Anti-Vaccine Activists Have Doctors ‘Terrorized Into Silence’ With Online Harassment

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.

Anti-vaccine

“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.”

As measles cases pop up across the United States, public health advocates have blamed social media for allowing misinformation to take root and swiftly spread. But the platforms also facilitate far more antagonistic behavior, with doctors facing online harassment and even coordinated attacks for promoting vaccines.

Teaching physicians how to combat tactics that could otherwise scare them into silence is increasingly important as millennials become parents and turn to the Internet to make decisions about whether to vaccinate their children, Hermann said.

For the first time, the World Health Organization has named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 global health threats.

Hermann and his colleagues have lectured about their experiences weathering these attacks, and have developed a campaign to encourage doctors not to shy away from the internet.

“When pediatric practices are being … terrorized into silence, it’s going to create a void in the discourse,” Hermann said. “And we all know who’s going to fill that: the anti-vax folks.”

For three weeks, the comments on the video were all positive, he said. Then the video was shared in a closed Facebook group called Vaccine Choices — Fact VS Fiction, which has nearly 42,000 members.

Over the next six days, he said, the video drew more than 10,000 anti-vaccine comments. Negative reviews dropped the practice’s Google rating from 4.6 to less than one star, Hermann said.

Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopathic physician in Ohio who runs Vaccine Choices, said she does not encourage members “to engage in social media harassment schemes.”

“Vaccination has become a volatile topic and personal, retaliatory words and actions serve no one — on either side,” she said in a statement emailed to The Times.

Since their HPV video was flooded with comments, Hermann and Dr. Todd Wolynn, the pediatrician he works for, have spoken at conferences trying to encourage doctors to not back down. (Wolynn does vaccine research with the Merck and Sanofi pharmaceutical companies.)

Many practices’ online ratings have dropped because of spam reviews. Yelp quickly deleted Kids Plus’ fraudulent reviews, but it took more than a year for Google to do the same, Wolynn said.

Still, Wolynn and Hermann are undeterred. Earlier this month was HPV Awareness Day, and on Twitter, Hermann reposted the HPV video, the one that had sparked so much hate.

Already, the resistance to vaccines has had significant health effects nationwide.

His Google rating fell because of fraudulent one-star reviews, not all of which Google has deleted, he said. Google spokeswoman Liz Davidoff said in a statement that the company “removes reviews that violate our policies.”

But doctors hoping to engage directly with patients face a particular challenge. Highly charged vaccination foes can often drown out physicians in what amounts to an online shouting match, experts say.

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.

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