Hydroxychloroquine, death threats and communication

In short letter published on November 13 in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, five Swiss and French researchers draw attention to a facet of “dialogue” in the age of social media that we would not have thought possible a few years ago:

Several authors of [cette méta-analyse]suffered a violent cyber-harassment campaign on social media, received hundreds of insults, xenophobic messages, anonymous phones and intimidation, including death threats. These actions were accompanied by public sharing of contact data, including the authors’ postal addresses, on Facebook groups with hundreds of thousands of members.

Such campaigns have long since become commonplace in the cultural or media sector: stars of the scene as well as journalists are regularly the target of hostile comments, even hateful, for having published or said something on a controversial subject.

But in science, it is rarer. The name that comes up most often is that of Paul Offit. From 2009, this professor of pediatrics at the General Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, was the target of hostile attacks, including death threats, for his positions against pseudoscience in general and anti-vaccination charlatans in particular. More recently, reports revealed the strategies common to these campaigns: they are coordinated on an Internet forum (Facebook, Reddit or other), one or more people propose the “argument” to be used and identify, if necessary, the employer of the “target” ”Or one of his relatives… In 2018, the pharmacist Olivier Bernard, known as the Pharmachien, became such a target for a blog post where he rejected the usefulness of vitamin C injections against patients undergoing chemotherapy (his positions earned him in 2019 an international popularization award).

It was therefore to be feared that the irrational passions aroused by hydroxychloroquine would in turn cause this type of slippage. In fact, the five authors lend their support to a Brazilian colleague, Marcus Lacerda, who faced a similar campaign last spring. According to what reported in June a report of Lancet Infectious Disease, the pre-publication, a few weeks earlier, of what was then the first clinical test with a control group on the effectiveness of chloroquine (and which resulted in negative results) was immediately followed by a hostile campaign on social media. It had apparently been initiated by an American right-wing activist who, on Twitter, had presented the study as being “financed by the left”; the son of the Brazilian president, Eduardo Bolsonaro, had forwarded the accusation to his two million followers on Twitter, and rage ensued.

“This behavior has a purpose,” write the five researchers in their November 13 letter. “Scare researchers and doctors, and silence them. However, silence would be the worst response to this type of behavior, making societies vulnerable to populism and obscurantism. “

How information circulates and how it is perceived and understood by part of the public is also part of the problem. As Brazilian researcher Marcus Lacerda said in June, “When we first announced that we were going to test chloroquine to treat COVID-19, we were seen as heroes in Brazil, people sent us messages of ‘encouragement and everyone was excited’. But when the results of the study came out, the attitude changed dramatically.

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