Social media exploded with caustic criticism when physicians shared the facts and advocated for personal and public health.
Physicians were pilloried in social media as they attempted to share accurate medical information and advocate for health care access during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Online harassment went from bad to worse after 2020, with 66% of doctors, biomedical scientists, and trainees reporting computerized badgering that sometimes extended into real life. The findings were in a new study that surveyed 359 respondents recruited through Twitter, with responses collected in July and August 2022.
“This study highlights that physicians and scientists changed the way they used social media during the pandemic,” first author Regina Royan, MD, MPH, said in a news release. Royan is a research fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern emergency medicine physician.
“Sadly, those that use social media to share public health messages are more likely to face harassment,” Royan said. “These are the people that we can’t afford to lose in this conversation, especially at a time when trusted messengers for public health information are essential.”
The same group of researchers examined the issue in a 2020 survey and found 23.3% of physicians reported personal attacks on social media. That happened primarily in the context of public health advocacy for topics such as gun violence, vaccinations, and abortion access.
Things got worse when the COVID-19 pandemic made personal and public health the pressing issues of the day.
In the more recent survey, there were 50 responses about public health and 41 responses about vaccinations, among topics provoking harassment. Other topics included masking (24), abortion advocacy (11), race (10), firearm safety (seven), transgender advocacy (six), and religion (four).
The harassment most often took for the form of “doxxing.” The authors defined it as publishing private or identifying information about individuals on the Internet, typically with malicious intent.
Online provocateurs would publish physicians’ real home and work addresses, along with phony reviews, bogus social media accounts, baseless complaints to employers and medical boards, and even photos altered to appear on pornography websites, according to the comments published in the study. The respondents reported effects on their own mental health, fear of violence, disappointment, sexual harassment, and minimal support or security when protesters showed up on hospital property.
“Being harassed on social media was one of the worst – if not the worst – experience(s) of my career and of my life,” one respondent said. “I have questioned myself and my work. I discovered that when I needed support – no one was there to stand up for me – no one. I am grieving for what I have lost – my reputation, my friends, my colleagues.”
“The harassment is out of control and social media platforms don’t seem to care, and don’t … protect us in any way,” one respondent said.
“I have had some of the most angry, vile messages sent to me,” a respondent said. “I have had someone suggest I should be followed and potentially harmed for assisting with state COVID contact tracing and vaccination efforts.”
Doctors and scientists still have “an essential role” in doing so, and it’s important for underrepresented communities to see themselves reflected in the experts sharing information, the according to the study.
“We need physicians of every race and ethnicity in the field and on social media,” Royan said. "At the end of the day, harassment of physicians and biomedical scientists on social media is a health equity issue."
The study, “Physician and Biomedical Scientist Harassment on Social Media During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published June 14, 2023, in JAMA Network Open.