But within hours, another strain of interpretation started metastasizing. Memes and videos across Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms called Bouman a fraud and “debunked” her contributions to the discovery.
In the midst of all that, something strange started happening: Dozens of accounts appeared on Instagram and Twitter bearing Bouman’s name and picture. None of them, her colleagues said, was real.
And Bouman didn’t ask for any of it.
In many ways, this is an old story: A successful woman becomes a target of harassment online because she’s a successful woman. But the reaction to Bouman seems specific to this particular cultural moment, in which divergent views of gender, media, and science, usually flowing in their own little streams, smash together to form a massive riptide. This one image tapped into a multitude of questions about the role of women in science, the myth of the lone genius, and the pressure scientists have to promote themselves and their work on social media.
In moments like these, strangers on the internet can end up shaping the current as they feverishly share and retweet and upvote, eager for the chance to revere a person or expose them. The reality of the person at the center—the Katie Bouman that exists outside these few pictures—can get lost. And when the rush subsides, it leaves behind a tangled web of truths, falsehoods, and exaggerations. Reality is split into two. In one, Bouman is a hero; in the other, she’s a villain.
This onslaught started with a tweet from MIT’s computer-science-and-artificial-intelligence lab, intended to promote, as these institutions love to do, one of their own. Bouman, the post said, “led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole.” (Bouman did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Tens of thousands of users amplified the message. The excitement fed into a hunger to celebrate women in science, heightened by a national movement to listen, finally, to women long unheard. At a press conference in Washington, D.C., where the image was unveiled by Event Horizon Telescope team members, only one of the four scientists was a woman; black-hole enthusiasts were ready to hear from more.
Bouman’s new fans wanted to rescue the young computer scientist from the pantheon of unsung women in science—such as Rosalind Franklin or Vera Rubin or Henrietta Leavitt, to name just a few—whose contributions went unrecognized in their moment and were honored only many years later, sometimes long after their male colleagues had received awards for the same work. In another viral tweet, the MIT account juxtaposed a picture of Bouman with stacks of the hard drives bearing the data that spotted the black hole with one of Margaret Hamilton, the MIT computer scientist who helped write the software for the Apollo program.