Physicians and scientists are experiencing alarming levels of harassment on social media, according to a new survey.
About two-thirds of respondents said they had been harassed on social media since the COVID-19 pandemic began — up from 23.3% of physicians surveyed in 2020.
About 64% reported harassment related to comments made about the pandemic, while 64% of those harassed said the pandemic had affected their use of social media platforms.
“This study highlights that physicians and scientists changed the way they used social media during the pandemic,” said first author Dr. Regina Royan, a research fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and an emergency medicine physician.
“Sadly, those that use social media to share public health messages are more likely to face harassment,” she said in a university news release. “These are the people that we can’t afford to lose in this conversation, especially at a time when trusted messengers for public health information are essential.”
For the study, researchers surveyed 359 U.S. physicians, scientists and trainees. Their comments revealed that advocacy around topics such as vaccination, masks, firearms, reproductive rights and gender-affirming care appeared to fuel the harassment.
Respondents also shared personal experiences of online attacks.
“When I posted a picture of myself with my badge in my white coat after my COVID-19 vaccination, I received hundreds of harassing anti-vax messages, including death threats,” one respondent said.
Women were more likely than men to undergo this harassment than men.
About 82% of Black respondents reported harassment based on race or ethnicity. That compared to 69% of Hispanic respondents; 52% of Asian respondents; and 15% of white respondents.
“The 2020 study was the first to examine the prevalence of harassment among physicians who use social media,” said Dr. Tricia Pendergrast, a recent Feinberg School of Medicine graduate who led the earlier study. “Everyone on the team involved in the study — including physicians, scientists and medical trainees — has personal experiences in which they’ve felt uncomfortable or unsafe.”
She said survey leaders want physicians who are being harassed to feel less alone.
“If they are being targeted or feel unsafe or if their mental health is being affected negatively, they are not the only one who has felt like that,” Pendergrast added in the release.
Some respondents detailed the impact of the harassment on their mental health.
“I use social media less. I found it was too draining for me, and my mental health was suffering,” one said.
Royan said physicians and biomedical scientists play an essential role in combating misinformation on social media. It’s especially important that underrepresented communities see themselves reflected in the experts sharing information on these sites, she said.
“We need physicians of every race and ethnicity in the field and on social media,” Royan said. “At the end of the day, harassment of physicians and biomedical scientists on social media is a health equity issue.”
The research letter was published June 14 in JAMA Network Open.
The American Medical Association has more on physician harassment.
SOURCE: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, news release, June 15, 2023
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