Conference Coverage

How clinicians can prepare for and defend against social media attacks


AT AAP 2023

WASHINGTON – The entire video clip is just 15 seconds — 15 seconds that went viral and temporarily upended the entire life and disrupted the medical practice of Nicole Baldwin, MD, a pediatrician in Cincinnati, Ohio, in January 2020. At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Baldwin told attendees how her pro-vaccine TikTok video led a horde of anti-vaccine activists to swarm her social media profiles across multiple platforms, leave one-star reviews with false stories about her medical practice on various doctor review sites, and personally threaten her.

The initial response to the video was positive, with 50,000 views in the first 24 hours after the video was posted and more than 1.5 million views the next day. But 2 days after the video was posted, an organized attack that originated on Facebook required Dr. Baldwin to enlist the help of 16 volunteers, working 24/7 for a week, to help ban and block more than 6,000 users on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Just 4 days after she’d posted the video, Dr. Baldwin was reporting personal threats to the police and had begun contacting sites such as Yelp, Google, Healthgrades, Vitals, RateMDs, and WebMD so they could start removing false reviews about her practice.

Nicole Baldwin, MD, is a pediatrician in Cincinnati, Ohio

Dr. Nicole Baldwin

Today, years after those 2 exhausting, intense weeks of attacks, Dr. Baldwin has found two silver linings in the experience: More people have found her profiles, allowing her to share evidence-based information with an even wider audience, and she can now help other physicians protect themselves and reduce the risk of similar attacks, or at least know how to respond to them if they occur. Dr. Baldwin shared a wealth of tips and resources during her lecture to help pediatricians prepare ahead for the possibility that they will be targeted next, whether the issue is vaccines or another topic.

Online risks and benefits

A Pew survey of U.S. adults in September 2020 found that 41% have personally experienced online harassment, including a quarter of Americans who have experienced severe harassment. More than half of respondents said online harassment and bullying is a major problem – and that was a poll of the entire population, not even just physicians and scientists.

“Now, these numbers would be higher,” Dr. Baldwin said. “A lot has changed in the past 3 years, and the landscape is very different.”

The pandemic contributed to those changes to the landscape, including an increase in harassment of doctors and researchers. A June 2023 study revealed that two-thirds of 359 respondents in an online survey reported harassment on social media, a substantial number even after accounting for selection bias in the individuals who chose to respond to the survey. Although most of the attacks (88%) resulted from the respondent’s advocacy online, nearly half the attacks (45%) were gender based, 27% were based on race/ethnicity, and 13% were based on sexual orientation.

While hateful comments are likely the most common type of online harassment, other types can involve sharing or tagging your profile, creating fake profiles to misrepresent you, fake reviews of your practice, harassing phone calls and hate mail at your office, and doxxing, in which someone online widely shares your personal address, phone number, email, or other contact information.

Despite the risks of all these forms of harassment, Dr. Baldwin emphasized the value of doctors having a social media presence given how much misinformation thrives online. For example, a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed how many people weren’t sure whether certain health misinformation claims were true or false. Barely a third of people were sure that COVID-19 vaccines had not caused thousands of deaths in healthy people, and only 22% of people were sure that ivermectin is not an effective treatment for COVID.

“There is so much that we need to be doing and working in these spaces to put evidence-based content out there so that people are not finding all of this crap from everybody else,” Dr. Baldwin said. Having an online presence is particularly important given that the public still has high levels of trust in their doctors, she added.

“They trust their physician, and you may not be their physician online, but I will tell you from experience, when you build a community of followers, you become that trusted source of information for them, and it is so important,” Dr. Baldwin said. “There is room for everybody in this space, and we need all of you.”


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