Social media has become a way of life for many of us, especially with increased use due to the COVID pandemic. Personally, I enjoy many aspects of it, mostly spending time on Twitter using my handle @wheezemd. I find it a great way to keep up with news and opinions, as I can pick and choose from a wide range of topics and viewpoints. The ACAAI routinely posts important information related to our specialty for allergists and the public on Twitter and Facebook. But no doubt there is a long list of negatives associated with social media. In October 2020, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that informs the public, found that 64% of Americans say social media has a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the U.S. today. They found that those who had a negative view of the impact of social media mention, in particular, misinformation and the hate and harassment they see on these platforms.
A very disturbing research letter was published online in JAMA Internal Medicine last month. It is entitled, “Prevalence of Personal Attacks and Sexual Harassment of Physicians on Social Media.” We have all heard the staggering numbers of people being harassed online. Cyberbullying has even led to suicide in the population. This small survey out of Northwestern University, whose first author was a female medical student sheds some light on the incidence of harassment of medical doctors through social media. Let’s take a deeper dive into this study.
The survey was done through Twitter, with the authors tagging 10 physicians to complete the survey and asking them to tag 10 more and do the same. This resulted in 1,103 survey views, with 42.1% or 464 being U.S. physicians. A majority of them were female and white, and the median age was 39 years. It was a simple two question survey with a yes or no answer: Have you ever been personally targeted or attacked on social media? Have you ever been sexually harassed on social media? Participants also had the option to describe any personal incidents.
What did they find? Almost one quarter stated that they have been personally attacked on social media, with no significant difference between men and women physicians. For the sexually harassed question, there were significantly more women clinicians than men who answered the question with yes. It was 16.4% women compared to 1.5% men being sexually harassed.
Forty-six physicians made comments on their own experiences of being harassed. The authors grouped them into two different themes – personal attack and sexual harassment. Under personal attack, the highest subtype was advocacy. Ten of the comments were related to vaccine advocacy, which is not that surprising. One physician stated that, “Antivaxxers made fake negative reviews of me online. I got a death threat.” Others were due to advocacy for gun control, abortion, and even against smoking. There were also attacks on physicians’ race and religion. An example from another physician said, “People sent images of Holocaust victims when I posted about something related to being Jewish.” Most of the comments about sexual harassment were related to solicitation. Two physicians mentioned assault; as one stated, “Threats of rape, etc., by white supremacists who disagreed with my civil rights work.”
For me, it was great to see this publication. Even though we can criticize the methods used in this survey, it still opens our eyes to the ongoing personal attacks on physicians and medicine in general over the internet. The College has conducted webinars and lectures for you on how to use social media. Now is the time to instruct the allergist on how to cope and deal with online harassment, as there is no doubt that social media is here to stay.
Pendergrast TR, Jain S, Trueger NS, Gottlieb M, Woitowich NC, Arora VM. Prevalence of Personal Attacks and Sexual Harassment of Physicians on Social Media. JAMA Intern Med. Published online January 04, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.7235