The LA Times reported recently that pro-vaccine physicians have been
“terrorized into silence” by hate-filled online harassment from anti-vaccine activists. Since they have almost no scientific evidence supporting their anti-vaccine ignorance, the anti-vaxxers must resort to hate speech to try to shout out the facts about vaccines.
For years, I have watched some of my favorite writers, like Dorit Rubinstein Reiss (who frequently posts content to this blog) and the insolent Orac (yeah, most of us know who Orac is, but it’s hysterical to read articles where the science deniers think Orac is me, Dr. Paul Offit is me, or Dr. David Gorski is me. Oh, wait, Dr. Offit is me again?
But what is not very funny is the unceasing, uncivilized, and ignorant attacks on pro-vaccine physicians. These physicians are promoting vaccines not for fame or fortune, but as a critical public health statement. They don’t deserve this.
Pro-vaccine physicians – a list of attacks
The LA Times article listed several recent attacks on pro-vaccine physicians across the USA (and I have no doubt the same thing happens in the UK, Australia, Canada, and other countries):
- Dr. Dana Corriel, a New York physician, wrote a post on Facebook in September 2018 that it was time to get the flu vaccine. Within a few hours, her post was flooded with thousands of comments from anti-vaxxers. Some wrote that she was a “big pharma vaccine whore” and a “child killer. She left the comments there in the vain hope that maybe she could educate these people about the importance of vaccines (I’m never optimistic that this strategy works, but that’s me). Individuals she had never treated were leaving 1-star reviews of her practice and some anti-vaxxer sent her an anti-vaccine book (thanks Amazon for carrying this anti-vaccine bovine feces). Finally, she began to feel threatened, and she took down the post. So, the lying and bullying anti-vaccine terrorists win a small victory.
- Chad Hermann, communications director for a Pittsburgh practice called Kids Plus Pediatrics, began tracking these anti-vaccine campaigns after the practice experienced hate speech in the past. In his case, Yelp quickly removed spam reviews from the Kids Plus listing, though Google took more than a year to do the same. Hermann had counted over 50 online attacks vaccine promoting physicians since 2017.
- As a result, Hermann and his partners provide advice to other physicians and practices on how to stand up to the anti-vaccine trolls, while still having an online presence. Their project that arose out of their experience, Shots Heard Round the World, offers advice on how to ban commenters, disable Facebook ratings, and get help from people who will post pro-vaccine, pro-science evidence. Many of my online friends and colleagues do not hesitate to fight back with science and logic, something that is lacking in the most fervent of the anti-vaxxers.
- Hermann said, “They’re coordinating attacks and sending the troops.” So, his project helps to do the same.
- Dr. Kristen Stuppy, a Kansas pediatrician, blocked anti-vaccine trolls after they attacked a pro-vaccine post she wrote in 2018. She has recently chosen not to engage with them online because she thinks that logic and evidence cannot overcome their opinions (see Note 1). “Highly charged vaccination foes can often drown out physicians in what amounts to an online shouting match, experts say.”
The LA Times concluded their article by speaking with Dr. Paul Offit, one of the leading pro-vaccine scientists:
He said he has weathered online and real-life harassment for decades, including the time a man called his clinic and said he knew the names of his children and the elementary school they attended.
But he said he feels hopeful that vaccine sentiment is turning in the right direction — a notion driven in part by the recent measles outbreaks showing parents how bad the actual disease is.
“Nothing educates like the virus,” Offit said. “Nothing educates like outbreaks.”
It’s too bad that the anti-vaxxers won’t listen until they see the direct harm from these diseases.
I know that many of you dislike my and others’ characterization of the anti-vaxxers as “anti-vaccine terrorists.” But terrorism isn’t just racist white males murdering innocent people in New Zealand. Or religious zealots flying planes into buildings.
Terrorism doesn’t always require weapons and bombs – psychological terrorism is no different. These vocal anti-vaxxers try to scream and yell and threaten pro-vaccine physicians in an attempt to silence the scientific facts about vaccines. The point of terrorism isn’t necessarily death, but it can also be to create fear. And if the anti-vaxxers get their way, children and adults may die from diseases that we thought were long gone. So their power to harm is just as horrific as any gun.
But many of these vaccine promoting physicians are standing up to the anti-vaxxer trolls. And many of us are fighting back by dropping evidence-based, logical, scientific responses to their comments.
But it’s not just pro-vaccine physicians who are being attacked. A disgusting, cruel, and loathsome new tactic of the anti-vaccine terrorists is to post comments to the Facebook pages of parents who have recently lost their child. No, they’re not there to pay respects or offer condolences, they are there to post hate speech.
Not long ago, a 4-year-old boy died of the flu. His mother, under doctor’s orders, watched his two little brothers like a hawk, terrified they might get sick and die, too.
Grieving and frightened, just days after her son’s death she checked her Facebook page hoping to read messages of comfort from family and friends.
Instead, she found dozens of hateful comments: You’re a terrible mother. You killed your child. You deserved what happened to your son. This is all fake – your child doesn’t exist.
Bewildered and rattled, she closed her Facebook app.
A few days later she received a text message from someone named Ron. Expect more like this, Ron warned. Expect more.
The attacks were from those who oppose vaccination, and this mother, who lives in the Midwest, doesn’t want her name used for fear the attention would only encourage more messages.
This is just beyond my ability to comprehend. I have three daughters, and I cannot even imagine losing one of them (that’s why they are all fully vaccinated), and I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for this mother. And I cannot even begin to understand why the anti-vaccine terrorists chose to attack her.
Then CNN explained why:
Interviews with mothers who’ve lost children and with those who spy on anti-vaccination groups, reveal a tactic employed by anti-vaxers: When a child dies, members of the group sometimes encourage each other to go on that parent’s Facebook page. The anti-vaxers then post messages telling the parents they’re lying and their child never existed, or that the parent murdered them, or that vaccines killed the child, or some combination of all of those.
Nothing is considered too cruel. Just days after their children died, mothers say anti-vaxers on social media called them whores, the c-word and baby killers.
The aforementioned Orac discussed this story recently and commented:
Indeed, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that the parents who try to channel the grief from their loss into something productive, such as a campaign to promote vaccination, usually suffer the worst of it. The attacks on most parents of children who died usually subside relatively quickly. Having inflicted maximum pain, the antivaxers move on. However, parents who start campaigns to promote vaccination are perpetual targets, as long as their campaigns continue. At least, that’s been my unsystematic observation thus far.
Attacking pro-vaccine physicians. Attacking grieving mothers. They do this to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt about vaccines. Because they have nothing, absolutely nothing, that supports their pseudoscientific, ignorant, and illogical claims, they need to rely upon their ugly hate speech.
I just hope that Dr. Offit is right – maybe the real fear of deadly and dangerous vaccine-preventable diseases will win the day. And maybe the facts about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines will help convince those who may be on the fence about vaccines.
- I happen to agree, so I just dismiss and insult anti-vaxxers who believe in the party line. They are immunized to logic and scientific evidence – they have an a priori belief, so there’s not a single thing we can write or say that will change their mind. However, that’s why I focus on evidence about vaccines, so if a neutral, on-the-fence, potential anti-vaccine parent decides to do real unbiased research, not the fake research of the anti-vaccine religion, they might be convinced. A lot of people, like Professor Reiss, are calm, logical, and kind to anti-vaxxers, despite their hatred towards her. I lack her skill set, unfortunately.