Social Media Amplifies Attacks Against Healthcare Providers Doing Their Jobs

A physician in Idaho decided to have a flu vaccine clinic in a barbershop in order to encourage more men to get the vaccine. He posted about it on his company’s Facebook page, and what ensued is a microcosm of the bigger cultural debate on vaccination.

From East Idaho News Online:

“People left positive comments, at first, about his attempt to reach male patients by holding a flu clinic at a barber shop, Bigford said in an interview Tuesday. But a few hours later, “it took a bad turn,” he said. “Within minutes, I was getting inundated.”

The comments came from people around the country — and locals — who oppose vaccinations. A handful left negative reviews of his business, despite not being patients.

“Calling a vaccine-injured person an ‘antivaxxer’ is like using the n-word etc. It is a slur. Employed by bigots,” one person wrote. “These are antiscience bigots. End of story.”

Overwhelmed by the experience, Bigford reached out on Twitter to Shots Heard Round the World, a new group that calls itself “a rapid-response digital cavalry dedicated to protecting the social media pages of health care providers and practices.”

Bigford is the first health care provider to reach out to Shots Heard for help in the days since they launched, said Dr. Todd Wolynn, CEO of Kids Plus Pediatrics and a founder of Shots Heard.

Wolynn said his pediatrics practice was targeted on social media, Google and Yelp by vaccine opponents in August 2017. Shots Heard was born out of what he learned from that experience, and from research and conversations in the two years since then, he said.

“Nobody is doing anything to prevent or mitigate these attacks,” he said.

The group just published a guide, the “Kids Plus Anti-Anti-Vaxx Toolkit,” that includes advice for health care providers who find themselves in Bigford’s position.

“We’re all about discussing vaccine hesitancy with people,” Wolynn said. But the social media commenters aren’t seeking a true dialogue, he said. “When you’re being attacked and it’s not in good faith … just ban them, hide them and delete them.”

Bigford followed Shots Heard’s advice and started deleting comments. He also banned an estimated 200 people from his page by Tuesday afternoon, he said.”

Mr. Bigford is not the first or last healthcare provider to be attacked on social media — or in public — by anti-vaccine groups and their members. This story emphasizes how social media influences this debate. In a matter of hours, people from all over the world are made aware of a healthcare provider doing their job in promoting vaccination, and the most outspoken ones show up to voice their opinions for and against what the provider is doing. Some use bullying tactics while others try to reason with their opponents.

So who gets caught in the middle? Well, maybe someone was willing to go get their influenza vaccine, but maybe they were discouraged to do so from reading what the anti-vaccine crowd wrote. Or maybe someone was not going to go get vaccinated and decided to do it after reading what someone who is pro-science and pro-vaccine wrote. Who knows? These kinds of things are not very quantifiable when the people in the middle are not as outspoken as those on the two sides of the argument.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

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