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Doctor's pro-vaccine TikTok went viral. Then came hate and threats from around the world

Erin Glynn, Cincinnati Enquirer
Nicole Baldwin

CINCINNATI – Nicole Baldwin, a pediatrician working in suburban Cincinnati, posted a TikTok video encouraging vaccination on Twitter Saturday evening.

It took less than 24 hours for the video to go viral on both TikTok, a video sharing app, and Twitter – and just another 48 hours before Baldwin was facing backlash from hundreds of thousands of people associated with the anti-vaccine movement.

The video shows Baldwin dancing to "Cupid Shuffle" and pointing to diseases that vaccines prevent. It ends with her pointing to the words "Vaccines don't cause autism."

Baldwin, 42, sees social media as a useful way to spread public health information to her patients. She maintains an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, and runs a blog with tips on keeping parents and children well. The Blue Ash, Ohio pediatrician said she created her TikTok account last week because she wanted to reach a different demographic than she does with her other accounts.

"Obviously, as a pediatrician, I know that vaccines are safe. And I think there's a lot of misconception out there about them," Baldwin told The Enquirer. "I know TikTok has this huge adolescent population as well as some younger adults, so my hope was to spread, you know, that vaccines are safe – spread that message to a different audience than what I'd reached on other social media."

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The anti-vaccine movement made headlines last spring, when widespread distrust of the pharmaceutical industry and the belief that vaccines can lead to autism in children led to a measles outbreak. 

There is no link between vaccines and autism, studies have repeatedly shown.  

Commenters across Baldwin’s social media platforms insulted her, referred to vaccines as “poison” and suggested Baldwin was being paid to promote vaccination. One commenter wrote, “Dead doctors don’t lie.” People then flocked to her Yelp and Google Review pages, leaving one-star reviews in an attempt to sabotage Baldwin’s ratings. 

“I think in this day and age, Google reviews and Yelp reviews are king,” Baldwin told The Enquirer. “And I think that that is the goal for a lot of these people: to hurt my livelihood, to damage my reputation because I believe something different than they do. And it is frightening.”

By Tuesday, people started calling Baldwin’s practice and harassing the staff. When a woman called on Wednesday threatening to “shut the practice down,” the office had to call the police. Deerfield Township police, where Baldwin has a satellite office, said they're investigating.  

Baldwin's TikTok video.

Baldwin reached out to Todd Wolynn, a colleague she had met a couple of months earlier at an event in Columbus and CEO of a pediatric practice in Pittsburgh. Wolynn had dealt with his own intense online backlash from the anti-vaccine movement two years prior and started the organization Shots Heard Round the World as a result.

That group's mission is to help health care professionals fight off globally coordinated attacks from the anti-vaccine movement. The attacks leveled at Baldwin were the largest the organization has seen since they launched their website for health care providers to report an attack in September.

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“This is a global issue,” Wolynn told The Enquirer. “As with what you see in Nicole’s case, the people that attack aren’t the people in your neighborhood, they’re from all over the world. A good doctor doesn’t have time to both see patients and do crisis communications, so that’s where we can help.” 

Many physicians who endure this kind of backlash to a post about vaccinations eventually have to take their post down out of concern that their online ratings will go down and they'll lose potential patients, Wolynn said. 

"Hospitals are businesses. They live and die by the ratings and the reviews," Wolynn said. "The issue here is that people’s health is at stake."

Shots Heard has a closed Facebook group for volunteers to coordinate responses to anti-vaccine attacks. Wolynn refers to these coordinations as "informal activations" of the network and says the organization has helped coordinate over 50 responses to this kind of incident.

For more large-scale attacks, such as what the backlash against Baldwin's post grew into, Shots Heard triggers a "formal activation," meaning an email is sent out to the entire volunteer network. 

Baldwin ended up with 11 people volunteering their services to monitor her social media pages and prevent the spread of inaccurate information about vaccines. By Thursday morning, the volunteers had banned over 5,000 anti-vaccine accounts on Facebook and the angry calls to Baldwin's office had slowed. By Friday afternoon, Google Reviews had removed all fraudulent reviews of Baldwin's practice.

"When the bullies get pushback, they dissipate," Wolynn said. "They’d rather go after people who don’t have help and have to try to defend themselves."

Baldwin says the experience won't stop her from trying to get out the message that vaccines are safe. 

"There will be more TikToks to come," Baldwin said.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Vaccines: TikTok video of Cincinnati doctor Nicole Baldwin goes viral