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Trolls Target The Woman Behind The Groundbreaking Black Hole Image

Last week, two photos were beamed around the world: the first ever image of a black hole, and the excited face of the woman who helped make it happen.

That woman was Katie Bouman, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose algorithm was crucial to developing the Eye of Sauron-esque photo you've seen a dozen times already.

The world's first image of a black hole. Source: CBS News.

A Twitter account linked with MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab tweeted its congratulations, writing that Bouman "led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole."

It all descended a bit from there.

One photo to rule them all

Very quickly, the photo of Bouman covering her face went around the world, as publications sought to humanise the largely baffling concept (to non-scientists, anyway), of a black hole. Publications including this one told readers about the woman who was vital to this historic first.

Bouman herself took to Facebook to praise the image as a "team effort", sharing a photo of some of the more than 200 scientists involved.

Just some of the many scientists behind the image. Photo: Facebook.

"No one algorithm or person made this image," Bouman said.

"It required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe and years of hard work to develop the instrument, data processing, imaging methods, and analysis techniques that were necessary to pull off this seemingly impossible feat."

But that didn't stop trolls from leaping to the imagined defence of Bouman's colleagues, insisting they were being forgotten, overlooked, or straight-up written out of this scientific achievement. They particularly swarmed around Bouman's colleague Andrew Chael, falsely -- and repeatedly -- claiming he had written "850,000 of the 900,000 lines of code" in the crucial algorithm.

Fake social media accounts were set up for both Bouman and Chael in order to propagate the myth, while YouTube's own algorithm promoted videos spreading rumours about Bouman's work. The main one? 'Woman Does 6% of the Work but Gets 100% of the Credit'.

This YouTube account widely spread the claim that Chael, not Bouman, was behind the black hole photo.

In a statement, YouTube said it was working on its algorithms to promote "more authoritative content", but Dr Andre Oboler from the Online Hate Prevention Institute, as well as La Trobe University, said it was emblematic of the wider issues YouTube has in promoting conspiracy theories.

"In a fast-moving situation, videos promoting hate against someone that is featured in one video are likely to be seen as topical and relevant and therefore may well be suggested," Oboler said.

He added that while trolls adapt their approach in each situation to try and cause the most harm, women experience a particularly sexist form of abuse.

"It is a regular feature of such attacks: male abusers seek to drive women offline."

'Sexist Attacks' On Bouman: Stop

The abuse worked: Bouman stopped giving interviews, according to The Verge. (Whether it was related to the viral storm of abuse surrounding her is unknown.)

MIT posted a Twitter thread to "clarify a few things", including that the final algorithm used to capture the black hole image was based on a different number of algorithms from several different researchers.

"In our first tweet about this, we linked to a 2016 story about an algorithm she led the development of while at CSAIL. That algorithm was intended to take a picture of a black hole, but didn’t create the final image," it tweeted.

Chael also took to Twitter to refute the trolls' claims, stating that while he "wrote much of the code" for one of three independent software libraries used in the algorithm, it certainly wasn't "850,000 lines of code".

"While I appreciate the congratulations on a result that I worked hard on for years, if you are congratulating me because you have a sexist vendetta against Katie, please go away and reconsider your priorities in life."

To those using the fact that he was the primary developer of one piece of code to launch "awful and sexist attacks" on his colleague and friend, Chael had a simple message: "Stop.

In another tweet, he added:

"I'm thrilled Katie is getting recognition for her work and that she's inspiring people as an example of women's leadership in STEM. I'm also thrilled she's pointing out that this was a team effort including contributions from many junior scientists, including many women junior scientists."

"Together, we all make each other's work better; the number of commits doesn't tell the full story of who was indispensable."

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au