Online harassment is a serious, widespread, and growing issue that can affect anyone from all walks of life. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly four in 10 Americans have personally experienced online harassment and 62 percent consider it to be a major problem.
Increasingly, both academics and health professionals are finding themselves to be the recipients of online harassment for their advocacy of established lines of research and evidence-based health care. Those in particular disciplines and areas of study are especially at risk, such as scientists who study vaccine safety and climate change, as well as psychiatrists and health professionals who promote evidence-based medicine.
With respect to my own personal experience as a clinical psychologist who promotes evidence-based treatments for mental health disorders, I have been the recipient of dog-piling in social media threads; my Twitter account has been stalked by blocked accounts that repeatedly post motive and character assassinations; some people have threatened to report me to my professional regulatory body; and there have been calls to retract my evidence-based articles. I am not alone.
Online harassment can also take other serious forms, ranging from threatening e-mails, to doxing (i.e., someone posting private and identifying details about you), to coordinated social media attacks and death threats.
For those who experience it, consequences can include deterioration in mental health, reputational damage and fear for personal safety.
Why are scientists and health professionals being harassed? This is a complicated question with a complicated answer.
It is important to first consider that it is a frustrating reality that not everyone benefits from standard health care. Indeed, standard health care is based on the scientific method, which involves an ongoing pursuit of knowledge and science simply does not have all of the answers for all of our ailments. Patients who do not benefit from standard health care can understandably be upset.
Further, there exists a well-known disconnect for many reasons between public opinion and the scientific consensus on scientific topics (for example: vaccine safety, climate change, evolution, treatment of mental health). As a result, we have witnessed a breakdown of trust between the general public and conventional sources of health information, which can contribute to people searching for and accessing non–scientifically-supported sources of information.
Here’s what this all means: angry patients plus a distrust of science and health professionals make for a fertile ground for the development of rigid antiscience beliefs and the subsequent potential for harassment to take place. Antiscience ideologically possessed beliefs can be a powerful motivator for abhorrent behavior.
But it is also not an excuse for such behavior. Just because there exists an erosion of confidence and truth in scientific authority does not mean that harassment is productive, useful, or justified.
WHAT CAN I DO IF I AM BEING HARASSED?
Online harassment is not acceptable and should not be tolerated. Scientists and health professionals should feel safe and free to live up to their ethical imperative, which is the promotion of science and evidence-based health care. Various forms of harassment and intimidation tactics preclude this promotion and make it impossible to meaningfully engage in dialogue.
Fortunately, advice exists for professionals who experience harassment. Tips include not allowing yourself to be silenced, providing effective communication of your message, and getting support from your peers, family and friends.
As a clinical psychologist, I would also add that if you are experiencing mental health distress, then it might be worth reaching out to a mental health professional.
Science and health advocacy is hard work. Here’s what helps me: sticking to my principles, acting with integrity, and being grateful for the health care workers on the front line who are tirelessly practicing evidence-based medicine, as well as to the scientists in the lab who are relentlessly pushing our disciplines forward.