June 3, 2019

This doctor spoke up in favor of vaccines. Then, critics slammed her with 100+ fake negative reviews.

Daily Briefing

    As the anti-vaccine movement grows, more and more physicians are reporting staged cyber-attacks by anti-vaccine groups, Liz Kowalczyk reports for the Boston Globe.

    How to create a consumer-focused digital strategy

    She Googled her name—and was shocked by what she found

    When Monique Tello, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Googled her name last fall, she was shocked by what she found: More than 100 negative and one-star reviews attached to her name on physician rating websites.

    "Ignorant, and could care less about her patients," one poster wrote. "Danger," said another.

    The reviews left Tello feeling "crushed," she recalled.

    But when she took a closer look at the reviews, Tello realized she didn't recognize the names of the people posting them.

    It turned out, Tello discovered, that the negative comments were not from her own patients but rather from anti-vaccine activists. They created the negative reviews, according to Tello, after they discovered pro-vaccine content that Tello had posted on another doctor's Instagram account.

    Tello emailed the physician rating sites, including Vitals and Healthgrades, requesting they remove the bad reviews, but she had no luck—until she hired a lawyer, Kowalczyk reports.

    Ultimately, both Vitals and Healthgrades suspended the review function for her profile, according to Kowalczyk. Stu MacFarlane, chief marketing officer of Internet Brands, which includes WebMD, the owner of Vitals, said, "Because [Tello] was getting spammed so badly, we took off the review function on her site." WebMD bought Vitals last year, and the transition led to a delay in addressing Tello's concern, MacFarlane said.

    Other doctors describe similar harassment

    Tello isn't the only doctor to face this kind of harassment. As the anti-vaccine movement gains momentum, more doctors are reporting experiencing coordinated online attacks by anti-vaccine groups after encouraging parents to vaccinate their children.

    One anti-vaccine group is Stop Mandatory Vaccination, a private Facebook group with more than 160,000 members, according to Kowalczyk. The group's founder did not respond to comments about whether it coordinates mass attacks on doctors, Kowalczyk reports.

    Another closed group is Vaccine Choices—Fact vs Fiction, Conversations, & Research, a private Facebook group that has more than 42,000 members. Sherry Tenpenny, the leader of Vaccine Choices—Fact vs Fiction, Conversations, & Research, said harassment is highly discouraged in the group. "Vaccination has become a volatile topic and personal, retaliatory words and actions serve no one—on EITHER side," she said in a blog post.

    When attacks occur, they typically involve fake negative patient reviews and comments, Kowalczyk reports. The groups often post to popular physician rating sites, such as Healthgrades, since they are a popular reference for first-time patients and do not require a verification process for patients to post reviews, Kowalczyk reports.

    Sometimes, anti-vaccine groups will flood physicians' Facebook and Instagram profiles with negative comments as well.

    Physicians create 'quick-strike teams' to respond to harassment

    To fight the harassment, some providers have established "quick-strike teams" of physicians "that jump online to a colleague's defense" after anti-vaccine groups stage an attack, according to Kowalczyk.

    For instance, when the practice Kids Plus Pediatrics posted a video recommending the HPV vaccine to patients, more than 800 people posted 10,000 negative comments and reviews on the practice's page within one week, according to chief executive Todd Wolynn.

    In response, Kids Plus established Shots Heard Around the World, a pro-vaccine organization that supports doctors who are under attack by anti-vaccine groups by posting comments with links to scientific papers that support the efficacy of vaccines.

    After experiencing her own attack, Tello now moderates a private Facebook group, Physicians Standing Against Cyberbullying and Harassment of Physicians, to help other physicians fight public backlash. 

    In addition to her work helping defend other physicians, Tello also is planning a research project to determine whether public backlash causes doctors to avoid endorsing vaccines.

    A lasting blow

    Although the disparaging reviews were removed from physician rating sites, Tello said she is still haunted by the negative comments. Several weeks ago, a colleague at Massachusetts General called Tello and said that, when she tried to recommend Tello to a patient, the patient refused to book an appointment. "I read about her online and she has horrible reviews," the patient said (Kowalczyk, Boston Globe, 5/11).

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