Doctors Are Being Cyberbullied: Why That’s Bad, and How We’re Fighting Back
I’m being cyberbullied.
On August 8th, a colleague had posted a video on Instagram for National Immunization Month, and was bombarded with nasty comments and negative fake reviews from anti-vaccine activists. She reached out to our physician group on Facebook for backup. Many of us rushed to support her on the Instagram thread. The next day, I published this post about it, denouncing the harassment and intimidation tactics used by the anti-vaxxers.
And suddenly, a gazillion nasty fake negative reviews about me have accumulated online. Eighty-seven at last count, mostly on Vitals.com, and more trickling in every day.
Before this, over a decade of practice, I’ve had fewer than 10 reviews total, and most of them “excellent, 5 stars”. While I would never retract or regret posts supporting immunization or my colleagues, it sucks to see this onslaught of “very bad, one star” reviews next to my name.
It could be worse. In researching an OpEd about anti-vaccine activists, I interviewed doctors whose offices were overwhelmed by harassing phone calls, or who were threatened with physical harm against them, their staff, even their families.
“The anti-vax machine honestly scares me, and scares many of us,” one doctor recently shared.
I’m scared as well. And with all these negative fake reviews about me already all over the internet, I had to decide whether to try to make them go away very quietly without calling more attention to myself, or fight it as a public health issue, because hate groups shouldn’t be able to cyberbully doctors.
Online harassment and intimidation is a tactic used against physicians who promote immunization, as well as other ethically charged public health measures like gun control, women’s/ LGBTQIA/ refugee/ immigrant health… and basically anything evidence-based. Online doctor review sites are complicit in this cyberbullying.
I’ve heard from so many physicians who have gone through this. Supposedly, the sites (Vitals.com, Healthgrades.com, Google.com, Yelp.com) will take fake reviews down, but it’s an onerous, time-consuming process, and it’s all on the doctor. You have to “claim” your profile (ie, prove that you’re you) and then “flag” the suspicious review, and then the site, when they feel like it, will apply some algorithm (like, IP address out of your state of licensure, or unusual clusters of reviews).
So far, I have not heard anything back from any of these sites, and my book will be released next week with all these one-star ratings up, which matters because when people Google me to see if they can trust my heart health diet and lifestyle advice, they’re going to say “WTF? No way.”
Friends and colleagues kindly offered to flood the sites with fake POSITIVE reviews. A few did, and reported back to me how incredibly easy it was. But that’s also ridiculous: What use are these sites if they can be flooded with fake negative or positive reviews? Anyone with a beef can post a low rating and say nasty things, and anyone could ask their buddy to post five stars and something glowing…Which is basically how it works.
It shouldn’t have to be like this, people. There is an epic amount of misinformation and harmful pseudoscience out there. It’s the doctor’s job and mission to sift through it, understand the clinical research, explain the practice guidelines, to tell the truth. Harassment and intimidation can scare doctors and silence their voices, which is a blow to public health, to everyone’s health.
Doctors may have reached a tipping point on this. A few weeks ago, the research journal Annals of Internal Medicine published several articles about gun violence, including a position paper on reducing firearms injuries and deaths. In response, the NRA Tweeted out:
“Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control. Most upsetting, however, the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves.”
Well, the NRA is still under heavy media fire for that one, as thousands of doctors shared their stories about caring for victims of gun violence with the rallying hashtags #ThisIsOurLane and “ThisIsMyLane. Doctors Tweeted photos of blood-soaked clothes and hemorrhage puddles on floors, writing about six-month-olds with bullets to the brain and a mother’s screams when she learns her child is dead… Horrible stuff, and all true. The Chicago Mercy Hospital shooting a few days later further highlighted the desperate need for gun control, as well as the intrinsic role and right of medical providers to call for these measures. This doctor’s movement is becoming more organized, with its own account: @ThisIsOurLane and articles calling us to action like “Doctors Should Do More Than Heal: They Should Be Public Health Activists“.
And we may be ready to stand up and fight for all the major public health and ethically charged issues. Even the uber-academics are calling for it: Just this month, JAMA published an article describing how science is being undermined online, and physicians need to take action. This means protecting and respecting the peer-reviewed process (support quality research journals just as we support quality news outlets!), engaging in social media (get a Twitter account already!), and share our clinical experiences (in a HIPAA-compliant way, of course, just like with #ThisIsOurLane).
Colleagues brainstormed with me on how this new, larger physician movement fighting for science, facts, and the evidence-based way could be defined. Here’s for starters:
Join us. Retweet this post, or share on Facebook, with the hashtags you think are best.
Let’s get moving on this.