Understanding and Responding to Online Harassment of Health Communicators

Tworek, Heidi J.S. | $24,974

British Columbia University of British Columbia 2021 SSHRC

CHALLENGE: Effective health communication is critical for addressing the COVID‑19 pandemic and other public health challenges. Health communicators, from government officials to online influencers, have used social media platforms innovatively to engage broad publics and specific communities, as the PI showed in a major research project on COVID‑19 global health communication. Health communicators must not only address misunderstandings and intentionally false claims, they also often face abuse or even threats. Many news accounts in Canada and globally discuss online abuse of public health officers, health journalists, and health experts or practitioners. Such abuse may drive communicators away from social media platforms, undermine their ability to provide high-quality information, and create more space for conspiracy theories. Research on online abuse suggests these harms may be particularly acute for women and members of marginalized ethnic, racial, and gender minorities. However, data-driven evidence of abuse targeting health workers and communicators, and its effects, remains lacking. This knowledge gap is impacting relevant stakeholders’ ability to mount an effective response to the problem.

PARTNERSHIP GOALS: This project aims to analyse the scale, nature, and impact of online abuse targeting health communicators in Canada. Despite much research on online abuse of politicians (including by project members), we know far less about online abuse faced by public health officials, academics, and other health communicators. This project will pay particular attention to health communicators who are members of marginalized ethnic, racial and gender minorities. Findings will supply much-needed insights to develop resources and policies for health communicators.

Knowledge mobilization is key to this project. Research findings will appear in a major public-facing report (in English and French), with recommendations for public health organizations, policymakers, tech companies, and civil society. The report will serve as the basis to engage with health communicators and the public. The PI and collaborators will host an online public event and two training sessions (at least one in French). They will create online resources to help health communicators navigate online abuse, including a text-based simulation. They will engage general and specialist communities through podcasts and media engagement.

PARTNERSHIP BREADTH: Our partner organization is the Institute for Sustainable Dialogue (ISD), a non-profit think-tank dedicated to understanding and addressing polarisation, hatred and extremism globally. ISD has 8 years of experience conducting research, education, and policy work in Canada, including on both right-wing extremism and Covid-related disinformation. Using its powerful suite of digital tools, ISD’s Digital Analysis Unit will investigate the online abuse directed at health communicators in both English and French. The PI’s research team will conduct in-depth interviews with diverse health communicators to understand the abuse they face and how it affects them.

Alongside ISD, the PI has secured collaborators at U. of Ottawa and Royal Roads University with extensive research backgrounds in online abuse and disinformation, especially their gendered and racialized dimensions. To assist with training and knowledge mobilization, we secured three collaborators who are doctors or scientists running significant communications networks like ScienceUpFirst and Solving Healthcare that reach marginalized audiences. Working with our collaborators and their networks ensures significant reach and uptake with audiences ranging from policymakers to university experts to journalists to healthcare professionals.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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