Comment

Online abuse: trolls and vaccine conspiracy theorists can’t be left to keep bullying us

Pandemic has brought the best and worst out in the public – and the abuse must be stopped

Social media trolls and baying mobs may be a minority, but they are taking a toll on nurses and must be called out

At the start of the pandemic the general public stood on their doorsteps and clapped, cheered and banged pans in a gesture of thanks and goodwill to NHS staff.

Windows up and down the country were adorned with paper rainbows as a show of support to those working on the front line. Sadly, it felt short lived.

The rise of conspiracy theories and abuse of nurses

As the public started to get fed up with the restrictions, and it became clear the pandemic was going to be a continuing issue curtailing liberties and affecting access to

Social media trolls and baying mobs may be a minority, but they are taking a toll on nurses and must be called out

Picture: iStock

At the start of the pandemic the general public stood on their doorsteps and clapped, cheered and banged pans in a gesture of thanks and goodwill to NHS staff.

Windows up and down the country were adorned with paper rainbows as a show of support to those working on the front line. Sadly, it felt short lived.

The rise of conspiracy theories and abuse of nurses

As the public started to get fed up with the restrictions, and it became clear the pandemic was going to be a continuing issue curtailing liberties and affecting access to NHS services, patience wore thin and the rise in conspiracy theories took over. The NHS was making it up, nurses were lazy and were sat around with no work to do making TikTok videos. COVID-19 didn’t exist, the vaccines were not safe, intensive care units were never full of patients.

And so it went on.

The reality is that over the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses have complained regularly they have been and are the targets of abusive behaviour, both in person and through social media. There have been shocking reports of abuse of staff both in healthcare settings and when they are travelling to and from work. Abuse has been shouted at them, and in some cases they have been subjected to physical violence.

Vile abuse at the end of a harrowing 14-hour shift

The effect that this behaviour has had on nurses has been shocking to hear. I recently talked to an ICU (intensive care unit) nurse who told me about a shift when a number of her patients died of COVID-19, and she had to try to support grieving families over by telephone.

Finally finishing after a gruelling 14-hours, she was met at the entrance of her hospital by a group screaming at her that ‘she had blood on her hands’ and that she ‘killed people’.

Public hostility is taking a heavy emotional toll on nurses

The emotional impact this has had on her is immense. She, and many others, do not deserve this. They are evidence-based professionals, providing complex care under exceptional circumstances. It is our responsibility to ensure we provide the best scientific evidence to support any interventions, be they mask wearing, social distancing or vaccination. Providing that evidence should not be at detriment to our own health, welfare and safety.

Increasingly, members of the public have taken to social media to troll and abuse healthcare professionals, often hiding behind nameless, unidentifiable avatars. I have been called a liar, as have many of my colleagues; I have been told I’m a disgrace to my profession, a moron, a murderer and clueless about intensive care. All by nameless cowards who have no justification or evidence to support their opinions.

Social media platforms must face up to their responsibilities

This disgusting and cowardly behaviour is absolutely unacceptable and should not be tolerated. As a society we should be calling it out. Social media platforms need to take responsibility for the dissemination of abuse and hatred. As nurses we need to be clear we are united in our total rejection of this behaviour.

I often hear ‘it’s only a minority’ and I agree that the vast majority of the public are in complete support of the NHS. However, it only takes a minority, history tells us this, and we need to cut off such behaviour at the roots before it gets out of hand. While we should all want to live in a world where free speech is central, we should call out those who, with purposeful intent, choose to spread misinformation and attack healthcare professionals for doing their job.

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