Online harassment of physicians, scientists soared during pandemic

Dr. Shikha Jain, assistant professor of medicine at UI Health, is co-author of the study.

As COVID-19 spread around the world in 2020 and 2021, it was accompanied by waves of online misinformation about the virus, its dangers and the public health efforts to prevent infection. Many medical and scientific professionals attempted to fight back online by providing evidence-backed information on social media. 

But a new survey detailed in JAMA Network Open describes the blowback of those efforts. UIC oncologist Dr. Shikha Jain and researchers from Northwestern, University of Chicago and University of California, San Francisco, found that 66% of physicians, biomedical scientists and trainees experienced social media harassment, a dramatic increase from the 23% who reported harassment in a study conducted before the pandemic by the same team. 

COVID-19 was confirmed as the main flashpoint — 64% of total survey respondents said they received harassment over their comments on the pandemic, and 88% of those who reported harassment said it was in response to advocacy. But the physicians and scientists also experienced harassment based on gender, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability. Among respondents, 18% said their private information had been shared — a practice known as doxxing.

As a result of these experiences, 64% of the 359 survey respondents said they had changed the way they use social media. 

“At a time when physicians and biomedical scientists need support and their advocacy is vital to the national interest more than ever before, they are being badgered, doxxed and sexually harassed,” the authors conclude. “Institutions and companies should support those who are attacked and provide mechanisms to reduce harassment and provide accountability.”

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