Aarhus University reports threats against professor to the police

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Threats sent to a professor at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Rune Hartmann, have been reported to the police by the senior management team. However, he’s not the only AU researcher who has received nasty, abusive mails after making statements in the media about the coronavirus.

2021.03.03 | Trine Marie Vestergaard & Marie Groth Andersen

Reseachers from Aarhus University have received nasty, abusive mails after making statements in the media about the coronavirus. From left professor Rune Hartmann, professor Michael Bang Petersen, associate professor Christian Wejse and professor Søren Riis Paludan. Photo: Lars Kruse, Ida Jensen, privat. Graphic work: Omnibus

Rune Hartmann is a professor at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Aarhus University and an expert on the immune system and viruses. Over the past year, he has made regular media appearances in his capacity as an expert on coronavirus vaccines.  

As a result, he’s received several abusive, nasty emails. Normally, he tosses these mails directly in his digital trash can – and that’s also how he responded to this particular mail. But this time, he also forwarded it to the senior management team, because this mail called his integrity as a researcher into question, and by extension, AU’s integrity.

“This message contained incorrect information, and it accused me of disseminating untrue information. The university is not an opinion factory; it’s an institution of knowledge. This is not something you call into question. What’s more, the tone and language in the message were ignorant and unacceptable,” Hartmann said. 

He was not personally distressed by the mail, he emphasised. 

It’s important to put your foot down 

It’s important to put your foot down and make it clear that this kind of thing is not ok.

“But it’s important to put your foot down and make it clear that this kind of thing is not ok.”

Hartmann’s advice to colleagues who receive this kind of abuse is to emphasise that when you make public statements as a researcher, you’re speaking on behalf of Aarhus University.

“Send a clear signal that Aarhus University is behind the message, even though of course, you’re responsible for the validity of its contents as a researcher. For the same reason, I also advise against give interviews to the media in the home. An AU background helps communicate that you’re speaking on behalf of the university.”   

Finally, he also emphasised the impact that knowledge and solid argumentation still has in public debate – despite the trolls.

“Denmark has one of the highest rates of vaccine acceptance in the EU. I believe that solid, scientifically accurate and reasoned argumentation is winning.”

AU reported the mail to the police

While Hartmann is not interested in wasting any more energy on the matter, the university’s chief legal counsel Louise Hauptmann reviewed the material, and on that background the university has taken the step of reporting the mails to the police. 

“The messages sent to Rune Hartmann are abusive and qualify as harassment. For this reason, we have consulted with Rune Hartmann, and have decided to report the incident to the police as a possible violation of the laws in the Penal Code that protect public servants, for example if they are harassed as a consequence of their work,” Hauptmann said.

So far, this is the only case of this kind that AU has reported to the police, but the university has urged the faculties to be on the alert for similar incidents.

A number of AU researchers have received nasty mails

Although the mail to Hartmann is the only such incident the university has reported to the police thus far, he’s far from the only researcher at AU who has gotten nasty mails and messages after making statements about coronavirus-related topics in the media. 

Michael Bang Petersen, a professor at the Department of Political Science, has also received threats. He received two in the fall: one on Twitter, the other by email.  

“I’m almost certain they came from the same person as Rune Hartmann,” Petersen said. 

The same name appears on the threat sent to Hartmann and the threat sent to Petersen.

He added: 

“We’re dealing with a person who has broadcasted threatening messages widely.”  

The threat on Twitter was reported, which resulted in the suspension of the account it had been sent from. But Petersen didn’t initially take any action on the threat he received by email. But later he chose to forward it to the communications office at his faculty. 

Calls for more involvement from management

According to Petersen, how to respond to hate mail is something of a dilemma. Because if you don’t deal with the problem, are you just creating problems for others?  

“You have a duty to react because these people aren’t necessarily only focused on you. But I’ve found that it’s easier to keep your distance and shrug them off,” Petersen said. 

So he would like to see management take the initiative to start a dialogue and consider what kinds of messages researchers should take action on and what kinds they should ignore.

It would be beneficial to have some guidelines for what’s out of bounds and for what you should do as an employee in such cases.

“It’s a difficult decision to deal with as an individual. It’s easier to wash your hands of these messages and threats and shrug them off. It would be beneficial to have some guidelines for what’s out of bounds and for what you should do as an employee in such cases. It may not have been necessary to have that conversation before, but there’s a need to have it now,” he said.

“I may think twice about what I’m going to say”

Christian Wejse, who is an associate professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine and the Department of Public Health, has not had to deal with any direct threats. But he has received negatives messages that have left a bad taste in his mouth, and he’s astonished by the volume, he says:  

“I always say what I believe to be supported by the science. But I have to admit that when I deal with some of the themes that trigger a lot of anger, for example infection in fitness centres, I may think twice about what I’m going to say. I believe that the many negative messages have an influence on how I select what topics I’ll speak about publicly,” he said.

“Other people are entitled to express an opinion”

Søren Riis Paludan, a professor at the Department of Biomedicine is another AU researcher who often appears in the media as an expert on the coronavirus. He gets nasty mails as well. However he hasn’t gotten threats or hate mail to a degree that he feels threatened.  

“I haven’t experienced anything that crosses the line for me personally. I’ve gotten some mails, but they haven’t targeted me. They’ve expressed an opinion about what I make statements about, and other people are naturally entitled to do so,” he said, and added:  

“I actually don’t read most of these mails, and I never reply to them.” 

University of Copenhagen researchers also under fire

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen are also under fire. In an interview in the UCPH newspaper, Professor Jens Lundgren stated that coming forward and trying to educate the population on a phenomenon like the coronavirus has taken its toll: 

“It’s crazy, the kinds of things people write to someone like me. They don’t know me at all. I’m basically just trying to state my honest assessment of something. I find it really unpleasant.” 

Lundgren goes on to recount how some people attack him personally, while others suspect him of having hidden motives or covering up conspiracies. And he too has received threatening messages. 

AU’s rector: Intimidating researchers is not acceptable

On Friday February 5, Rector Brian Bech Nielsen was interviewed on the ‘P1 Morgen’ morning radio programme about the university’s decision to report the hate mail received by Rune Hartmann to the police. When asked why researchers who make statements in the media about topics related to the coronavirus are being targeted at the moment, he replied:

It’s completely ok to be sceptical and critical, but it’s not ok to intimidate researchers.

“Well, I can only guess. But the coronavirus is a hot topic; they are some of the most quoted researchers at the moment. And we also know that there are groups that are sceptical about the restrictions on the one hand, and vaccines on the other.”

The rector added:

“It’s completely ok to be sceptical and critical, but it’s not ok to intimidate researchers. They’re just doing their job and communicating their knowledge to the general public, which is a great service to society.”

At the same time, the rector expressed concern that researchers may ultimately stop sharing their expertise in the media if these kinds of attacks continue.

Joint union representative: “It’s a real violation”

Olav W. Bertelsen, who is the joint union representative for academic staff at AU, is also extremely concerned that researchers are receiving hate mails and threats in response to their media appearances. 

“It’s a real violation when criticism of our research is presented in the form of threats.”

However, this is not a new problem that has popped up in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, he stressed.

“For many years, we’ve been aware that researchers in politically sensitive fields, for example the environment and agriculture, risk getting extreme and irrational reactions,” he said, and added:  

“There’s often an unconscious trivialisation of the seriousness of these cases, because the excuse is always the politically controversial nature of the issue. But now we’re seeing the same kinds of attacks on researchers who are quietly and calmly working on finding a vaccine, which is not a politically controversial issue.”  

Bertelsen agrees completely that reporting these cases to the police is necessary to put a stop to the hate mails and threats. But he also said that it’s less clear-cut in the case of messages and mails that are nasty and irrational, but which aren’t framed as personal threats.  

“In these cases, I think we need to develop a shared understanding and some good strategies to make sure these cases don’t become a burden for the individual. And of course, management has a role to play here,” he said. 

Translated by Lenore Messick

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