Sunday, October 17, 2021

Death threats, trolling common for scientists talking about COVID-19

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Doctors discussing COVID-19 in the media are often exposed to abuse and harassment, including death threats or violence, a new report shows.

More than two-thirds of the experts surveyed have experienced trolling or personal attacks after speaking about COVID-19 in media interviews, according to a global survey of more than 300 scientists.

In addition, a quarter said that such harassment is a common price paid for trying to educate the public about COVID-19 and that such attacks “always” or “normally” follow a media presence.

Dr. Amesh Adalja is an infectious disease expert and senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore.

Speaking often to the media, he said the survey took up the unfortunate fact that “personal attacks are a reality if you are a subject matter expert during this pandemic.”

“Every day I receive threats and abusive messages in all forms of social media and by email,” said Adalja.

“Since this pandemic is largely viewed by all the tribes that a person belongs to, if you piss off the tribe, you are usually attacked.

Inspired by high profile examples of harassment against top doctors in the US and Europe, The Nature Journal sent out a poll of hundreds of scientists who appear regularly in the media to ask about their experiences. The journal received 321 responses.

More than 9 out of 10 experts said they had good experiences with journalists discussing COVID-19.

But once their words got into print or their interviews aired, trouble often ensued:

As a result, nearly a third said their reputation was damaged by responding to their media appearances, and 42% reported emotional or psychological distress from the abuse.

Ugly comments and ugly threats against doctors and scientists are not new to the COVID-19 pandemic, experts said.

“During the Ebola issue in 2014, I was called ‘Obama’s Muslim’ even though I did not vote for Obama and am an atheist,” said Adalja. “I also remember being told during Ebola to hang on a lamppost.

“I have been sworn in countless times, labeled ‘dirty-skinned’ and asked to return to where I come from,” Adalja continued. “I was born in Philadelphia.”

Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow on Global Health at the University of Southampton in England, agreed in comments to Nature. The report on the survey was published in the magazine on Thursday.

“For those of us who have been tearing apart pre-pandemic anti-vaccine misinformation, the presence of this intimidation is very tiresome, but not surprising,” Head said.

However, Head added that, in his opinion, “the intensity of such harassment has increased significantly during the pandemic, including the more organized and frightening development than simply pointless comments on social media”.

The survey found that academics experience similar levels of abuse. It seems that their expertise makes them a target, not their gender.

“Online abuse is most prevalent after media engagements, and especially after those dealing with restrictions on social mix, wearing face masks or vaccinations,” said Susan Michie, director of the UCL Center for Behavior Change at University College London Nature .

More than 2 out of 5 experts who were insulted after a media appearance waved them off and did not bother telling their employer about it.

Of those who reported the harassment, almost 80% said they had received help from their employer.

For example, a scientist who received a death threat said her university gave her parking space near her office, and IT blocked some email senders who regularly sent her abusive comments.

“I suspect these negative experiences reflect a wider malaise in public discourse in society fueled by social media and growing social and political tribalism,” said Simon Clarke, Associate Professor of Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading in England. opposite Nature.

“This is a problem for society as a whole, but this survey shows that scientists are far from immune to its effects,” continued Clarke. “As in other areas of public life, there is a real danger to society when fear of threats of violence prevents people from fully engaging in the debate and discussion about science.

“If discussions of scientific facts are only held behind closed doors for fear of personal effects on scientists, then we are taking a dangerous step backwards. This will lead to greater distrust of scientists and, frankly, worse science,” concluded Clarke.

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