Harassment of doctors and grieving mothers: A feature, not a bug, of the antivaccine movement

Antivaxers can be a nasty bunch. I’ve documented this time and time and time again, whether it be their violent rhetoric, their doxing and harassment of a 14-year-old boy for the “crime” of publishing pro-vaccine videos on Facebook, their encouraging attacks on pro-vaccine journalists, or their attacks on anyone who attempts to refute their misinformation. For example, I myself have hand antivaxers launch campaigns on more than one occasion to get me fired from my university job, one of which prompted my medical school dean to call me and ask me if I felt unsafe, and had >40 articles defaming me published by a certain website in a matter of a few months. That’s not counting the number of other articles written attacking me that now clog up Google searches on my name. Although it hasn’t been so bad for me lately (besides—thus far—only very rarely having had death threats directed at me, I suspect that antivaxers have finally figured out that I view their attacks as a badge of honor and that they don’t have any real leverage on me any more now that pretty much everyone knows who I am), it’s definitely gotten worse for others. The harassment is epic and sometimes very cruel, as two recent news stories demonstrate.

First, let’s look at the cruel, to which I was alerted by a CNN story yesterday about a sort of harassment that should never happen:

Not long ago, a 4-year-old boy died of the flu. His mother, under doctor’s orders, watched his two little brothers like a hawk, terrified they might get sick and die, too.

Grieving and frightened, just days after her son’s death she checked her Facebook page hoping to read messages of comfort from family and friends.

Instead, she found dozens of hateful comments: You’re a terrible mother. You killed your child. You deserved what happened to your son. This is all fake – your child doesn’t exist.

Bewildered and rattled, she closed her Facebook app.

A few days later she received a text message from someone named Ron. Expect more like this, Ron warned. Expect more.

The attacks were from those who oppose vaccination, and this mother, who lives in the Midwest, doesn’t want her name used for fear the attention would only encourage more messages.

Your first thought might be: How on earth could anyone be so cruel? This mother suffered the most devastating loss a parent can suffer, the loss of her child. Intentionally swooping in to launch a campaign of harassment against her in her moment of greatest emotional pain is cruel enough. However, there are a lot of cruel people online, including trolls who think it’s funny to do things like this. This was not just some random bunch of trolls, though. As mentioned above, this mother’s tormenters were antivaxers, and this tactic was quite deliberate. These monsters actually look for news stories about children who have died. When they learn of one, they do this:

Interviews with mothers who’ve lost children and with those who spy on anti-vaccination groups, reveal a tactic employed by anti-vaxers: When a child dies, members of the group sometimes encourage each other to go on that parent’s Facebook page. The anti-vaxers then post messages telling the parents they’re lying and their child never existed, or that the parent murdered them, or that vaccines killed the child, or some combination of all of those.

Nothing is considered too cruel. Just days after their children died, mothers say anti-vaxers on social media called them whores, the c-word and baby killers.

The mother in the Midwest, who wants to remain anonymous, isn’t alone.

Jill Promoli, who lives outside Toronto, lost her son to flu. She believes the anti-vaxers are trying to silence the very people who can make the strongest argument for vaccinations: those whose children died of vaccine-preventable illnesses.

This is exactly the point. These attacks are intentional and, if not organized, at least promoted by antivaxers, who encourage each other to attack parents in their moment of grief. Jill Promoli knows. She’s suffered the same loss. She’s gone one step further, though. She started a campaign named after her son, For Jude For Everyone, that promotes awareness of flu prevention and encourages, among other things, vaccination.

Indeed, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that the parents who try to channel the grief from their loss into something productive, such as a campaign to promote vaccination, usually suffer the worst of it. The attacks on most parents of children who died usually subside relatively quickly. Having inflicted maximum pain, the antivaxers move on. However, parents who start campaigns to promote vaccination are perpetual targets, as long as their campaigns continue. At least, that’s been my unsystematic observation thus far.

The description in the CNN report of what Promoli and her family endured is heartbreaking. In May 2016 she put her two-year-old son Jude and his twin brother Thomas to bed. Jude had a low grade fever at the time but was laughing and behaving normally before his nap. When she went to check on him two hours later, he was dead.

Now, imagine for a moment the horror. Two hours ago, your son was laughing and singing when you put him in his crib. Sure, he had a low grade fever, but toddlers get those all the time and there was nothing to indicate that it was anything serious. When you go to wake him up, he won’t wake up, and you soon realize that he’s dead. Can you picture yourself in that situation? I can’t. I’ve tried, and I can’t. However horrible I imagine the experience, I’m quite sure that it’s a thousand time worse.

It gets worse. Ultimately, the autopsy showed that Jude had died of the flu. So Promoli channeled her grief into a campaign to raise awareness of how serious the flu is and to promote ways of preventing it, including vaccination. That’s when this happened:

Some anti-vaxers told her she’d murdered Jude and made up a story about the flu to cover up her crime. Others said vaccines had killed her son. Some called her the c-word.

The worst ones — the ones that would sometimes make her cry — were the posts that said she was advocating for flu shots so that other children would die from the shots and their parents would be miserable like she was.

“The first time it made me feel really sick because I couldn’t fathom how anybody could even come up with such a terrible claim,” Promoli said. “It caught me off guard in its cruelty. What kind of a person does this?”

What kind of person, indeed? And what kind of person does this same sort of thing to another parent, Serese Marotta, who lost her 5-year-old son to the flu in 2009? Marotta is now chief operating officer of Families Fighting Flu, a group that encourages flu awareness and prevention, including vaccination. In 2017, she posted a video on the eight anniversary of her son’s death. Her intent was to emphasize the importance of getting the flu vaccine.

The reaction by antivaxers was all too familiar:

“SLUT,” one person commented. “PHARMA WHORE.”

“May you rot in hell for all the damages you do!” a Facebook user wrote on another one of her posts.

She says a Facebook user in Australia sent her a death threat.

“She called me a lot of names I won’t repeat and used the go-to conspiracy theories about government and big pharma, and I responded, ‘I lost a child,’ and questioned where she was coming from, and she continued to attack me,” said Marotta, who lives in Syracuse, New York.

My only annoyance with CNN is that, although it included a screenshot of what I presume to be the Australian woman mentioned above, it blurred out the name of the woman heaping the abuse on Marotta. From my perspective, such people need to be named and shamed if possible—always.

CNN interviewed some antivaxers, and the results are, not surprisingly, a mixture of notpologies, denial, claims that they “don’t condone” such behavior. For instance, CNN checked in with a particularly odious antivaxer, Larry Cook, who founded Stop Mandatory Vaccination. His excuse? It’s just too much to shut such plotting to attack mothers of dead children down:

In an email to CNN, he wrote that members of his group make more than half a million comments on the group’s Facebook page each month.

“Any discussions about parents who lose their children after those children are vaccinated would be minor in number, and even smaller would be the number of members reaching out to parents in private message to share their concerns that vaccines may have played a role in a death,” Cook wrote.

“I do not condone violent behavior or tone and encourage decorum during discussion,” Cook wrote, adding that anyone “who deliberately engage[s] in the politics of advocating for compulsory vaccination where children may be further damaged through government vaccine mandates can expect push back and resistance, alongside knowledgable discussions about vaccine risk in social media commentary.”

Ah, yes. I don’t condone such behavior, but I can “understand” how it would happen. That’s the lamest, most disingenuous dodge ever, but, then, Cook is an antivaxer. Also note how he only says he “doesn’t condone violent behavior or tone,” a signal that he probably doesn’t have a problem with antivaxers “reaching out” to harass the parents of children who died. Not surprisingly, he also launched into some prime whataboutism, pointing out that members of his group have been “targets of harassment campaigns.” You want to know the difference? Those of us who support science and children’s health will unequivocally condemn such behavior when we are made aware of it, which I do right now. We don’t respond with disingenuous “condemnations” that aren’t really, the way Cook does.

Of course, another antivax leader pulled out the defense beloved of conspiracy theorists everywhere, the “false flag operation” defense. I couldn’t tell for sure from the way the article was written whether it was Del Bigtree making this defense, but it looked as though it was and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was. Yes, according to this line of antivaccine “thought” there are pro-vaccine advocates out there starting harassment campaigns against antivaxers just to mke them look bad. Alex Jones and Mike Adams would be proud!

Then Del Bigtree destroyed another one of my irony meters, blowing it to smithereens and leaving nothing but pools of molten metal and insulation pathetically bubbling in the wreckage:

“I tell everybody that you should look at the person you’re talking to and those on the other side of this discussion and recognize that they care about children, too,” said Del Bigtree, chief executive officer of the Informed Consent Action Network.

That must be why Bigtree portrays those who support vaccines and vaccine mandates apocalyptic terms in which he talks about how he and his comrades need to die for liberty if necessary fighting us evil pro-vexers. Let me remind you what he once said:

If we do not fight now, then there will be nothing left to fight for. And I think that is where everyone in this room, I pray you realize how important you are in this historic moment. We will never be stronger than we are right now. We will never be healthier than we are right now. Our children are looking like this, a generation of children, as we’ve said on The Doctors television show this is the first generation of children that will not live to be as old as their parents. Are we going to stand…are we going to sit down and take it? Or are we going to stand up and say: This is a historic moment, that my forefathers, those from Jefferson all the way to Martin Luther King, the moments where people stood up and something inside of them said I’m going to stand for freedom and I’m going to stand for it now. That is in our DNA. It is pumping through me, and I pray that you feel it pumping through you, because we must look back. Our grandchildren will look back and thank us for having stood up one more time and been the generation that said, “We the People of the United States of America stood for freedom, stand for freedom. We will die for freedom today.

That sure doesn’t sound like something someone who thinks that those “on the other side of this discussion” actually “care about children too” would say. That’s not even counting other times when he’s likened SB 277, the California law that eliminated personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates, to fascism, asking “What were the Jewish people thinking when the Nazis took over?” Yes, calling those supporting laws designed to increase vaccine uptake Nazis is a great way of showing that you appreciate that those “on the other side of this discussion” actually “care about children too.”

That’s not all. Besides likening those promoting vaccination to Nazis during the Holocaust, Bigtree has also likened them to slave owners and slavery advocates before the Civil War (even explicitly saying that parents and children are being “enslaved”), and to whites in South Africa during apartheid, with he and his brave band of antivaccine activists being the Jews, the slaves, and the blacks, respectively, in those historical events. Unfortunately, when you compare those who disagree with you to Nazis, slave owners, and whites enforcing apartheid and those people happen to be pro-vaccine advocates looking for strategies to increase vaccine uptake, it’s hard not to conclude that you don’t really believe that those those “on the other side of this discussion” actually “care about children too,” all your high-sounding protestations otherwise notwithstanding.

Nor is this harassment of grieving mothers an accident. As Erin Costello, a former bartender and current stay-at-home mom in Utica, NY (and the “Ron” who texted the grieving mother at the beginning of the story to warn her to expect more antivax attacks) discovered by lurking in antivaccine Facebook pages, this sort of harassment is encouraged and often coordinated.

The other part of the article mentions others who have been harassed, whose names will be familiar to anyone who’s been a regular reader of this blog: Dorit Reiss, a professor at UC Hastings School of Law; Paul Offit, who needs no introduction; Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine who wrote a book about his daughter called Vaccines did not Cause Rachel’s Autism; and, of course Sen. Richard Pan, the pediatrician-turned state senator in California who was one of the two architects of SB 277. I note that in November, I met both Drs. Hotez and Pan at a meeting where we were all on a panel about vaccine hesitancy and antivaxers. The organizers and hotel management were on high alert, expecting antivaxers to make trouble. Fortunately, only a couple showed up, and neither gained admission to the meeting.

Going beyond the CNN article, I noted this:

Yes, this happens all too frequently.

Also this:

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.

Within hours, the post was flooded with thousands of comments from people opposed to vaccines. Corriel initially decided to allow the postings to continue, hoping to use the moment to educate people about the importance of immunizations.

Bad idea:

But then she began to feel threatened. People she had never treated gave her one-star ratings online. Commenters called her a “pharma vaccine whore” and a “child killer,” according to screenshots shared with The Times. Someone looked up her office address in New York City and mailed her an anti-vaccine book.

“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.”

Chad Hermann, communications director for Kids Plus Pediatrics, a Pittsburgh practice that faced one of these online attacks in 2017 and then began tracking them, described the attacks on his practice thusly:

In August 2017, Hermann posted a video on the Kids Plus Pediatrics Facebook page that touted the benefits of the vaccine that protects against the sexually transmitted disease HPV, which can cause cancer.

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.

“We’re in WW3,” said one anti-vaccine commenter, likening the immunization debate to a world war. “The militaries around the world need to get together and stop this insanity.”

Hermann said most of the commenters didn’t live in Pennsylvania, and some didn’t even live in the United States. The biggest concentrations were from California, the Florida Panhandle, Ohio, Texas and Oregon, Hermann said.

“They’re coordinating attacks and sending the troops,” Hermann said.

That’s exactly what they’re doing. They also flood various doctor rating websites claiming to be patients and leaving really negative reviews. I’ve had that happen to me a number of times as well. One time I remember in particular mentioned that I seemed to be more interested in my blog than in her. I knew right away that that was a fake review because I never discuss my blogs when seeing patients unless the patient mentions it first, which is rarely, and even then I’m reluctant to say much about it because the focus needs to be on the patient and I feel a bit funny talking about my blogs in the context of a patient visit.

Hermann and Dr. Todd Wolynn, the pediatrician for whom he works, have spoken at conferences to encourage doctors to stay strong. and are working on a pro bono project to help physicians called “Shots Heard Round the World.” It provides tips on how to ban commenters, disable Facebook ratings, and call in reinforcements; i.e., science advocates. I hope the project is a success.

All of this is why, whenever I see antivaxers complaining about “suppression” of their speech by nefarious fascistic “provaxers,” I laugh derisively. After all, what is the purpose of engaging in harassment campaigns against grieving mothers of dead children, doctors who write pro-vaccine editorials, doctors who defend vaccination against antivax misinformation, and pediatricians and other doctors who encourage vaccination on their social media pages, but to intimidate them into silence? It’s a feature, not a bug, and it is planned and coordinated.