Anti-vaxxers Are Targeting Doctors in Online Hate Campaigns

Groups set up on social media platforms to promote anti-vaccination messages are targeting vaccine advocates in online harassment campaigns, reports claim.

In an interview with The Guardian, Elias Kass—a naturopathic primary care physician, licensed midwife and prominent pro-vaccine advocate—talked about the targeted abuse he had received for stating his views.

On February 20, Kass testified before a Washington state Senate committee in support of a measure that would eliminate personal and philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccinations. The move came amid a measles outbreak in the state that has infected 66 people—most of whom weren't immunized—at the time of writing.

Kass, who won a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention immunization advocacy award in 2017, said that someone called him "a disgusting liar" in a hallway soon after the hearing. But this was nothing compared to the torrent of abuse that he found online several hours later, The Guardian reported.

When he logged on to Facebook, he noticed that profile was filled with one-star reviews from people who were calling him everything from a "disgrace" and a "pedophile" to a "Nazi pharma shill" and "scumbag shilling for infanticide." The abuse continued even after he disabled the review feature; it simply moved onto the comments section of his page.

"Their goal is to tell my patients what a bad person I am, so I lose business," Kass told The Guardian several days after the hearing. "It's made me reluctant to engage online. Now, when we're at the grocery store, if someone is looking at me, I'm wondering, 'Did you see a meme where I had an X over my face and was holding a bunch of aborted babies?'"

Kass's story is by no means unique. There is a dedicated network of closed Facebook groups—some of which boast hundreds of thousands of members—that spread anti-vaccination messages and often work to silence and intimidate those who advocate vaccinations, The Guardian reported.

Among these are the groups Stop Mandatory Vaccinations (around 150,000 members,) Holistic Lives Matter (about 53,000 members) and VaccineChoices – Fact VS Fiction, Conversations & Research (around 40,000 members).

After the state committee hearing, the creators of the former two groups posted links to Kass's Facebook account alongside criticisms of his testimony, which is potentially how some of the online abusers found their way to his page.

Larry Cook, a prominent anti-vaxxer and the creator of Stop Mandatory Vaccinations, spoke to The Guardian when asked for comment about the tactics he used to direct people to Kass's page. "My intent is to ensure that those who oppose vaccine mandates know who favor vaccine mandates, just like your intent is to name those who are against vaccine mandates."

Drs. Todd Wolynn and Chad Hermann from Kids Plus Pediatrics (KPP) in Pittsburgh told The Guardian they were the target of a similar incident in September 2017, which they described as a "coordinated terrorist attack from inside an anti-vaxx Facebook group."

The previous month, their practice had posted a video online encouraging the use of the HPV vaccine. But by mid-September, KPP began receiving torrents of online abuse, which led Hermann—KPP's CEO and communications director—to ban more than 800 accounts and delete more than 10,000 comments from the clinic's Facebook page. The trolls also posted negative reviews on KPP's Google and Yelp ratings—a tactic that could cause "real financial harm" for medical practices, according to Wolynn.

While KPP's Yelp ratings have recovered due to the company's stringent process for dealing with fraudulent reviews, its Google maps page still features numerous one-star ratings from the attack.

"Many providers and even whole hospitals are afraid of posting pro-vaccine material on Facebook simply for fear of putting a bull's-eye on their backs," Hermann said. "When they stop posting that information, it leaves a vacuum, and we all know who is going to fill that."

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A nurse loads a syringe with a vaccine against hepatitis at a free immunization clinic for students before the start of the school year in Lynwood, California, on August, 27, 2013. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-vaxxers Are Targeting Doctors in Online Hate Campaigns | Tech & Science