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Online harassment deters doctors from fighting health misinformation on social media: Study

Published on Wed 26 Jul 2023 at 04:47

We need comprehensive anti-online harassment tools and how-to guides designed for health workers in order to protect and equip them to combat the public health threat. 

By Jisha Krishnan

From being called “The devil’s agent” to getting death threats on social media, Dr Ahmad Firdaus Mohd Haris, a practicing medical doctor based in Malaysia, has been the victim of online harassment for several years now. “It occurs almost daily on our social media platforms, especially on Facebook,” says the Founder of Medical Mythbusters Malaysia, an online health advocacy platform that empowers people with evidence-based health and medical information.

The doctor recalls a disconcerting incident where a team member received a private message stating that they knew which school the member’s children went to. “A police complaint was filed to ensure the safety of the family,” informs Dr Ahmad, who is also a First Check member and a WHO-certified infodemic manager.

“Social media plays a role in disseminating medical and scientific knowledge to the public; however, high levels of reported harassment may lead more physicians and scientists to limit the way they use social media, thus leaving propagation of misinformation unchecked by those most qualified to combat it,” notes a recent study

According to the study based on a survey of 359 respondents in the US, physicians and biomedical scientists experienced high levels of harassment online. This included harassment that affected mental health, caused fear or threats of violence, sexual harassment, and gender-based harassment.

The lack of social support or protection from such harassment often deters medical professionals from being vocal on social media platforms about health misinformation. Whether it is information about COVID-19 vaccination or abortion advocacy, it’s important to empower health experts to voice scientific facts and dispel myths, without fear of harassment. 

In many ways, the pandemic has worsened the scenario for healthcare practitioners who are passionate about sharing credible, evidence-based health information online. Studies show how physicians reported experiencing attacks on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We need comprehensive anti-online harassment tools and how-to guides designed for health workers in order to protect and equip them to effectively combat health misinformation. An online toolkit designed by some of the authors of the earlier-mentioned study and the Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team (IMPACT) is an apt case in point. 

At First Check, we encourage doctors, public health professionals and researchers from across the globe to actively participate and share fact-checked medical information, particularly on social media. Health fact-checking is critical because misinformation can sway public opinion, which then informs public actions. If actions are based on false information, we can easily make the wrong health decisions and these decisions can lead to unhealthy and sometimes dangerous consequences. 

Vaccine hesitancy due to medical misinformation, for instance, is a global public health threat. The distrust in science, belief in conspiracy theories, and fear-based narratives cause immense harm to public health, often in ways that we cannot directly measure. In order to counter this, we need more doctors and public health professionals to engage in health fact-checking, sans the threat of harassment.