Meet the doctors fighting anti-vax attackers online
- Animation by Sofiya Voznaya
Barely two weeks into the new year, pediatrician Dr. Nicole Baldwin sat at her computer in her Cincinnati, Ohio practice. She watched as a Facebook notification pinged in. Then another. And another – until it became a flood.
The comments were vicious: “bloodthirsty lying bitch of the day goes to Dr. Nicole Baldwin,” read one. “Come at me or my child with a needle and I will put it in your jugular,” another said. Dozens more were pinging in every few minutes.
The reason for the attack? A 15-second TikTok video Baldwin had made the week before, advocating the use of vaccines. She’d only just begun to experiment with the video-sharing platform, used by more than a billion people globally, and especially popular with teenagers.
“When I was thinking about what educational videos I could do, of course one was going to be about vaccines,” she said on Tuesday. “It was literally my fourth video.”
In the video, Baldwin is dancing to the 2007 R&B hit Cupid Shuffle. “Vaccines PREVENT…Measles, Polio, Pertutiss, Hepatitis, Influenza, HPV, Meningitis,” the video begins. “Vaccines DON’T… cause autism.” The video was a viral hit, with nearly half a million views on TikTok.
But over in another part of internet, an order had gone out in the anti-vaccine Facebook community, posted by a prominent anti-vax Facebook user: “Spam the F**K outta her.”
For the rest of that first day of the attack, Baldwin checked her phone between patient appointments, only to see a constant torrent of alerts. She began to panic.
“I called a friend, and said, “can you help me with this?”” Baldwin remembers. By that evening, it was too much, so Baldwin’s husband also stepped in. But the sheer ferocity of the attack soon overwhelmed the three of them.
“That’s when the call went out,” Baldwin said.
Enter Shots Heard Round the World, a 500-strong team of doctors, lawyers, nurses, and vaccine advocates living across the globe. They call themselves “an online digital cavalry that rides to the aid of all providers, practices, and health systems under attack from anti-vaccine bullies.”
Baldwin gave several members administrative rights to her Facebook page, and around the world, taking different shifts based on their daylight time, the Shots Heard digital cavalry charged Baldwin’s attackers.
Their approach was two-pronged: one part of the team helped Baldwin hide, ban, and report the attackers. The rest of the team blitzed the page with comments in support of vaccines, mimicking the “flooding” technique often employed by anti-vaxxers.
The Shots Heard team paved the way for thousands more Facebook users to positively interact with Baldwin’s Facebook page. “The rest of the medical community stand by you,” one comment read. “Keep up your amazing work. You’re a fantastic physician and I’m proud to be your colleague,” said another. “My daughter was exposed to measles during a local outbreak when she was seven months old, and it was a nightmare,” one father wrote. “I will never forgive antivaxxers for putting us through that. Thank you for standing up to them.”
For Baldwin, seeing this kind of positive discussion of vaccines on Facebook was long overdue. “We’ve seen so much anti-vaccine misinformation dominating the social media space for years. I think finally this community is ready to fight back,” she said.
Shots Heard, founded in September 2019, is run by Pittsburgh pediatricians Todd Wolynn and Chad Hermann, who were themselves victims of a coordinated anti-vax Facebook attack in 2017, when their practice was inundated with 10,000 negative comments in eight days.
“The troops were literally coordinating and deciding what to do next,” said Wolynn. “You’ll go to sleep and be thousands of posts behind, because they’re in New Zealand, they’re in Texas, they’re in the Czech republic, they’re in Ireland.”
By far their biggest call to arms so far was the attack on Nicole Baldwin, which lasted throughout January. More than 5,200 anti-vaccine campaigners attacked her across all her social media platforms. “It was hundreds of comments every half hour,” Baldwin said.
Hermann described how anti-vax attacks can leave doctors with PTSD. “Ideologically and spiritually, it’s exhausting,” he said. “It’s as if you’re just standing on a beach and the waves just keep crashing, and you know one more is coming, and another, and another.”
The overwhelming fear among the pro-science community is that these attacks will scare vaccine advocates into silence. “People – including large healthcare systems – slink away and lick their wounds and then don’t go back into the vaccine world,” Hermann said. “If hospitals are afraid to post information online, then we’re in trouble.”
Wolynn and Hermann regard being a survivor of these anti-vax attacks as a badge of honor. “Going through that fire is not fun for anybody, but it’s definitely strengthened my resolve,” said Baldwin.
Disinformation experts have criticized Facebook for its unsatisfactory response to anti-vax attacks like Baldwin’s. “Users who have better things to do, important work to do, wasting hours of their time to manage what platforms won’t,” tweeted Renee DiResta, a technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, in the wake of Baldwin’s attack. “It’s embarrassing for Facebook at this point how bad their user-controlled moderation tools are.”
The founders of Shots Heard also believe the platforms are ultimately responsible for moderating these attacks. “As we all know the platforms created this problem in the first place. Not only did they allow their platforms to be used for the purposes of this anti-vaccine movement, but they incentivized it,” said Wolynn. “They have an absolute obligation to address this.”
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment from Coda Story.
On Monday, after a solid three week attack, Baldwin was finally able to let some of Shots Heard’s members step down from administrating her Facebook page. Over on TikTok, she’s posted a new video to mark cervical cancer awareness month, encouraging her viewers to get their HPV vaccine.
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