Katie Bouman, a researcher who helped create the first image of a black hole, quickly gained internet fame Thursday for her role in the project after a photo of her went viral.
But internet trolls soon followed, questioning Bouman’s work and floating false claims that she did not have much of a role in the project. Colleagues rallied to her defense, but the situation highlighted the vitriol that women continue to face on the internet, and the continued vulnerability of major internet platforms to trolling campaigns.
Bouman, a postdoctoral fellow who will soon be an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, noted in a Facebook post Wednesday that “no one algorithm or person made this image” and published a photo of the many people she worked alongside.
The photo of the black hole was the end result of the work of hundreds of researchers and eight telescopes.
Bouman’s public recognition — much of it applauding an example of a woman at the forefront of a major scientific effort — drew attention from misogynist communities on the internet. Some users congregated on Reddit and created videos questioning Bouman’s contribution that were then uploaded to Instagram and YouTube.
By Friday, falsehoods claiming it was not Bouman but a male colleague who deserved credit for the black hole image overtook legitimate coverage in search results on YouTube and Instagram.
On YouTube, the first video result for users who search for “Katie Bouman” returns a video titled “Woman Does 6% of the Work but Gets 100% of the Credit: Black Hole Photo.” The video is riddled with inaccuracies, and largely draws from a falsehood created on Reddit and pushed heavily by a “men’s rights” community.
Hours later, a similar search showed that the video was no longer appearing at the top of YouTube's results.
The video claims Andrew Chael, a “straight white male” did most of the work, based on the number of publicly available lines of code for the project on the website Github.
Chael, an astrophysicist and graduate student at Harvard University who worked with Bouman, responded on Twitter saying the conspiracy theory is “awful and sexist,” and added that he’s gay. The theory claims that Chael wrote 850,000 lines of code, which he says is also wrong, adding there are 68,000 lines of code total in the current software.
A YouTube spokesperson told NBC News that the company is working to change its system to value authoritative content.
“We've taken a number of steps to address this including surfacing more authoritative content across our site for people searching for news-related topics, beginning to reduce recommendations of borderline content and showing information panels with more sources where they can fact check information for themselves,” the spokesperson said in an email. “We’ve seen meaningful progress as a result and are committed to making more improvements going forward.”
Becca Lewis, a research affiliate at nonprofit research institute Data & Society who studies extremism on YouTube, said this was another example of YouTube’s algorithm “rewarding engagement and time spent on the site to maximize advertising revenue” instead of facts.
“Time and again, we see that this leads YouTube to recommend sensationalist content that is often conspiratorial or bigoted,” Lewis said. “In turn, content creators are incentivized to create this kind of content, and a culture has emerged on the platform that is deeply reactionary.”
Instagram had also been co-opted by the anti-Bouman campaign. An account impersonating Bouman, with the username “katieboumanoffficial,” was the first result for users looking up “Katie Bouman” in Instagram’s search box.
The account, which impersonated an Instagram model until November, began impersonating Bouman late Thursday night, posting several headshots and screenshots of YouTube videos featuring Bouman.
Descriptions on the images of the account, however, spread false claims about Bouman. One description changes Chael’s name to “Andrew Chad,” a reference to “Chads,” internet misogynist terminology for men who are attractive to women.
“He is Andrew Chad. He wrote 850,000 of the 900,000 lines of code that were written in the historic black-hole image algorithm!” the description reads.
Instagram did not respond to a request for comment.