A complaint to the Academic Ethics Committee of Huddersfield University (and others) about a research paper by Dr John Synnott on ‘Anti-McCann Trolls’
I have sent a detailed letter, on behalf of members of CMOMM, to the Huddersfield University Ethics Committee about the flawed research project of Dr John Synnott, discussed on this thread:
I have also sent it to the following publishers of the research: Nature, and Elsevier B.V. (publishers of ‘Computers in Human Behaviour’, where the full research article was published).
The letter has also been sent to the Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the British Psychological Society and the International Academy of Investigative Professionals, to whom Dr Synnott belongs.
The research was seriously flawed, yet was written up in one of the world’s premier scientific journals, Nature, and in several newspapers including one of the world’s leading newspapers, the Washington Post. For these and other reasons, a strong protest needs to be registered and heard.
Thank you Tony for raising this issue in the first place, and many thanks to every other member who has helped to compile what is a long letter.
I won’t reproduce all of it, just the Executive Summary and the bit about ‘Our Interest’ i.e. why we’re making a big fuss about this research. I’ll just give the headings for the rest of the letter.
I’ll keep you all posted with any replies
From: Jill Havern and members of ‘The Complete Mystery of Madeleine McCann’
Monday, 20 March 2017
Dear Professor Philllps, Dr Synnott and all other recipients,
The conduct of Dr John Synnott and his co-researchers in their research project on ‘Anti-McCann Trolls’ – Multiple Breaches of Academic Standards and Ethics
I write on behalf of my forum and my members to express serious concern about the conduct of two of your researchers, Dr John Synott and Dr Maria Ioannou, and a student researcher at Portsmouth University, Andrea Coulais, in the way they carried out a research project titled: “Online trolling: The case of Madeleine McCann”.
This letter has been composed by and is sent by several members of ‘The Complete Mystery of Madeleine McCann’, the leading Madeleine McCann discussion forum on the internet, currently with over 7,100 members. Some of the contributors to this letter have substantial academic experience. The forum as a whole doubts the McCanns’ version of events, along with dozens of other Madeleine discussion forum, blogs and websites, for very good reasons. At the same time, any abuse or hate towards the McCanns is not tolerated on our site, and on the rare occasions where such abuse has crept in, members were promptly expelled. Forum members include professionals such as police officers and experts in statement analysis and other forensic disciplines such as DNA and photography.
Dr J Synnott’s research project is seriously flawed for the following reasons, which are explained in more detail below.
1 The entire project is founded on the false claim that the McCanns have been declared, or may assumed to be, ‘innocent’. That was never the case. When the Portuguese police shelved the case in July 2008 they specifically declared that no-one was being prosecuted because there was insufficient evidence of either (a) abduction or (b) hiding Madeleine’s body. More recently, in January this year, the Portuguese Supreme Court, in deciding that the McCanns had lost their long-running libel case against the original investigation co-ordinator, Dr Gonçalo Amaral, declared that the McCanns were incorrect in claiming that the police had ‘cleared’ them.
2 The researchers wrongly assumed that there were no valid reasons for doubting the McCanns’ account of how Madeleine disappeared.
3 The value of the research project was thus fatally undermined by a theme running throughout the research project, viz.: The McCann-doubters (‘anti-McCanns’) are wrong, and therefore not motivated by seeking the truth, and are bad people, while the McCann-supporters (‘pro-McCanns’) are right, have pure motives and are good people.
4 One of the researchers, Andrea Coulias, who became a member of the #McCann hashtag on Twitter for six weeks to interact with the ‘anti-McCanns’, grossly misled the entire hashtag by falsely representing that one particular research project (Lasseter) showed that cadaver and blood dogs were ’unreliable’. She had absolutely no basis for saying that.
5 Moreover, the cadaver dog evidence in the Madeleine McCann case consisted of 17 separate alerts to either corpse scent or blood in the following locations associated with the McCanns; their apartment (lounge, master bedroom, veranda and garden); their hired car; three of their clothes, and personal items. These were carried out by a top British dog handler, Martin Grime, who was recommended by the top agency for British policing, the National Crime Agency, whose cadaver dogs did have a 100% track record of success in trials, contrary to Ms Coulias’ misinformation, and who was headhunted by the FBI in the U.S. and now works for them.
6 For these and other reasons set out below, the three researchers (and those who peer-reviewed this work) have brought the University of Huddersfield and the science of forensic psychology into disrepute.
7 In addition, on several occasions, Andrea Coulias was guilty of the very conduct she was supposed to be investigating e.g. mocking, belittling and goading the anti-McCanns.
8 Andria Coulais’ conduct undermined many of the assertions she made about the anti-McCanns’ conduct, which she grossly misrepresented.
9 Several examples of clear researcher bias are noted.
10 The researchers did not use or even mention dictionary definitions of trolls, and in any event didn’t define anywhere what they meant by a ‘troll’, once again undermining the entire research project.
11 Numerous assertions were made without any substantiation for them.
12 The entire research report is littered with tendentious subjective assessments.
13 The report is so bad that it must be withdrawn as soon as practicable.
14 The University will need to contact any and all media who published details of this seriously flawed research project and seek an appropriate correction
15 A formal apology should be made via the #McCann hashtag in respect of the misinformation she introduced on that hashtag, namely falsely accusing McCann-doubters of ‘rejecting science’.
By way of background, let me explain our interest in that research project. I am the owner of an internet forum, the Complete Mystery of Madeleine McCann. I founded it in November 2009 and it has had steady growth since then. We now have over 7,100 members. I can say without fear of contradiction that it is the most popular and most-read internet forum covering the Madeleine McCann case.
Its main purpose is to search for the truth about what really happened to Madeleine McCann, by bringing together researchers who pool their information and analyses of the evidence. Our forum takes a sceptical view of the McCanns’ and the British police’s view of the case. None of my members can fairly be described, by any stretch of the precise meaning of the word, as ‘trolls’. Indeed, were I to become aware that any of my members have indulged in what might be termed ’trolling‘ behaviour, I would ban them and, on occasions, have done so. Whilst members may have robust views on certain matters and may be critical of the McCanns and their advisers and backers, it does not indulge in anything that could be described as ’hate’ or ‘abuse’. Bad language of any kind is not tolerated.
I will also add that some of my most active members are those with professional or academic qualifications who use their expertise to analyse the case in depth. They include forensics experts, photographic experts, former police officers and solicitors.
We are also part of an international effort to seek the truth about Madeleine McCann, which is concentrated in Britain and Portugal but extends to forums and internet sites in many other countries, including the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands.
Another of our concerns is what has amounted to a form of hysteria generated on occasions by constant references to ‘anti-McCann trolls’. This reached its zenith in August and September 2014, just before your researchers carried out their work in 2015. References were made at the time to a ‘dossier’ of nasty tweets and internet messages by ‘anti-McCann trolls’. The media referred to the dossier as having been compiled by a ‘McCann supporter’. The dossier was handed to the Metropolitan Police, who made public pronouncements on the dossier (I should add that, later, the police publicly acknowledged that the dossier did not contain any messages that could be drafted as constituting a criminal offence).
The media at the time (August 2014) quoted Madeleine’s father, Gerry McCann - who had been active in the ‘Hacked Off’ campaign which aimed to suppress freedom of the press - as saying that such internet trolls must be severely punished. He publicly called for prosecutions of trolls who ‘should be made an example of’.
What followed shortly after his remarks, and the news about the above ‘dossier’, was the door-stepping - by SKY News Crime Correspondent, Martin Brunt - of a 60-year-old Leicestershire divorcee, Brenda Leyland, who had been active on the #McCann hashtag on Twitter, the very area of the internet chosen by your researchers to examine, just months later. This door-stepping took place on Tuesday 30 September.
It would be right to say that some of Brenda Leyland’s tweets were abusive about the McCanns, and a few contained bad language. However, so far as I am aware, she did not contact the McCanns via Twitter or otherwise, nor make any threats against them. She was also very knowledgeable about the details of the case. She was on the #McCann hashtag exchanging views robustly with those like her who did not believe the McCanns’ account of events, and with many others who were fervent supporters of the McCanns and would brook no criticism of them. There was a degree of abuse and bad language on both sides and it would be difficult to say that either ‘side’ was worse than the other. McCann-doubters who engage on Twitter are a tiny minority of the thousands on the internet who post doubts about the McCanns’ account of events and are not representative of them
On that day (30 September 2014), Brunt having door-stepped Brenda Leyland and later interviewed her in her own home, she confided in him that she felt suicidal at being exposed as a ‘troll’. Despite this, and knowing that Brenda Leyland was a vulnerable divorcee living alone, Martin Brunt and the editors of SKY News transmitted the doorstepping episode of her every 15 minutes throughout the following day. She fled from her home the day after, staying at the Marriott Hotel, Enderby, Leicestershire, just next to Leicestershire Constabulary headquarters where, on Saturday 4 October - just two days later - she was found dead, having - according to the subsequent Inquest - killed herself with an overdose of helium gas.
So we have already had one death as a result of a hysteria about ’anti-McCann trolls’. Your research project has been featured in the scientific journal Nature and published in many newspapers in Britain and in the U.S. We do not want one more ‘Brenda Leyland’. That is one of the reasons why we on our forum require you to carry out an immediate and rigorous examination of the conduct and contents of this research. .
My other concern is that the publicity generated by your research project feeds the myth that anyone who doubts the abduction narrative promoted by the McCanns, the British police and the media, must be some kind of nasty, abusive troll. Please look at my forum and you will discover a huge volume of high quality information, research and analysis that would force any neutral individual to consider the possibility that Madeleine McCann died in her parents’ holiday apartment and that her body was hidden.
Many professionals believe that Madeleine McCann died in her holiday apartment.
I would first of all draw your attention to a lengthy article by one of the most eminent forensic psychologists in Germany, Dr Christian Ludke. In a forensic science journal, he suggested there were ‘numerous indications’ that the McCanns were guilty of covering up the death of Madeleine. Likewise, Daniela Prousa, German psychiatrist and author, wrote: Analyse des Vermisstenfalles Madeleine McCann (An analysis of the case of missing Madeleine McCann). Using what she described as ‘Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis’, she also concluded from her analysis that Madeleine McCann died in her parents’ apartment.
Another Forensic Psychologist who states that Madeleine died in her parents’ holiday apartment is Dr Paulo Sargento, a University Professor, Forensic Psychologist and author in Portugal. He has published numerous articles suggesting that the McCanns are not telling the truth about what happened to Madeleine.
You will also be aware that the original co-ordinator of the Portuguese criminal investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance, Dr Gonçalo Amaral, wrote a book, ‘The Truth about a Lie’, setting out in detail the conclusions of himself and his colleagues that Madeleine died in her holiday apartment.
A noted Criminal Profiler in the U.S., Pat Brown, has published a book in the U.S. setting out the same conclusion. Another U.S. book, ‘Faked Abduction’, by Brian Johnson, sets out in 400 pages why the evidence points to Madeleine McCann having died in the McCanns’ apartment.
Many other prominent figures have also suggested that the McCanns have not told the truth about what happened to Madeleine. Here are a few examples:
John Redwood MP: “The McCanns’ theory that the girl was abducted needs evidence to support it…”
John Stalker, well-known, retired, police detective: “The McCanns are hiding a big secret”.
Wendy Murphy, former U.S. prosecutor and child protection expert: “I’m not buying it. You hire the nation’s biggest defence attorneys, PR firms, yet refuse to answer police questions?”
Christopher Friend, well-known U.S. commentator and writer: “The McCanns need to come clean now”. [ http://freindlyfirezone.com/home/item/19-mccanns-needs-to-come-clean-now ] .
Key criticisms of Dr Synnott’s research
C1 The genesis of the article and the peer review process
C2 Was Madeleine McCann abducted? – the central assumption that undermines the entirely validity of this research project
C3 The researchers’ basis for saying that Madeleine was abducted
C4 Our response to the researchers’ basis for saying that Madeleine was abducted
C5 The Lasseter Report
C6 Challenges to the research paper’s claims about the unreliability of cadaver dogs
C6a. Evidence of the reliability of cadaver dogs:
C6b. Academic links and general references:
C6c. “Incredibly Unreliable”
C6d. Author’s observations (PeterMac’)
C7 What was Lasseter’s study all about, and how should it be interpreted?
C8 What definition of the word ‘troll’ was used by the researchers?
C9 Is ‘trolling’ illegal?
C10 The ‘anti-McCann trolls’ reactions to the researcher
C12 ‘Doing harm’ – Breach of the researchers’ Code of Ethics
C13 Sampling of tweets to be studied
C14 ‘Disassociation from group’: Part 188.8.131.52. & Social Indicators: Part 3.6
C15 The definition of ‘good parenting’
C16 ‘Unfounded allegations that the McCanns themselves formed part of a paedophile ring’
C17 The researchers’ interpretations
C18 ‘Unsubtantiated’ news reports implicating the McCanns in Madeleine’s disappearance
C19 Were the McCanns too controlled in their response to Madeleine’s disappearance?
C20 Uncanny echoes about ‘trolls causing damage’ of Gerry McCann’s attacks on internet trolls in 2014
C21 Pro-McCann Trolls – why were they not investigated?
C22 How the University of Huddersfield research paper has been reported in the media
C22a The Nature article, 15 February 2017
C22b. The article in Phys.org, 15 February 2017
C22c. The article on the Science Direct website
C22d Newspaper and internet reports of the research: Appendices 4 to 9
C23. Was there an agenda?
Attached: Appendices 1 to 11
Appendix 1: The article in Nature:
Appendix 2: The article in Phys.org
Appendix 3: The article in Science Direct
Appendix 4: The article at
Appendix 5: Washington Post, 2 Mar 2017
Appendix 6: Daily Mirror, 3 March, 2017
Appendix 7: Sun, 4 March 2017
Appendix 8: University of Huddersfield
Appendix 9: Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 6 March, 2017
Appendix 10: The full article in Computers in Human Behaviour
Appendix 11: Tweets on a Forum of Pro-McCanns, August 2014