innsbruck. Two of Segreto’s colleagues said that Rasmussen’s accusation was a lie.
When award-winning author Elaine Dewar published a book on the pandemic, Rasmussen took to twitter, haranguing her for “speculative claims.” Rasmussen then complained on a podcast that Dewar was a “conspiracy” promoter.
“Once upon a time, scientists explained their findings and opinions in peer-reviewed journals or in carefully worded lectures delivered at scientific meetings,” Dewar responded. “Now science moves at internet speed and Twitter has taken the place of learned societies as a favored forum.” (Read The DisInformation Chronicle’s discussion with Dewar on her book.)
And when Harvard biologist Alina Chan co-published a book on the pandemic, Rasmussen denigrated her in the Boston Globe, accusing Chan of every sin possible except anti-Asian bias. “In my opinion, she is an intellectually dishonest, manipulative conspiracist with very little subject matter expertise,” complained Rasmussen, who has little subject matter expertise. She added that Chan “has offered nothing of value to the search for the origins of COVID-19 and has compensated for her mediocrity by pursuing personal profit.” (For a list of Rasmussen’s numerous, paid COVID-19 consulting gigs, see here.)
Of course, Rasmussen’s greatest friends have been the science writers—media personalities who see their job as explaining, promoting, and defending science—not asking hard uncomfortable questions. Despite her penchant for kicking, clawing, and biting, science writers welcome Rasmussen as one of their own.
Earlier this year, MIT’s Deborah Blum hosted a journalism webinar offering to improve COVID-19 coverage, which featured Rasmussen and many of the science writers who favor quoting her in their articles—for example, Ramussen’s best buddy, Amy Maxmen of Nature Magazine. Later this month, Rasmussen will speak at a different science writer conference for a panel she helped to organize with another of her science writer friends, Jane Qiu.
To steal a tweet from Rasmussen, it has become “a toxic milieu.”
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BONUS: Science can be dreary, dull and hard, while Twitter can be … fun! For junior scientists looking to escape the lab for social media fame and glory, a selection of Angela Rasmussen’s tweets to serve as a guide.
1) As you build your Twitter following, never be afraid to criticize a reporter on a topic you know nothing about, like national security. Just “lean in” and pick a fight.
2) If a narrative you’ve been promoting on Twitter gets its ox gored by a sudden release of documents through a freedom of information act (FOIA) request, begin hammering on that reporter and the FOIA documents. Also, toss in something about “anti-vaxx” and “conspiracies.” Or maybe both.
3) If an article you don’t like appears in a national outlet like New York Magazine, go after the reporter with some vague conflict of interest allegation.
4) Random attacks to tear down perceived superiors in science for having penises seems a winning formula, post #MeToo. (Note: tactic probably best avoided, if you also have a penis.)
5) To dismiss someone you disagree with, simply compare them to Pepe the Frog, an online meme for White Nationalism or anti-semitism. (Note: tactic probably best avoided, if person you disagree with is not White or happens to be Jewish.)
6) Finally, if you’ve become so famous for toxic tweets that reporters begin quoting them in stories, be proud of this accomplishment and embrace your notoriety. Success has finally arrived!