When Anti-Vaccine Are Vicious Internet Bullies

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When Anti-Vaxxers Are Vicious Internet Bullies

Karl Tapales/Getty; Free To Be Kids/Facebook

Trigger Warning: contains graphic description of infant death; includes photos

We are “the Sheeple.” We are the “fascist censors.” We are the murders. They hope our children die. We have blood on our hands. “Congratulations on joining the fascist club,” they say.

These are just some of the comments anti-vaccine activists have slung at Courtney Hartman, owner of the alternative kids’ clothing company Free to be Kids, and Sarah Adams, owner of another alternative kids’ company, Wire & Honey. Hartman put up her shirt recently —”Vaccine Give Your Body Super Strength,” a cute cartoon about vaccines coaching white blood cells to fight the measles. Adams had hers up, which says “Vaccines Save, Bro,” for the past five years. Both have suffered coordinated campaigns by communities of anti-vaccine advocates determined to terrorize them, discredit their companies, and ultimately force them to pull the shirts.

Coordinated attacks by anti-vaxxers are nothing new, of course. CNN details several stories of grieving parents who endured vicious social media attacks by anti-vaccine advocates after suffering the death of a child. One woman was told she “murdered her son,” and “called her the c-word.” Other claimed “she was advocating for flu shots so that other children would die from the shots and their parents would be miserable like she was.” When another woman posted about her 5-year-old’s death by the flu, urging others to get shots, she was branded a “PHARMA WHORE,” a “SLUT,” and received death threats.

Hartman says the coordinated attacks against her began within hours of her posting the shirt on her Facebook page. Within an hour, the anti-vaccine brigades  were all over it in full force, “making it look like there were far more of them than there actually are,” she says. She banned people left and right, but they kept coming. In the end, so far, she’s banned thousands of people. Hartman refused to allow anti-vaccine material to remain on her page — she says she felt a responsibility to make sure people had accurate information — and banned people who spread it.

She tells Scary Mommy, “It was a 24 hour job to block people. I told my husband I was afraid to go to bed because there are so many of them. They are super quick and clearly organized. They have so many groups and sub-reddits. They alert each other to anything vaccine positive and post 50-100 memes. They attack anyone who is there, not just us (the company). They can get a lot of bad information out there very quickly.”

In fact, she knows coordinated attacks were spread. Someone shared her page on an anti-vaccination public page, and she was alerted. Hartman says she’s sure it’s happening behind the scenes, in secret groups as well.  Others agree. According to the Washington Post, a social media attack toward a pediatrician’s office was “directed from inside closed anti-vaccine Facebook groups, in which members have to be approved to join.”

We know they’re all coordinated,” said Erica DeWald, director of advocacy for Vaccinate Your Family, the nation’s largest nonprofit dedicated to advocating for vaccinations, told the Washington Post. “These people didn’t just come from the United States, either; they came from across the globe: 36 states and a whopping 8 countries.

These attacks didn’t stop on posts about the shirts, either. Both Adams and Hartman have had to disable their Facebook reviews, Adams long ago. Adams says, “ It wasn’t customers, it was anti-vax reviews drowning out the actual reviews.” Hartman says they got about 10 negative reviews in the first 24 hours claiming that she and the company advocated “forced medical procedures,” something she never said. “There’s something I’m not okay with about the government putting something into your body without your consent,” she says. “But I think everyone should vaccinate.” But afterwards, the company got 2,000 positive reviews. “A lot of people had our backs,” she says.

According to the Washington Post, anti-vaccine advocates ravage google and yelp reviews, which turns off new parents. Adams was actually doxxed because of her “Vaccines Save, Bro” shirt. Her address was published, along with pictures of her, her husband, and her children. A man told followers to go after her, but he was vague, so the exhortation could mean anything from protest to straight murder. She’s assuming he gave the free rein. “I used to cry a lot,” she admits. Facebook, she says, “basically said ‘sorry about your luck,’ and did nothing.”

This is terrifying.

Moreover, both women have been asked, unironically, how much Big Pharma is paying them, or is paying them per shirt.

The bullying goes even further. Adams says that a group called “Beware the Needle” trolls for her hashtag #vaccinessavebro and then takes the pictures of the children, adds them to their instagram, and diagnoses them with vaccine-preventable illnesses. Of one mother they say, “This nutter injects her kids with neurotoxins,” and a commenter agrees she’s “missing so many brain cells.” The stolen photo of a deceased infant is shared, along with the words, “This precious, beautiful baby. Didn’t even stand a chance against all that poison. RIP Zedikiah.”

Beware the Needle also posts another picture of a child who died of SIDS, with the words, “Rest In Peace, Baby Remi Rose.” Hashtags include #vaccinescausesids.

Many of the people on the threads claimed that their children were “vaccine-injured,” showing everything from photos of children with hives to more serious claims about speech delays and autism (the link between autism and vaccines has been disproven multiple times). According to Health Resources and Service Information, “for every 1 million doses of vaccine that were distributed, 1 individual was compensated.” Moreover, “Being awarded compensation for a petition does not necessarily mean that the vaccine caused the alleged injury.” Rather, it “sets a lower bar for evidence of vaccine-related harm than would be accepted in civil courts, but that’s what it takes for the program to succeed in helping to protect the vaccine supply,” says the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

So basically, unless all those one-in-a-million moms were all up on Adams’s and Hartman’s walls at once, they’re definitely mistaken about the rate/severity of vaccine injuries.

But the comments that make Hartman the saddest, she says, are the ones that actually think there are two sides to this story, that she shouldn’t censor it because both voices deserve to be heard. But what about the immuno-compromised, she asks. Adams says she has a customer whose children can’t be vaccinated; she has bought a “Vaccines Sav, Bro” shirt in every size as her children grow. She recognizes that vaccines save, and she advocates for them because the herd immunity resulting from those vaccines are necessary to protect her children.

In the end, Hartman says, anti-vaccine advocates like to say that they have the right to make the decision to vaccinate for their own kids, but instead, “they’re making it for everyone’s kids.”

“Vaccines Save, Bro” has been the top seller on Adams’ page for the past five years, and Hartman says her sales of the shirt have been amazing. The science-minded people have shown up for them.

People have messaged Hartman saying, “We’re going to have your back on this, always.”

And perhaps this is the only good to come out of the whole affair. There are more people who believe in the fact-based, peer reviewed, longitudinal research of vaccination than those who dispense pseudoscience and threats.  But the latter are loud — and as it seems, meaner too.