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Doctors Bring the Fight to Anti-vaxxers Online

Doctors and nurses trying to build confidence in Covid-19 vaccines on social media are mounting coordinated campaigns to combat anti-vaccination forces prevalent on those platforms.

At the same time, public health groups are mobilizing a global network of vaccine advocates to come to their aid when they are attacked online by activists, who closely monitor certain hashtags and keywords. The groups use monitoring software to swiftly identify online attacks, then tap their networks to flood social media posts with supportive messages countering vaccine opponents.

“It’s turning into a military campaign, in terms of how we have to treat the opposition,” said Sunny Jha, a Houston anesthesiologist who organized the #ThisIsOurShot campaign, through which thousands of health care workers have shared their own experiences getting Covid-19 vaccines. “As a new group we had to kind of be smart about how exactly we strategize.”

Coronavirus vaccination rates are rising as more doses gradually become available, and polls show the public growing more confident in the shots. But a steady force of anti-vaccination activists, who span both ends of the political spectrum, are churning out a disproportionate amount of misinformation that plays on people’s nagging fears about side effects or more lasting health consequences.

That online onslaught can quickly dominate social media conversations around vaccines, worrying experts about their power to influence people who don’t outright oppose vaccines but may have concerns about Covid-19 shots developed at lightning-fast speed.

“They’re very effectively able to deploy a brigade to flood the comments, or flood the hashtag making it look like the vast majority of public opinion feels a certain way,” said Renée DiResta, who leads disinformation research at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “It’s to create the perception that there are very large groups of people who distrust vaccines.”

Health care workers said it’s left to them to organize online defenses because social media platforms have failed to protect against sophisticated attacks by anti-vaccination activists, even as sites like Facebook and Twitter during the pandemic have adopted policies aimed at cracking down on harassment and public health misinformation. The companies are under pressure from lawmakers to do more during the health crisis.

The vaccine advocacy efforts have exposed doctors and nurses to cyberthreats and attacks on their reputations, including negative reviews on rating sites like Yelp. In some cases, they’ve taken the extraordinary step of scrubbing their phone numbers and addresses from the internet to avoid harassment. Read Full Article >

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