BRIEF: Doctors and Scientists Facing Harassment When Advocating Online
JAMA • July 20, 2023
A study from Northwestern University found that doctors and scientists have been getting harassed a lot on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. This harassment often happened when they were sharing important health information about COVID-19.
A recent study published in JAMA Network Open has shed light on a concerning trend: the harassment of physicians and biomedical scientists on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study, conducted by researchers from Northwestern University, aimed to assess the frequency and nature of such harassment, particularly in relation to the dissemination of COVID-19 public health information.
How they conducted the study
The study was conducted via a survey, which was distributed through Twitter. The inclusion criteria were US residence and self-reported profession as a physician, biomedical scientist, or trainee.
- The survey collected demographic information on age, gender, race, and ethnicity. The responses were collected from July 18 to August 21, 2022.
- Out of 1028 survey views, 359 respondents met the inclusion criteria.
- Most respondents were aged 35 to 44 years, and the gender distribution was 57% female, 39% male, and 4% identified as transgender male or man, transgender female or woman, gender nonbinary, or self-described gender.
What the study found
The findings were alarming. A total of 66% of respondents reported experiencing harassment on social media.
- Of these individuals, 88% reported harassment due to advocacy, 45% reported harassment on the basis of gender, 27% on the basis of race or ethnicity, 13% on the basis of sexual orientation, 6% due to disability, and 31% due to other self-described reasons.
- Women and other genders were more likely than men to report harassment based on gender. Additionally, Black respondents reported a higher rate of harassment based on race or ethnicity compared to Asian and White respondents.
- The study also found that 64% of respondents reported harassment related to comments about the COVID-19 pandemic, 31% reported being sexually harassed, and 18% reported that their private information had been shared (i.e., doxxing).
What the findings mean
The study's findings suggest that physicians and biomedical scientists are experiencing high levels of harassment online, a problem that appears to have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is concerning, as social media plays a crucial role in disseminating medical and scientific knowledge to the public.
- The high levels of reported harassment may lead more physicians and scientists to limit the way they use social media, thus leaving the propagation of misinformation unchecked by those most qualified to combat it.
- The study calls for institutions and companies to support those who are attacked and provide mechanisms to reduce harassment and provide accountability.
- 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 study underscores the need for a safer online environment for physicians and biomedical scientists, especially during a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a call to action for institutions, companies, and social media platforms to take steps to protect these professionals from harassment and ensure that they can continue their vital work without fear of personal attacks.
The study acknowledges potential limitations, including potential nonresponse bias, self-selection bias, and recall bias, as participants were asked to recall any instances of harassment, whether remote or recent.
Royan R, Pendergrast TR, Woitowich NC, et al. Physician and Biomedical Scientist Harassment on Social Media During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(6):e2318315. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.18315