About a week ago, Nature published a survey in an article entitled ‘I hope you die’: how the COVID pandemic unleashed attacks on scientists. For some reason I didn’t notice last week when it was first published, but I did notice the other day and felt that, given my long experience, I had to comment. I’ll discuss more of the details later in this post, but the CliffsNotes version is that large percentages of scientists and physicians who have made media appearances, spoken in public, or posted on social media to try to educate the public about COVID-19 have as a result experienced abuse, including online abuse, attacks on their credibility, and even threats of violence, death, and sexual abuse. Naturally, Twitter lit up last week and continuing to this week. A couple of examples:
This brings me to the point of my article. None of this is a surprise. Online harassment and attacks directed at physicians and scientists who seek to combat quackery, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories with science-based information and arguments are nothing new. I’ve written many times about my experiences in this particular realm, and, as Dorit noted in her Tweet above, two decades ago Paul Offit was routinely receiving attacks and death threats for speaking out in support of vaccination and against antivaccine propaganda, years before I ever entered the fray and achieved my small level of microcelebrity. (Or is it nanocelebrity?) She’s also correct. The level of attacks waxes and wanes, but the attacks never quite stop. The motivation behind the attacks all boils down to how “they” view “us,” as I’ll discuss. (Hint: “They” view “us” as, basically, Darth Vader (the younglings-slaying version without the redemption arc in Return of the Jedi), Lord Voldemort, Sauron, Emperor Palpatine, and Thanos all rolled up into one (probably with a few slashers like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees thrown in for good measure).
Before I look back to the past of how cranks and conspiracy theorists respond to science communicators, it’s worth looking at the situation now as described by Bianca Nogrady reporting in Nature:
Infectious-diseases physician Krutika Kuppalli had been in her new job for barely a week in September 2020, when someone phoned her at home and threatened to kill her.
Kuppalli, who had just moved from California to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, had been dealing with online abuse for months after she’d given high-profile media interviews on COVID-19, and had recently testified to a US congressional committee on how to hold safe elections during the pandemic. But the phone call was a scary escalation. “It made me very anxious, nervous and upset,” says Kuppalli, who now works at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland.
She called the police, but didn’t hear that they took any action. The threatening e-mails, calls and online comments continued. The police officer who visited Kuppalli after a second death-threat call suggested she should get herself a gun.
Those of us who’ve been at this a while will recognize this story, although I have thus far been fortunate enough not to have attacks on me take the form of someone calling me at home to threaten death. (Usually such attacks take the form of social media posts plus the every-few-months threatening emails and every year or so threatening phone calls to my office.) However, as a blogger I’m not nearly as high profile as someone like Kuppalli in the middle of a pandemic.
In any event, for this story, Nature did a survey of 321 scientists who have given media interviews about COVID-19, many of whom have also commented on social media about the pandemic. It isn’t a random sample, of course, but then the purpose of the survey wasn’t to figure out how prevalent harassment of scientists and physicians is in general, but rather to look at the experiences of those who have spoken and written publicly about the pandemic. The sample came predominantly from the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, although Brazil was represented as well.
The responses looked like this:
And a bit more of the results:
These examples are extreme. But in Nature’s survey, more than two-thirds of researchers reported negative experiences as a result of their media appearances or their social media comments, and 22% had received threats of physical or sexual violence. Some scientists said that their employer had received complaints about them, or that their home address had been revealed online. Six scientists said they were physically attacked (see Supplementary information for survey data tables).
And such attacks might have little to do with the science itself and more to do with who’s talking. “If you’re a woman, or a person of colour from a marginalized group, that abuse will probably include abuse of your personal characteristics,” says Tworek. For instance, Canada’s chief public-health officer Theresa Tam is Asian Canadian, and abuse levelled against her included a layer of racism, Tworek says. Kuppalli, a female scientist of colour, says she also experienced this. Abusers told her she “needs to go back where she came from”.
I’ve long noted that, when it comes to attacks from cranks, I operate from a privileged position. I’m a professor. I’m closer to the end of my career than to its beginning. My position is fairly secure in academia. And I’m an older white male. Those who don’t have my advantages, such as young physicians and scientists just starting out, persons of color, women, and LGBTQ people, almost inevitably come in for much worse attacks, and they are the very people for whom the attacks are most likely to succeed because they tend to have the least support. Moreover, there is a particularly disgusting tendency for such attacks, when directed at women, to take the form of misogynistic attacks or even attacks of sexual violence. Again, this is nothing new. Does anyone remember back in the “old days” (2009!), when antivaxxer J.B. Handley joked about Paul Offit having slipped reporter Amy Wallace a “roofie” because she had written a story that had debunked antivaccine misinformation and presented Dr. Offit in a flattering light? The misogyny is nothing new, nor is the racism.
To be honest, I have to say that one thing that struck me about the results of this survey is that the numbers were so low. I would have expected a much higher percentage reporting at least attacks on their credibility (at least 80%) and possible reputational damage. I would also have expected far more to have received complaints at work about their media and social media activity, but that could just be my perspective based on my experiences over the last 16+ years, plus my interactions with others doing the same thing. I’ve described many times how, at least among antivaxxers, the go-to move to try to intimidate a critic to silence is to complain to their employers. I’ve lost track of how many times antivaxxers or other cranks have complained to some combination of my department chair, cancer center director, and medical school dean. One time in 2010, antivaxxers even launched an email, phone, and letter-writing campaign to my university’s board of governors trying to accuse me of a non-existent undisclosed conflict of interest. It got to the point where the attacks led the dean to call me on my cell phone and ask if I was OK and if I felt physically threatened.
That being said, just because my personal experience (which could have led me to generalize my experience more than was warranted) led me to be a bit surprised that the numbers reporting attacks weren’t higher, that does not mean this isn’t a problem. Far from it! Indeed, the way to look at it is to ask whether or not the problem is increasing. While it’s hard to quantify whether the attacks are increasing, certainly those who have been around a long time think that they are.
Coordinated social-media campaigns and threatening e-mails or phone calls to scientists are not new: topics such as climate change, vaccination and the effects of gun violence have drawn similar attacks in the past. But even scientists who had a high profile before COVID-19 told Nature that the abuse was a new and unwelcome phenomenon tied to the pandemic. Many wanted the extent of the problem discussed more openly. “I believe national governments, funding agencies and scientific societies have not done enough to publicly defend scientists,” one researcher wrote in their survey response.
It’s hard for me to extrapolate from my limited experience to guess whether things are getting worse. For me, oddly enough, they don’t appear to be. I haven’t suffered any attempts to get me fired for a while, and the hate mail seems to be about the same level it’s been for a long time. On the other hand, there has been a rather nasty bunch of phone calls to my office recently, but they didn’t appear to have anything to do with what I’ve written about COVID-19, although recently I did receive this in the snail mail:
Regular readers will remember the “inventor of mRNA vaccines” Dr. Robert Malone, who thinks that Wikipedia is trying to “erase” him.
Unfortunately, these attacks do often have their intended effect:
But Nature’s survey suggests that even though researchers try to shrug off abuse, it might already have had a chilling effect on scientific communication. Those scientists who reported higher frequencies of trolling or personal attacks were also most likely to say that their experiences had greatly affected their willingness to speak to the media in the future (see ‘Chilling effect?’).
I myself will even admit that, although I’m more than happy to speak with most print reporters, I now tend to be more reluctant to accept a media request that involves being on TV. Part of it is due to my natural shyness about appearing on TV, although I’ve learned to appear on vlogs and video podcasts. Part of it is that I don’t want to run afoul of my cancer center’s media policy. But part if it is due to my knowledge that appearances on high profile TV, even as rare as such offers have been, are a magnet for crank attacks. That being said, I’m trying to combat that tendency and increase my willingness to move outside my comfort zone, which mainly includes interviews for print media, blogs, social media, and, occasionally, podcasts.
Again, some of the stories reported by Nature are familiar to anyone who’s been at this a while:
Epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz at the University of Wollongong in Australia, who has gained a following on Twitter for his detailed dissection of research papers, says that two major triggers are vaccines and the anti-parasite drug ivermectin — controversially promoted as a potential COVID-19 treatment without evidence it was effective. “Any time you write about vaccines — anyone in the vaccine world can tell you the same story — you get vague death threats, or even sometimes more specific death threats and endless hatred,” he says. But he’s found the passionate defence of ivermectin surprising. “I think I’ve received more death threats due to ivermectin, in fact, than anything I’ve done before,” he says. “It’s anonymous people e-mailing me from weird accounts saying ‘I hope you die’ or ‘if you were near me I would shoot you’.”
Andrew Hill, a pharmacologist at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Translational Medicine, received vitriolic abuse after he and his colleagues published a meta-analysis in July. It suggested ivermectin showed a benefit, but Hill and his co-authors then decided to retract and revise the analysis when one of the largest studies they included was withdrawn because of ethical concerns about its data (A. Hill et al. Open Forum Inf. Dis. 8, ofab394; 2021). After that, Hill was besieged with images of hanged people and coffins, with attackers saying he would be subject to ‘Nuremberg trials’, and that he and his children would ‘burn in hell’. He has since closed his Twitter account.
Here’s where I think it’s a good time to get back to the part about how “they” view “us,” because the experiences of Meyerowitz-Katz and Hill remind me a lot of what I experienced (albeit not to such a degree) after systematically deconstructing the treatment offered to desperate cancer patients by a well-known cancer quack about whom I’ve been writing since at least 2008, Stanislaw Burzynski.
Longtime readers will recall that Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski is an expat Polish physician who came to the US in the early 1970s and for a time did research at Baylor. As I detailed many times (but most comprehensively here), Burzynski thought he discovered natural anti-cancer peptides, which he dubbed “antineoplastons.” Ultimately, “brave maverick doctor” that he was (and not an oncologist), Burzynski left Baylor to open his own clinic to use his antineoplastons to treat all manner of cancer patients. However, he became most famous for claims of “miracle cures” for one of the nastiest cancers of all, diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a tumor that can only rarely be treated for long term survival. Yet, every child whose parents took them to the Burzynski Clinic and who survived much longer than expected became “miracle cures” that Burzynski believers used to support claims that Burzynski had the “hidden cure” for cancer that “they” didn’t want you to know about.
You might even remember the techniques used by Burzynski supporters, many of which presaged disinformation techniques used to promote ivermectin as a cure for COVID-19 (and, before that, hydroxychloroquine): Propaganda movies disguised as documentaries, mobilization of believers to attack scientists and physicians who tried to explain why the evidence showed that antineoplastons almost certainly didn’t work against cancer, and, of course, political pressure through rallies and the use of dying patients as cudgels to paint Burzynski’s critics as unfeeling monsters who not only don’t care if people die but are actively seeking to cause more cancer patients to die. But why? To boil it down, as I originally described, Burzynski’s believers honestly thought that skeptics who try to counter his propaganda with science-based information were pure evil. To some extent, this was understandable, given that they had come to believe that Burzynski was the very last chance they have either to live (if they were Burzynski’s patient or potential patient) or for their loved one to live (if they had a family member with a deadly cancer seeking treatment for Burzynski). Generalize this tendency to COVID-19 patients, and you can perhaps see why families denied ivermectin by physicians who looked at the evidence and concluded quite correctly that it almost certainly doesn’t work against COVID-19 might sue a hospital and why ivermectin cultists would aim such hatred at such doctors.
The same was true of antivaxxers before the pandemic and continues with COVID-19 antivaxxers. Before the pandemic, antivaccine parents, the ones who truly believe that vaccines made their children autistic, also really hated us. The reason was similar. First, they blamed medicine and doctors for promoting vaccination, which, in their belief system, “stole their real child” away and left an autistic “shell.” Second, skeptics’ and physicians’ opposition to “autism biomed,” a bunch of rank quackery to which autistic children have been subjected depressingly frequently, was viewed in much the same way as oncologists’ and skeptics’ opposition to Burzynski: Not only did “we” make their children autistic, but “we” were actively preventing them from “recovering” their children. It was a toxic brew of guilt, suspicion, regret, and hate that led to the need for an enemy, a villain, someone to blame.
Let me just remind you of some of what happened before the pandemic. The blame often reached the realm of truly ridiculously hyperbole, such as comparing the vaccination program to the Holocaust (a favorite and not infrequent analogy that continues with even more enthusiasm since COVID-19) and those of us who accept current science, which shows the vaccines do not cause autism to “Holocaust deniers.” Alternatively (or sometimes at the same time), “we” are the Nazis or Nazi collaborators in mass murder, as Mike Adams tried to label GMO scientists. The most common villain, not surprisingly, was the CDC, which oversees the vaccination program and, with the collaboration of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), publishes a recommended vaccine schedule that is followed by pretty much every pediatrician (other than those friendly to the antivaccine movement) follows. It is thus not surprising that the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement (as I like to put it) is that the CDC “knew all along” that vaccines cause autism but has actively worked to bury any science that shows otherwise even to the point of “fraud.”
Worse, dating back to even well before the pandemic, the rhetoric coming from the antivaccine movement had been becoming increasingly violent and apocalyptic. Even so, calls for executions of scientists and physicians are nothing new. The earliest example that I could recount (and certainly nowhere near the earliest, I would bet) came from 2006. Meanwhile, since COVID-19, the violent rhetoric of anti-public health activists appears to have intensified.
What is arguably worse in the age of COVID-19 is the tendency of once respectable doctors to encourage such attacks on scientists, mostly inadvertently, with truly awful takes on public health and vaccines. For example, not too long ago an oncologist whom I once sort of admired, Dr. Vinay Prasad, basically argued that “lockdowns,” mask mandates, and vaccine mandates were a slippery slope to fascism. Yes, he went full Godwin, and, although he tried (unsuccessfully) to claim that he hadn’t gone full Godwin, it’s hard for me not to think that demonization of public health measures by someone viewed by many as a respectable academic oncologist as a slippery slope to another Holocaust doesn’t contribute to attacks on scientists, physicians, and public health officials. After all, if you really believe that public health interventions are a slippery slope to fascism, what must one do to those who promote such interventions? Resist? And how far does one go?
If you honestly believe they are bringing about the end of democracy, violence to oppose them is not beyond the pale. At the very least, what’s a bit of intimidation to silence as the price of preventing “fascism”? Of course, Dr. Prasad is the very same person who once contemptuously dismissed those of us who try to combat the sort of misinformation that is making bringing the pandemic under control so difficult as LeBron James “dunking on a 7′ hoop.” Again, if “they” truly view “us” as fascists trying to take away their freedom, it’s unsurprising that they would become increasingly violent and apocalyptic in their attacks and rhetoric, and it’s depressing to see rhetoric that encourages this sort of behavior coming from someone like Prasad, who, alas, isn’t alone in that.
Now that so many other scientists and physicians are experiencing what we have long experienced, and often worse than we’ve experienced it, what can be done? One heartening finding of the survey is that the majority of respondents reported that their media appearances resulted in experiences that were far more positive than negative. Still, there’s the harassment, which is increasing. It’s there that the Nature article doesn’t have a lot of answers, probably because there aren’t a lot of good answers:
For researchers who receive online abuse, individual coping strategies include trying to ignore it; filtering and blocking e-mails and social-media trolls; or, for abuse on specific social-media platforms, deleting their accounts. But it’s not easy.
“It is very harrowing if every day, you open up your e-mails, your Twitter, you get the death threats, you get abuse every single day, undermining your work,” says Hill. It also takes time to go through messages and filter out abusers, he says. That led to his decision to delete his Twitter account.
Kuppalli has kept her social-media presence, but is more careful about how she uses it. Her rule is now not to respond to comments or posts when she is upset or angry or, in some cases, not to reply at all. “I just don’t read the comments and I don’t engage.”
The problem, of course, is that it’s very easy for the trolls to remain anonymous and very hard to block them, particularly from email. For example, my university and cancer center email addresses are featured on my faculty webpages, as are phone numbers to reach me. The thing that bothers me the most about this is not the emails, which I generally save in a “fan mail” folder for future reference if needed, but any secretaries or administrative assistants who might answer an abusive phone call meant for me.
One thing I do do when asked is to try to mentor younger physicians and scientists by warning them about the sorts of responses they can expect. I also warn them how “they” view “us,” which is, because all conspiracy theories require a villain, as villains who want to destroy freedom and kill people with vaccines, masks, and lockdowns. I realize that this might sound ridiculous, but anyone who’s received such messages before know that what I’m saying is accurate. Although many of the harassers are just garden-variety trolls, there is a scary contingent who really do believe these things.
In particular, I warn young women and persons of color that responses to them, in addition to the hate, will contain added racism and misogyny. I also suggest that they make sure their bosses are, if not on board with their activities, at least not opposed. At the very least, you don’t want them to think so little of your activities that they don’t want to be bothered at all when the cranks come calling to complain to them about you. You want to know that your boss has your back, something that will usually be true in an academic center but very well might not be at a private institution or company.
Fortunately, the Nature poll is somewhat reassuring:
In Nature’s survey, 44% of scientists who said they’d been trolled or experienced personal attacks said they never told their employer. Of those who did, however, almost 80% found their employer ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ supportive (see ‘Employer support’). When Kuppalli informed her university, for instance, she was given a car parking space much closer to her office, and the university’s IT department worked to block some of the regular abusive e-mailers.
Of course, blocking emailers is like playing Whac-A-Mole, given how easy it is to generate new throwaway email addresses. That being said, it’s good to see IT departments more willing to make the attempt. My own IT department once blocked a particularly obnoxious cancer quack who had been mass emailing my entire department to attack me.
Unfortunately, the bottom line is that none of this is anything new. I’ve experienced such attacks going back to the 1990s on Usenet. What is new are the social media and political landscape that now encourage and facilitate such attacks, which are so much easier than they were even a few years ago. If you’re going to enter the fray, I’ll encourage and advise you, as, I suspect, would nearly everyone currently combatting misinformation, be it related to COVID-19, vaccines, climate change, or any other science whose communicators suffer harassment and attacks. However, you do need to know what you might be getting into. Basically, I’ve said for a long time that if you are effective combatting pseudoscience, you will come under attack of some sort eventually. It is better to be prepared and go in with your eyes wide open, remembering that “they” really do view “us” as evil and the enemy.