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As the world fights coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) without a vaccine, anti-vaccine social media groups are sharing homeopathic remedies, conspiracy theories and memes about “forced vaccination.”
Pediatricians who have endured physical and online attacks from anti-vaccine groups hope the pandemic will turn public sentiment against these groups and spur social media sites to clamp down on false information and threats.
“Given what we’re experiencing right now, the public will be a lot less tolerant of people who aren’t willing to vaccinate and continue to put others at risk. This is just sort of the problem we had with the measles outbreak,” said Eve Meltzer-Krief, M.D., FAAP, who practices adjacent to the epicenter of the 2019 measles outbreak on Long Island.
Dr. Meltzer-Krief is among pediatricians around the country who have withstood online bullying, negative reviews and physical attacks after using social media to promote vaccines. Still, they refuse to back down, and some have banded together to fight back.
#DoctorsSpeakUp for kids
Just before COVID-19 reached New York, about 25 members of New York Chapter 2 gathered for a state advocacy day in March. Among them were Dr. Meltzer-Krief and chapter President Shetal I. Shah, M.D., FAAP.
Pediatricians and residents had tweeted about the event using #DoctorsSpeakUp, a hashtag inspired by Nicole R. Baldwin, M.D., FAAP, an Ohio pediatrician who had been attacked online after posting a video about the importance of vaccines.
Like Dr. Baldwin, Dr. Meltzer-Krief has been bullied online. She also has been followed, harassed and attacked in person for supporting a ban on religious exemptions from vaccinations for New York schoolchildren.
As Dr. Meltzer-Krief approached her legislator’s office, an angry mob emerged.
“You’re going to hell!”
“You don’t care about children’s disabilities!”
With social media, the attacks come harder, faster and in larger numbers. People from around the world write false Yelp and Google reviews, snag Twitter hashtags and infest Facebook pages with negative comments.
“This isn’t trying to sway the middle-of-the-road families. They’re trying to bully and intimidate us so that we don’t speak out, so therefore they’re the only ones talking,” said California state Sen. Richard J. Pan, M.D., FAAP, who has been a target of death threats and physical attacks.
Last fall, Dr. Meltzer-Krief looked out her practice window and saw about 20 women with protest signs. They hassled patients who arrived for appointments and littered cars with anti-vaccine literature.
Like many pediatricians, she has discovered that unplugging from the internet isn’t the solution.
Fighting back with data
Kids Plus Pediatrics in Pittsburgh was attacked in 2017 after posting a 90-second video it created on the HPV vaccine. In response, Todd H. Wolynn, M.D., M.M.M., FAAP, and Chad Hermann, his office communication director, turned to science and innovation.
They enlisted the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health to study data from 197 of nearly 1,000 individuals who posted anti-vaccination comments in response to their message promoting vaccination. The study was published in Vaccine (https://bit.ly/2UtNkF5).
Kids Plus developed a four-pronged strategy that included an international awareness campaign and a toolkit to prepare providers for, defend against and clean up after an attack. In 2019, they launched Shots Heard Round the World, a pro-vaccine social media rescue network that became a nonprofit in March.
Dr. Baldwin was part of the network’s digital cavalry long before she experienced online, phone and in-person attacks and death threats firsthand. The attacks came after she posted a 15-second video promoting the importance of vaccines on TikTok, a social media platform popular among preadolescents and teens.
“I’m not upset that it happened,” she said. “We need to get the message out there.”
Dr. Baldwin said the most cumbersome part has been removing false reviews from ratings sites because each site has a different process.
Dr. Pan is angry that pediatricians still endure such problems despite the Academy and other organizations asking social media companies repeatedly to prevent the spread of misinformation.
More than a year ago, Facebook indicated to the AAP that it was working on a solution.
“Isn’t it shameful that a multibillion-dollar company like Facebook doesn’t do anything so a bunch of volunteer pediatricians have to go and save Dr. Baldwin? Isn’t that atrocious?” Dr. Pan said.
A large portion of the vaccine misinformation on social media comes from a handful of groups, according to Dr. Pan.
Wealthy self-interested individuals provide significant funding to anti-vaccine groups, which use the money to pay for large-scale online campaigns. In turn, social media companies earn advertising profit.
Dr. Wolynn said the “anti-vaccine machine” aims to monetize, politicize and polarize. In lieu of vaccines, they promote and profit from the sale of essential oils, supplements and other products.
“Under the Sunshine Law, I have to disclose any work I do associated with vaccine manufacturers. There are no laws that force them to reveal their conflicts of interest. When they say, ‘Buy my oils’ in lieu of vaccines, they disclose nothing,” he said.
In February, newspapers reported on the death of a 4-year-old boy with influenza that might have been preventable. His mother followed advice of a large Facebook group called Stop Mandatory Vaccination. She administered homeopathic care instead of Tamiflu prescribed by her pediatrician, according to reports.
Facebook has been adding a disclaimer on pages with questionable content, including the Stop Mandatory Vaccination page, referring people to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for “reliable, up-to-date information” on vaccines.
In Facebook’s home state of California, an anti-vaccine protestor threw a cup of menstrual blood on legislators who supported an immunization law that Dr. Pan authored. Bill opponents shared memes saying bill authors had blood on their hands. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke at a rally in front of images of Dr. Pan’s face covered in blood. He compared the anti-vaccine protestors to Jews in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. Many wore T-shirts with the same image of Dr. Pan’s bloodied face.
Pediatricians who have been attacked after raising their voices for vaccines say they remain undeterred, despite attempts to damage their personal and professional reputations.
Dr. Baldwin said she took a leap of faith and gave individuals she didn’t know from Shots Heard Round the World access to her Facebook page so they could counter negative ratings and delete, ban and block.
“I had to trust,” she said. “Anyone who experiences this, you have to decide, are you going to trust someone else to be in your page and doing this? The upside to all of this is that they were able to do all this while I was working and while I was taking care of my family.”
In the process, she made virtual friends with people around the world who watch for attackers and jump in to help at a moment’s notice.
“They’re amazing human beings, she said. “They’re not all doctors. They’re just people who support vaccines and support the message and want to help combat all of the misinformation that’s out there.”