‘Internet vermin’ target health advocates


Originally posted in the Medical Observer 7th April 2015

PROMINENT health activist Professor Mike Daube suspects commercial interests may be behind some of the anonymous forces using social media to abuse and intimidate public health advocates.

The Curtin University professor, who chaired the committee that recommended plain packaging of tobacco in Australia, says the vitriol dished out by nameless attackers could have a chilling effect on individuals’ readiness to speak out about the health impacts of alcohol, tobacco and other social ills.

“I do think it’s getting to the stage where people in public health are at risk of being intimidated out of it,” Professor Daube told Medical Observer.

“I have certainly been the target of very unpleasant blogs, tweets and direct emails, replete with [obscene language]. It’s no fun having those coming into your inbox.”

He cited the example of a young Australian researcher who stopped commenting publicly about electronic cigarettes after being lashed by “internet vermin”.

“We want to encourage more young people into public health, but if they are going to hit this kind of intimidation I really do worry,” he said.

While vested interests have always conducted smear campaigns against their critics, social media has added a new, nastier dimension because it allowed people to operate anonymously and coordinate attacks behind the scenes.

“Good and decent people are being targeted by trolls as well as all the different groups… industry [and] so-called think tanks with undisclosed funding sources.

“You’ve got stuff coming at you from all these different directions.”

While there is no way of knowing whether commercial interests are coordinating some of the attacks, “it defies belief” that companies are not involved, he said.

Writing in the current issue of the Medical Journal of Australia, Professor Daube says the effect on individuals who are targeted in this way is both wearying and distressing.

“My perception from working across problems including tobacco, alcohol, obesity and gambling is that in recent years public health advocates have been subjected to increasing levels of personal abuse, from industry organisations and their allies through to social media,” he wrote.

“I find it hard to believe that at least some of this is not planned and orchestrated.”

Professor Daube told MO he had weighed up whether to speak out about the trolling issue, considering it might attract more abuse.

“Being a target is not fun, and this [article] in the short term may mean more of it,” he said.

“I’m not on Twitter because I don’t want to have all that malicious stuff coming my way.”

But the only recourse was for victims of such internet attacks to report them and try to expose the people behind the abuse, he said.

“I think we need to expose it. We need to expose some of the people behind it, and we need to encourage and support younger people in advocacy,” he said.