Antivaxers can be a nasty bunch. I (and others) have documented this time and time and time again, whether it be their violent rhetoric, their doxing and harassment of a 14-year-old boy for the “crime” of publishing pro-vaccine videos on Facebook, their encouraging attacks on pro-vaccine journalists, or their attacks on anyone who attempts to refute their misinformation. For example, I myself have had antivaxers launch campaigns on more than one occasion to get me fired from my university job, one of which prompted my medical school dean to call me and ask me if I felt unsafe, and have been the target of more than 40 articles defaming me published by a certain website in a matter of a few months. That’s not counting the number of other articles written attacking me that now clog up Google searches on my name. Although it hasn’t been so bad for me lately, besides—thus far—only very rarely having had death threats directed at me (I suspect that antivaxers have finally figured out that I view their attacks as a badge of honor and that they don’t have any real leverage on me any more now that pretty much everyone knows who I am), it’s definitely gotten worse for others. The harassment is epic and sometimes very cruel, as two recent news stories demonstrate.
Worse, the victims of online harassment by antivaxers often feel alone; so I’ll end this post with a note of hope that soon it will be possible for the victim of such harassment to light “signal fires of Gondor” to summon online Rohirrim to help break the siege of Minas Tirith by Sauron’s forces. (You’ll see why, besides having been a fan of The Lord of the Rings since I was 13 years old, I chose that analogy in the last section of this post.) Let’s just say that antivaccine shots have been heard.
The cruelty of the antivaccine horde
Although I’ve heard about occurrences like this, oddly enough I’ve never really written about them for SBM before, as far as I can recall. The closest was, perhaps, when I described the doxing and harassment of Marco Arturo, a 12-year-old boy who made a video making fun of antivaxers. It gets much more cruel than that, though, as I was reminded last week by a CNN story yesterday about a sort of harassment that should never happen:
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.
Your first thought might be: How on earth could anyone be so cruel? This mother had just suffered the most devastating loss a parent can suffer, the loss of her child. Intentionally swooping in to launch a campaign of harassment against her in her moment of greatest emotional pain was cruel enough. However, there are a lot of cruel people online, including trolls who think it’s funny to do things like this. This was not just some random bunch of trolls, though. As mentioned above, this mother’s tormenters were antivaxers, and this tactic was quite deliberate. These monsters actually look for news stories about children who have died. When they learn of one, they do this:
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 mother in the Midwest, who wants to remain anonymous, isn’t alone. Jill Promoli, who lives outside Toronto, lost her son to flu. She believes the anti-vaxers are trying to silence the very people who can make the strongest argument for vaccinations: those whose children died of vaccine-preventable illnesses.
This is exactly the point. These attacks are intentional and, if not organized, at least promoted and loosely organized by antivaxers, who encourage each other to attack parents in their moment of grief. Jill Promoli knows. She has suffered the same loss. She went one step further, though, after her loss. She started a campaign named after her deceased son, For Jude For Everyone, that promotes awareness of flu prevention and encourages, among other things, vaccination.
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 and guaranteed that the parents would never speak out again, 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.
The description in the CNN report of what Promoli and her family endured is heartbreaking. In May 2016 she put her two-year-old son Jude and his twin brother Thomas to bed. Jude had a low grade fever at the time but was laughing and behaving normally before his nap. When she went to check on him two hours later, he was dead.
Now, imagine for a moment the horror. Two hours ago, your son was laughing and singing when you put him in his crib. Sure, he had a low grade fever, but toddlers get those all the time and there was nothing to indicate that it was anything serious. When you go to wake him up, he won’t wake up, and you soon realize that he’s dead. Can you picture yourself in that situation? I can’t. I’ve tried, and I can’t. However horrible I imagine the experience, I’m quite sure that it’s a thousand time worse.
It gets worse. Ultimately, the autopsy showed that Jude had died of the flu. So Promoli channeled her grief into a campaign to raise awareness of how serious the flu is and to promote ways of preventing it, including vaccination. That’s when this happened:
Some anti-vaxers told her she’d murdered Jude and made up a story about the flu to cover up her crime. Others said vaccines had killed her son. Some called her the c-word. The worst ones — the ones that would sometimes make her cry — were the posts that said she was advocating for flu shots so that other children would die from the shots and their parents would be miserable like she was. “The first time it made me feel really sick because I couldn’t fathom how anybody could even come up with such a terrible claim,” Promoli said. “It caught me off guard in its cruelty. What kind of a person does this?”
What kind of person, indeed? And what kind of person does this same sort of thing to another parent, Serese Marotta, who lost her 5-year-old son to the flu in 2009? Marotta is now chief operating officer of Families Fighting Flu, a group that encourages flu awareness and prevention, including vaccination. In 2017, she posted a video on the eight anniversary of her son’s death. Her intent was to emphasize the importance of getting the flu vaccine.
The reaction by antivaxers was all too familiar:
“SLUT,” one person commented. “PHARMA WHORE.” “May you rot in hell for all the damages you do!” a Facebook user wrote on another one of her posts. She says a Facebook user in Australia sent her a death threat. “She called me a lot of names I won’t repeat and used the go-to conspiracy theories about government and big pharma, and I responded, ‘I lost a child,’ and questioned where she was coming from, and she continued to attack me,” said Marotta, who lives in Syracuse, New York.
My only annoyance with CNN is that, although it included a screenshot of what I presume to be the Australian woman mentioned above, it blurred out the name of the woman heaping the abuse on Marotta. From my perspective, such people need to be named and shamed if possible—always, always, always.
Of course, CNN interviewed some antivaxers, and the results are, not surprisingly, a mixture of disingenuous denials, notpologies, and claims that they “don’t condone” such behavior. For instance, CNN checked in with a particularly odious antivaxer, Larry Cook, who founded Stop Mandatory Vaccination and runs its Facebook page (to which I will not link). His excuse? It’s just too much effort to shut down the conversation when members start plotting to attack mothers of dead children:
In an email to CNN, he wrote that members of his group make more than half a million comments on the group’s Facebook page each month. “Any discussions about parents who lose their children after those children are vaccinated would be minor in number, and even smaller would be the number of members reaching out to parents in private message to share their concerns that vaccines may have played a role in a death,” Cook wrote. “I do not condone violent behavior or tone and encourage decorum during discussion,” Cook wrote, adding that anyone “who deliberately engage[s] in the politics of advocating for compulsory vaccination where children may be further damaged through government vaccine mandates can expect push back and resistance, alongside knowledgable discussions about vaccine risk in social media commentary.”
Ah, yes. “I don’t condone such behavior, but I can ‘understand’ how it would happen.” That’s the lamest, most disingenuous dodge ever, but, then, Cook is an antivaxer. Also note how he only says he “doesn’t condone violent behavior or tone,” a signal that he probably doesn’t have a problem with antivaxers “reaching out” to harass the parents of children who died. Not surprisingly, he also launched into some prime whataboutism, pointing out that members of his group have been “targets of harassment campaigns.” You want to know the difference? Those of us who support science and children’s health won’t waffle about such behavior. We unequivocally condemn such behavior when we are made aware of it, which I do right now. We don’t respond with disingenuous “condemnations” that aren’t really, the way Cook does.
Of course, another antivax leader pulled out the defense beloved of conspiracy theorists everywhere, the “false flag operation” defense. I couldn’t tell for sure from the way the article was written whether it was Del Bigtree making this defense, but it looked as though it was and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was. Yes, according to this line of antivaccine “thought” there are pro-vaccine advocates out there starting harassment campaigns against antivaxers just to make them look bad. Alex Jones and Mike Adams would be proud!
Then Del Bigtree destroyed another one of my irony meters, blowing it to smithereens and leaving nothing but pools of molten metal and insulation pathetically bubbling in the wreckage:
“I tell everybody that you should look at the person you’re talking to and those on the other side of this discussion and recognize that they care about children, too,” said Del Bigtree, chief executive officer of the Informed Consent Action Network.
That must be why Bigtree portrays those who support vaccines and vaccine mandates apocalyptic terms in which he talks about how he and his comrades need to die for liberty if necessary fighting us evil pro-vaxers. Let me remind you what he once said:
If we do not fight now, then there will be nothing left to fight for. And I think that is where everyone in this room, I pray you realize how important you are in this historic moment. We will never be stronger than we are right now. We will never be healthier than we are right now. Our children are looking like this, a generation of children, as we’ve said on The Doctors television show this is the first generation of children that will not live to be as old as their parents. Are we going to stand…are we going to sit down and take it? Or are we going to stand up and say: This is a historic moment, that my forefathers, those from Jefferson all the way to Martin Luther King, the moments where people stood up and something inside of them said I’m going to stand for freedom and I’m going to stand for it now. That is in our DNA. It is pumping through me, and I pray that you feel it pumping through you, because we must look back. Our grandchildren will look back and thank us for having stood up one more time and been the generation that said, “We the People of the United States of America stood for freedom, stand for freedom. We will die for freedom today.
That sure doesn’t sound like something someone who thinks that those “on the other side of this discussion” actually “care about children too” would say, does it? That’s not even counting other times when he’s likened SB 277, the California law that eliminated personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates, to fascism, asking “What were the Jewish people thinking when the Nazis took over?” Yes, calling those supporting laws designed to increase vaccine uptake Nazis is a great way of showing that you appreciate that those “on the other side of this discussion” actually “care about children too.”
That’s not all. Besides likening those promoting vaccination to Nazis during the Holocaust, Bigtree has also likened them to slave owners and slavery advocates before the Civil War (even explicitly saying that parents and children are being “enslaved”), and to whites in South Africa during apartheid, with he and his brave band of antivaccine activists being the Jews, the slaves, and the blacks, respectively, in those historical events. Unfortunately, when you compare those who disagree with you to Nazis, slave owners, and whites enforcing apartheid and those people happen to be pro-vaccine advocates looking for strategies to increase vaccine uptake, it’s hard not to conclude that you don’t really believe that those “on the other side of this discussion” actually “care about children too,” all your high-sounding protestations otherwise notwithstanding.
Nor is this harassment of grieving mothers an accident. As Erin Costello, a former bartender and current stay-at-home mom in Utica, NY (and the “Ron” who texted the grieving mother at the beginning of the story to warn her to expect more antivax attacks) discovered by lurking in antivaccine Facebook pages, this sort of harassment is encouraged and often coordinated.
Doctors and academics are harassed, too
The other part of the article mentions others who have been harassed, whose names will be familiar to anyone who’s been a regular reader of this blog: Dorit Reiss, a professor at UC Hastings School of Law; Paul Offit, who needs no introduction; Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine who wrote a book about his daughter called Vaccines did not Cause Rachel’s Autism; and, of course Sen. Richard Pan, the pediatrician-turned state senator in California who was one of the two architects of SB 277. I note that in November, I met both Drs. Hotez and Pan at a meeting where we were all on a panel about vaccine hesitancy and antivaxers. The organizers and hotel management were on high alert, expecting antivaxers to make trouble. Fortunately, only a couple showed up, and neither gained admission to the meeting.
Going beyond the CNN article, I noted this:
I wrote a #vaccine promoting op-ed on Sunday and #antivax #harrassment began immediately. I now have a safety plan and can’t park my car in the same place. #VaccinesWork https://t.co/JKpfypUexQ— Dr. Alyssa Burgart (@BurgartBioethix) March 19, 2019
Yes, this happens all too frequently.
Dr. Dana Corriel wrote on Facebook in September that the flu vaccine had arrived and encouraged patients to come to her office for a shot. Within hours, the post was flooded with thousands of comments from people opposed to vaccines. Corriel initially decided to allow the postings to continue, hoping to use the moment to educate people about the importance of immunizations.
But then she began to feel threatened. People she had never treated gave her one-star ratings online. Commenters called her a “pharma vaccine whore” and a “child killer,” according to screenshots shared with The Times. Someone looked up her office address in New York City and mailed her an anti-vaccine book. “That was a little too close to home,” said Corriel, an internal medicine physician. “I held out for a few days, but I couldn’t take the attention and all the craziness and I deleted the post.”
That is, unfortunately, the point. It’s why antivaxers do what they do. It’s also why they do things like post fake reviews to online doctor rating websites. Still, there might be a reason for hope.
A mere couple of days after I saw the story about antivaccine trolls harassing mothers and any professional who advocates for vaccines, I saw a story that gave me a bit of hope. It’s a story of two doctors who used their experience of being swarmed by antivaccine trolls in a productive manner, as reported in The Washington Post:
Just before school started in the summer of 2017, Kids Plus Pediatrics of Pittsburgh posted a video on its Facebook page urging parents to vaccinate their children against human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause a variety of cancers. Three weeks later, communications director Chad Hermann noticed “something new happening” online. First, someone posted the claim that “the vaccine kills.” Within minutes, more anti-vaccine comments came pouring in. The next day, someone inside a closed Facebook group started sending private messages with “screen shots so we could see them coordinating the attacks,” Hermann recalled. Hermann would later discover that a woman in Australia was particularly active, directing people to give the practice negative reviews on various social media platforms. “She would say, ‘Let’s move on to Yelp reviews,’ then change tactics and say, ‘Let’s go after the Facebook reviews,’ ” Hermann recalled.
Of course, on the surface, this is nothing new. Antivaxers have been using email, closed discussion forums, and even comments in blog posts to coordinate attacks on whoever opposes them. I’ve been on the receiving end more than once, the most memorable example being in 2010 when, egged on by Jake Crosby, the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism was the nexus of a campaign to try to get me fired from my job. My university’s board of governors was inundated with emails and phone calls from antivaxers accusing me of an undisclosed conflict of interest. It got to the point where the dean of my medical school called me and asked me if I felt threatened. Hell yes, I felt threatened, but not physically. Maybe I should have felt physically threatened.
Back then Facebook was nowhere near as ubiquitous and powerful as it is now, and cranks had not yet figured out how powerful a tool it is to serve their purposes. Closed and secret discussion forums are the perfect tool to link antivaxers from all over the world for purposes of discussion, organizing, and coordinating, and discuss, organize, and coordinate they do. Here’s what Hermann and his crew found:
Instead of enduring the abuse, Kids Plus fought back, tracking comments and turning its Facebook page data to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. What they found, in a study released Thursday in the journal Vaccine, is that most commenters weren’t from Pittsburgh at all but were from across the United States and around the world. Only five were from Pennsylvania. Within eight days, the page was flooded with 10,000 negative comments from about 800 commenters. Some messages were threatening, such as “You’ll burn in hell for killing babies.” Others were conspiratorial, such as “You have been brainwashed,” the doctors said.
Having seen this part of the story, I was intrigued. So, as is my wont, I wondered over to Vaccine to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, by reading the study itself.
Understanding your opponent
Let’s take a look at the study. Chad Hermann and Todd Wolynn, chief executive officer of Kids Plus Pediatrics, teamed up with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh to analyze the Facebook profiles and postings of the various people who left derogatory antivaccine comments on the Kids Plus Pediatrics video. The dataset consisted of 197 individuals who posted anti-vaccination comments in response to the Kids Plus message promoting vaccination against HPV. Authors systematically analyzed publicly-available content using quantitative coding, descriptive analysis, social network analysis, and an in-depth qualitative assessment. Because the comments weren’t just restricted to HPV vaccines, the authors decided to examine all antivaccine comments, rather than restrict themselves to anti-Gardasil comments.
Their codebook looked at various variables: e.g., activism (as in complaints about SB 277, the California law that eliminated personal belief exemptions), media, censorship, and “cover up”; vaccination as genocide; vaccines as a cause of autism; fetal “tissue” in vaccines; and several others that are familiar to regular readers here. A descriptive analysis of all sociodemographic and anti-vaccination variables was carried out using this codebook. Also:
Second, we conducted social network analysis to determine if people discussing different anti-vaccination topics led to certain sub-groups organically clustering together. While traditional social networks tend to only assess relationships between people, we used a 2-mode network (also called an “affiliation network”) to describe relationships between not only people but also non-person artefacts (e.g. anti-vaccination topics) . In other words, we studied the connections between people as mediated by discussion topics. We then used modularity to identify potential clusters that could demonstrate how discussion topics were inter-connected . Clusters were compared to the five topics of vaccine denial (threat of disease, trust, alternatives, effectiveness, and safety) proposed by the World Health Organization (WHO) regional office for Europe . Visualizations and network descriptive metrics were generated using the Gephi software package .
The authors’ findings were interesting, although, truth be told, they were not particularly novel. For instance, the majority of individuals (89%) identified as female and/or as parents (78%). This is very similar to a study from a little over a year ago that I discussed when it came out that also found that the vast majority of antivaxers on Facebook are women. One difference between the current study and the study from 2018 is that the older study, instead of examining individuals, examined six of the largest antivaccine Facebook groups and asked two questions: 1) What are the networked properties of anti-vaccination communities on Facebook, including their size, shape, and connectedness? and 2) What types of anti-vaccination discourses are present within these communities?
In any event, the authors of the current study made a rather unsurprising observation as well:
The majority of individuals for whom political affiliation could be determined (28%, n = 55) identified as supporters of Donald Trump (56%, n = 31), a conservative and the 2016 Republican nominee for President. This was followed by supporters of Bernie Sanders (11%, n = 6), a contender in the 2016 Democratic primary and a self-described democratic socialist.
Given that Donald Trump has a long, sordid history of spewing antivaccine conspiracy theories dating back at least to 2007, this is not too surprising. Also, although the prevalence of antivaccine beliefs is roughly the same on the left and the right, of late the Republican Party of late has become the favored home of antivaxers, which is why this finding did not surprise me in the least. At its core, antivaccine beliefs are based on conspiracy theories; so it’s not particularly unexpected that Donald Trump supporters would be overrepresented in antivaxers active on Facebook and social media.
Of more interest to me was the network analysis:
A 2-mode network was constructed with 133 nodes, representing 115 people and 18 topics (Fig. 1). There were 1068 edges, or connections, between people and topics. The network had a density of 0.122 and average degree of 8.03. Modularity analysis found 4 distinct sub-groups. Based on the overarching themes represented in these sub-groups and the topics of vaccine denial provided by the WHO , we named these sub-groups (1) trust, (2) alternatives, (3) safety, and (4) conspiracy.
Of course, none of this is unexpected either. Anyone who’s very familiar with the antivaccine movement could have predicted at least some of these, as one could fairly easily predict this:
We also assessed betweenness , a measure that identifies all of the shortest paths found between any 2 nodes in the network. In this network, “vaccination policy is a violation of civil liberties” had the highest betweenness centrality (b = 0.135); it was the topic most discussed by people who discussed only one topic.
Indeed, this is likely the reason why the antivaccine movement has become so cozy with right wing groups and activists. Antivaxers routinely portray their opposition to vaccine mandates as a manifestation of their belief in freedom and parental rights and opposition to government mandates.
Amusingly, to me, the authors appear to have rediscovered the principle of crank magnetism, as well:
In addition to the similarities surrounding anti-vaccination sentiment, qualitative analysis revealed other commonalities in public posts by these individuals. For example, many individuals consistently posted content related to “naturalness,” including attitudes against genetically modified food (anti-GMO), circumcision, and water fluoridation. Some of these individuals also expressed vegan activism. Other individuals expressed views against water fluoridation and GMO in a way that focused on liberty and potential government interference. Many of these individuals posted about government conspiracy related to “chemtrails,” which is a theory that long-lasting condensation trails left by high-flying aircrafts contain chemical/biological agents. They also tended to express anti-abortion and pro-gun sentiments.
Recall that Mark Hoofnagle and I were blogging about crank magnetism over a decade ago, although I did it mainly on my not-so-secret other blog. I do, however, have to give credit where credit is due. It was Mark who coined the term “crank magnetism” almost 12 years ago. Basically, crank magnetism is the tendency of cranks to subscribe to more than one form of crank beliefs. It is rare for a person to believe in just one form of pseudoscience, conspiracy theory, or quackery. Usually they believe in more than one, and frequently in many. Watching antivaxers, I’ve seen that they often believe in alternative medicine and even more frequently in anti-GMO pseudoscience. Those, however, are only the most frequent other ludicrous beliefs to which they subscribe other than antivaccine views. Often they subscribe to many more, including the ones listed above. Still, it’s useful to have a degree of empirical support that the phenomenon of crank magnetism is real. As I’ve been saying about the antivaccine movement for years, it truly isn’t just about autism. It is, however, always about the vaccines, whatever other pseudoscience and conspiracy theories antivaxers layer on top of their antivax views.
The authors also note:
Qualitative analysis found that posts related to safety concerns often distorted reputable epidemiological data, consistent with known characteristics of science denialism . For example, many posts included data showing parallels between rates of vaccination and cancer mortality rates to support the claim that vaccines cause cancer. However, the scientifically-established consensus is that immunization against vaccine-preventable diseases, which led to a 29-year increase in life-expectancy, shifted leading causes of death from infectious causes to chronic diseases such as cancer . Therefore, dialogue from health professionals about vaccination may need to be updated to reflect the ways in which those against vaccination use science denialism.
Actually, health professionals need to continually update their dialogue based on what the antivaccine conspiracy theories du jour are if they expect to be effective in this sphere. Also, even though the findings of this study aren’t particularly novel, it is useful to have objective evidence supporting what we’ve thought we’ve known based on our experiences.
Disappointment mingles with hope
Although overall, this study is a fairly solid addition to the literature on how antivaxers use social media, there was something missing from it that disappointed me. I probably wouldn’t have been so disappointed had it not been for my memory of a Twitter exchange that I had three weeks ago with Drs. Hermann and Wolynn, which started thusly:
Anti-vaxx harassment isn’t new, but this tactic — real-time coordination of a global attack from a virtual war room inside a closed Facebook group — is. It first appeared about 18 months ago, and has continued apace on providers, practices, hospitals, and whole health systems.
— Chad Hermann (@ChadTRM) March 3, 2019
And, in response to a criticism that this was nothing new:
A letter-writing campaign is nothing like what’s happening now. We’re talking real-time, minute-by-minute, war-room-style attacks, moving from Facebook page to Yelp reviews to Google reviews to DOS attacks, in response to whatever defense the provider or practice mounts.
— Chad Hermann (@ChadTRM) March 3, 2019
Absolutely. The outlines, and elements, were all there. And sadly time-tested. But again: these attacks are occurring faster, and more nimbly, than ever before. They’re now unleashed in breadth, and speed, and volume unseen until the past year and a half.
— Chad Hermann (@ChadTRM) March 3, 2019
And finally, from Todd Wolynn:
Yep. And the international access and coordination make the attacks Global 24/7 with the ability in real-time to redirect effort(s).
Weaponized Social Media provides:
– access to 100,000’s+ allies
– amplification by foreign entities
– multi-platform avenues
… and more
— Dr. Todd Wolynn (@DrToddWo) March 4, 2019
So why was I disappointed? I was hoping that there would be evidence in this paper to back up these claims that what we’re seeing is not just qualitatively, but quantitatively different from what antivaxers have been doing online at least a decade to coordinate their attacks on science advocates. Maybe it’ll be in another article. Or maybe Hermann and Wolynn don’t want to let antivaxers know what they know.
Still, I haven’t been convinced that this is some sort of new technique that only emerged 18 months ago. Although I don’t personally do this myself (there just aren’t enough hours in the day), I am in contact with a fair number of people who lurk in these closed antivaccine Facebook groups—and who have been doing so for a long time. I don’t mean to be too hard on Drs. Hermann and Wolynn, as they’re new to a fight that I’ve been involved with for nearly 20 years and intensely for 14 of those years. This is all relatively new to them. I’ve seen this phenomenon before, where newbies rediscover things those of us in the trenches have known for years, and, damn, does it make me feel old and cynical—but not cynical enough not to enthusiastically welcome Hermann and Wolynn and anyone else who wants to join in the effort to counter the spread of misinformation about vaccines online.
My doubts aside about their characterization of the novel methods of online harassment by antivaxers, I definitely do like what Hermann and Wolynn are working on to help anyone who is targeted by the antivaccine horde, because it is definitely needed, particularly for those who haven’t been targeted before. I, for instance, have been targeted so many times that antivaxers rarely bother any more because, I suspect, they’ve learned that their attacks no longer faze me and that I consider them a badge of honor. Others, however, are not so battle-hardened:
“The idea that we can have counter-speech when [Facebook] groups become brigade mobs is ludicrous,” said Renee DiResta, an expert in online misinformation and co-founder of Vaccinate California. “It makes just participating as an everyday citizen a high-stakes ordeal.” “We are at the point where doctors are creating their own anti-vaxx social media attack response teams to help other doctors,” DiResta added. One such rapid response team is being organized by Dr Todd Wolynn and Chad Hermann, the CEO and communications director of Kids Plus Pediatrics (KPP) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “If you’re being attacked, we’ll light the signal fires of Gondor, and you’ll have pro-science, pro-vaccine cavalry come to your aid,” Hermann said of the nascent project, called “Shots Heard Round the World”.
I couldn’t help but note the mixing of metaphors (the American Revolution and The Lord of the Rings) with amusement, but nevertheless I immediately volunteered. Those of you among my readers who routinely combat antivaccine misinformation should join too. Don’t be concerned that the website is just a placeholder right now. I’ve learned from the authors that it will go live soon:
More info on ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ coming next week!
— Dr. Todd Wolynn (@DrToddWo) March 24, 2019
“Shots Heard Round the World” is something that should have been organized a long time ago, and I kick myself for not having done it. (I guess I’m a bit too much of a lone wolf.) Whether or not what antivaxers are doing on Facebook is qualitatively different than what they did 18 months ago is more or less a quibble compared to this. What they’re doing to silence science advocates is intimidation, and there needs to be a resource—multiple resources, actually—to which targeted physicians and lay people can turn to in order to light the signal fires of Gondor to bring the Rohirrim in to break the siege. “Shots Heard Round the World” sounds like a good start, but more will definitely need to be done. We can’t just sit still and take it any more.
[NOTE: I will be off for two weeks, because I will be having surgery next week. Maybe I’ll say more about it when it’s over and I’m back. (It might make a good topic for a blog post.) So there will be no posts by me on April 2 and April 9. I will return to the blog on April 15. In the meantime, we should have some guest posts, so that you don’t go without your Monday dose of SBM.]