The Ornithologist the Internet Called a Murderer

Opinion

By Kirk Wallace Johnson

Mr. Johnson is an author of nonfiction.

The Ornithologist the Internet Called a Murderer

Credit Ping Zhu

For some time, I’d been searching for Christopher Filardi, a biologist with decades of field experience in the Solomon Islands. I wanted to interview him for a book I was writing, but the email system at the American Museum of Natural History, which once listed him as the director of Pacific programs at its Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, bounced back my message.

The auto-reply said that he’d moved to another organization, Conservation International. When I wrote him there, another auto-reply informed me that he had moved on. I couldn’t find him on Facebook or Twitter. The man seemed to have vanished.

When I finally found a working number for him, he was reluctant to talk. Three years ago, his life was overturned by an online mob that accused him of murder. The fact that the mob’s outrage was driven by ignorance didn’t make it any less frightening.

A 2017 Pew study reported that 40 percent of Americans have experienced some form of online harassment, but what Dr. Filardi experienced was far worse than a few mean tweets. He has never given an interview about what happened. He agreed to tell his story on the condition that I not reveal where he lives…