Democracy Dies in Darkness
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A scientist’s viral tweet called Elon Musk ‘Space Karen’ — as a way to defend science
Elon Musk gestures as he arrives to visit the construction site near Berlin in September. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)
ByTravis M. Andrews
November 17, 2020 at 4:21 p.m. EST
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Emma Bell usually uses Twitter the way most of us do: for browsing funny web comics, procrastinating and communicating with their colleagues in the scientific community. Bell, a postdoctoral fellow who researches cancer genomics using bioinformatics at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, will also occasionally correct a bit of misinformation they see online.
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On Sunday, that misinformation came from Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who tweeted about rapid antigen tests to his more than 40 million followers. “Something extremely bogus is going on,” Musk wrote. “Was tested for covid four times today. Two tests came back negative, two came back positive. Same machine, same test, same nurse. Rapid antigen test from BD.”
This is a fairly expected result from certain rapid antigen tests, experts say. As the FDA has noted, antigen tests, which can give results quickly, “are not as sensitive as molecular tests,” which often take days. “This means that a positive result is highly accurate, but a negative result does not rule out infection.”
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Bell quickly noted this in a retweet, writing, “Rapid antigen tests trade sensitivity for speed. They return a result in <30 minutes, but can only detect COVID-19 when you’re absolutely riddled with it. What’s bogus is that Space Karen didn’t read up on the test before complaining to his millions of followers.”
Rapid antigen tests trade sensitivity for speed. They return a result in <30 minutes, but can only detect COVID-19 when you're absolutely riddled with it. What's bogus is that Space Karen didn't read up on the test before complaining to his millions of followers. pic.twitter.com/a1Snfpm03h
— Emma Bell PhD (@emmabell42) November 14, 2020
Bell’s immediate reaction to Musk’s post was frustration.
“People like Elon Musk, fabulously intelligent people who can use social media avidly, should know better, should know that whatever comes out of their Twitter account has an impact on the wider world,” Bell told The Washington Post. “These actions have consequences.”
Bell also posted a short piece to Medium titled “No, Elon Musk is not about to blow this COVID-19 testing thing wide open,” in which they explained in further detail why results from rapid antigen tests can vary.
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“I think we’ve pretty much thoroughly proved that Twitter is not the place for nuanced discourse,” Bell said. “There is a need to be even more careful about what you’re saying and how you say it when you have such little room to express a complex idea.”
Usually, Bell said a few friends will respond to their tweets. But suddenly Bell’s tweet was trending under the term “Space Karen,” and their follower count shot up from about 1,000 to more than 7,000 in three days.
The term had been around for a while (since May, according to Know Your Meme) and Bell said it simply came to mind when writing the tweet.
“I thought it was funny, and I thought it was an apt description for that sort of behavior,” Bell said. “It was just an off-the-cuff remark.”
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Regardless of its origin, Twitter users certainly appreciated it.
“The academic who called Elon Musk ‘Space Karen’ won Monday for me,” tweeted writer Zamandlovu Ndlovu.
“I will never not laugh at Space Karen,” tweeted digital artist Dan Hett, who included a meme of Musk in a “speak to the manager” haircut, which “refers to variations of a women’s haircut style that is short in the back and longer in the front” and “is often mocked as representative of middle-aged women who insist on complaining to managers at retail stores and restaurants,” according to Know Your Meme.
I will never not laugh at Space Karen https://t.co/InvR5sTRMy​pic.twitter.com/92vQfIyzHi
— dan hett (@danhett) November 16, 2020
“Remember last year when space karen said covid-19 was no biggie? I do,” tweeted Daily Beast editor-at-large Molly Jong-Fast.
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Indeed, Musk, who did not respond to Bell’s tweet or to The Post’s request for comment, has long downplayed the pandemic. In early March, he tweeted, “The coronavirus panic is dumb.” (The disease has now killed at least 247,000 Americans.) Musk also complained about lockdowns in an April earnings call and an episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast in May.
Bell said they’ve gotten some insulting messages from people who screenshot Bell’s Twitter profile, which reads in part “nonbinary + queer + #firstgen + depression/anxiety,” but, for the most part, the experience of going viral has been positive.
“Twitter itself has done a pretty good job of filtering out the less pleasant comments that I’ve been getting,” Bell said. “And to be honest, they’ve mostly been drowned out by people tweeting out the response and other people’s jokes relating to it.”
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Bell plans to use their new following to write more and spend a bit more time discussing science online.
“I have a little more power to be able to spread a little more knowledge about scientific subjects, about the research I’m interested in,” Bell said.
“I want to be a visible research scientist, a visible person as a science communicator, based on my various identities,” they added. “It’s really important to me that I’m a visible influence in my little corner of science so that other people who may be of an ethnic minority that’s underrepresented in science or has mental health issues or are of a marginalized gender or sexuality see that they do have a place here.”
Updated August 19, 2021
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Travis M. Andrews is a features writer for The Washington Post. Previously, he was a travel and culture editor for Southern Living magazine and a contributor for Mashable. He is also the author of "Because He's Jeff Goldblum," a rumination on the enigmatic actor's career and an exploration of fame in the 21st century. He joined The Post in 2016.
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