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Global Health Versus Online Trolls

Advances in global public health in the twenty-first century will depend not only on ground-breaking research and community work, but also on winning the online information battle. Only by acting quickly to defeat social media trolls, can avoidable illnesses and deaths around the world be prevented.

BOSTON – The most frustrating part of my job as a public health scientist is the spread of false information – usually online – that overrides years of empirical research. It is difficult enough for doctors to counter medical falsehoods in face-to-face conversations with patients. It becomes even harder to do so when such fakery is transmitted via the Internet.

I recently witnessed this pattern first hand in Kashmir, where I was raised. There, parents of young children trusted videos and messages on Facebook, YouTube, or WhatsApp that spread false rumors that modern medications and vaccines were harmful, or even that they were funded by foreigners with ulterior motives. Discussions with local colleagues in pediatrics revealed how a single video or instant message with false information was enough to dissuade parents from believing in medical therapies.

Physicians in other parts of India and Pakistan have reported numerous cases in which parents, many of them well educated, refuse polio vaccinations for their children. Reports that the CIA once organized a fake vaccination drive to spy on militants in Pakistan have added to mistrust in the region. Given the high stakes involved, states sometimes resort to extreme measures, such as arresting uncooperative parents, to ensure that vulnerable communities are vaccinated.