Pseudonyms and public health

As those of you who read other ScienceBlogs are probably already aware, the ScienceBlogs overlords have decided that all bloggers on this network must blog under their own names — no more pseudonyms. I don’t understand or agree with this policy. Some of my favorite ScienceBlogs are written by authors using pseudonyms, and the quality of their content is consistently high. Readers may not be able to check these authors’ credentials, so the amount of trust they place in the authors’ blogs is based on the content of posts. (I don’t know that quality and credibility are the rationale for the no-pseudonyms decision, because as far as I know, no reason has been given.)

Those who blog under pseudonyms, or under their real names without their employers’ knowledge, should know that someone, someday will make the connection. I suspect most pseudonymous bloggers accept this risk and go to varying lengths to mitigate it depending on how severe they expect the consequences to be if, say, their employers learn about their blogging. And employers aren’t the only ones whose knowledge can have negative consequences, as I’ll get into in a moment.

The consequences of an employer learning of an employee’s blogging activities became clear last week, when a public health blog was deleted. René Najera, or EpiRen, was an epidemiologist employed by a state health department who blogged and tweeted about public health issues; I’m sorry to say I didn’t know about him before he became a case study in the perils of blogging, because what I’ve read of his cached material is informative and relevant to public health issues like vaccination. EpiRen – who, as I understand it, blogged under his own name and used the EpiRen handle in Twitter and blog commenting – got into a heated exchange with a commenter who disagreed with him. Liz Ditz explains what happened next:

Last weekend, Mr. Najera had a heated exchange with a pharmaceuticals “entrepreneur”, Mr. X — I put that in quotes as Mr. X. made some claims that don’t stand up. Mr. X also made a series of ad hominem attacks on Jen Gunter MD, to which Mr. Najera responded.

Rather than responding to Mr. Najera, Mr. X escalated in a particularly virulent way. Mr. X sent a series of emails–complaining about Mr. Najera’s opinions, complaining about Mr. Najera’s defense of vaccination, and threatening legal action–to a great many people senior to Mr. Najera in his department — starting with Mr. Najera’s immediate superior. Mr. X was able to do so because Mr. Najera was blogging under his own name, named the state in which he worked, and because the name René Najera is rather uncommon — especially in a small, East Coast state.

Then come screen captures of tweets from EpiRen:

I am to end all social networking activity related to public health if I wish to continue being employed. I guess all good things …

and

An antivaxer made an enormous stink about me to them. They wish to avoid further “embarrassment”.

One commenter on LizDitz’s post suggested contacting Najera’s superiors to complain about their action, and Najera commented shortly thereafter:

Hello, everyone. I am deeply, deeply humbled by all the support I’ve been getting on this matter. I’ve talked it over with plenty of people and we’ve come to the conclusion that it is best to abide by the decision that came from all this. Why? Because it is more important that I remain an epidemiologist and have the ability to enter a PhD program so I can continue to do my work. It is also important to have a paycheck, to be quite honest.

I also understand where they’re coming from. Anything I say or do in public DOES go back to them because I’ve been open to interviews, presentations, and articles where I am identified as an epidemiologist that works for the state health department. It’s kind of a funny thing, but writing anonymously might have been better. But that is for a whole other discussion.

At this time, I’d like to thank you over and over for all the support. I’m very happy to have a group of friends that are willing to “go to bat” for me. I’ve been fielding twitter messages, emails, and your comments here and elsewhere about this, and all have been nothing but supportive. I don’t think that a same number of emails or messages to people at the department would have the same effect. It would probably not make things better. So I ask that you not contact them.

If and when I do get back to writing, I’ll let you all know. As for relieving my need for writing, I’ll do it professionally to journals and publications. There will be less snark, but I’ll be getting the message out that science desperately needs to be protected and promoted.

Thank you again.

I respect Najera’s wishes that people not contact his department about the issue, and I understand that I’m not familiar with the particulars of this situation. That said, I think it would behoove public health entities to be supportive of employees who wish to use social media to advance understanding of public health issues, provided they make accurate statements about public health topics, refrain from uncivil attacks on commenters who express disagreement, and clearly differentiate their statements from official employer positions. From what I’ve read in Najera/EpiRen’s cached material and in blog posts and comments about his departure, he was not only accurate, civil, and clear about his views being his own, but also did a great job explaining epidemiology in language accessible to non-experts. This is something public health needs more of, especially at a time when inaccurate information and misunderstanding are proliferating on the internet. I would advise public health departments to develop both clear policies about the use of social media by employees (e.g., that blogging and tweeting about work-related topics is allowed provided appropriate disclaimers are used) and strategies for using social media to disseminate accurate public health information.

Blogger and researcher harassment
Several bloggers have noted that EpiRen’s situation highlights the need to blog under a pseudonym, but the most alarming examples they give highlight the problem with harassment rather than employers. (In fact, Orac notes that when an anti-vaccine blogger started a campaign to get Orac fired from his academic position, the dean called Orac to express her support for him – a demonstration that some employers do support employees expressing their opinions online.) Extremists opposed to animal research have for several years been trying to intimidate researchers involved with animal studies, through threats and, in some cases, vandalism and use of explosive devices. Those who disagree with researchers’ findings have also taken to making threats and, in some cases, showing up in person. “HIV denier Andrew Maniotis showed up, unannounced, at my work office one day a few years ago,” Tara C. Smith writes, in a post that explains why she’d blog pseudonymously if she started today. In a recent BMJ piece, Nigel Hawkes describes harassment of researchers whose findings on chronic fatigue syndrome upset members of that disease community.

Blogging under a pseudonym doesn’t mean that someone who disagrees with a blogger’s research methods or opinions won’t figure out who the blogger is and harass him or her. Given that not all of the current and potential harassers out there have the skills or tools to trace a pseudonymous blog to the person behind it, though, a pseudonym could be expected to reduce, or at least delay, such harassment.

The biggest problem here is people who escalate from disagreement in comments to harassment of bloggers with whom they disagree. This harassment can not only make bloggers fear for their safety, but discourage others who have good ideas and communication skills from using social media to join the conversation. At a time when we’re facing so many pressing problems (public health and otherwise), we need more thoughtful communication and less intimidation.

Comments

  1. #1 unsafetv
    August 23, 2011

    Thanks for posting about this.
    I hope you don’t mind if I share my perspective, since I just went through this decision process myself as I started my own little blog. I don’t think the issues I cover are as likely to generate as much discourse or vitriol as EpiRen did, but I still did not want to blog in my real name.
    There is something about the level of discourse in the internet on polarizing issues that dissuades professional people from risking their reputations when they enter the fray.
    I certainly don’t want to have any run-ins with people like “Mr X”, and all it would take is responding awkwardly to nasty comment when you’re in a bad mood and there it goes, escalating out of control.

    WHether you choose to be pseudonymous or not, I do think it’s wise to tell your supervisor just in case they have any restrictions that would help them protect themselves from your outside of work activities. I think in Public Health, since many of us work in governmental roles, we are even more loathe to jeopardize the status of our employers with our online activities, and that why pseudonymous posting is important to us.

    It seems only fair that if Science Blogs prevents its bloggers from using their online personas, that they prevent their bloggers from attack in some way. Perhaps by requiring facebook log in from commenters, a method that other sites have been trying in an attempt to improve the level of discourse, maybe they would accomplish that goal.

  2. #2 Lassi Hippeläinen
    August 24, 2011

    Flooding EpiRen’s employers with messages of sympathy wasn’t the right thing to do. The proper response would have been to out “Mr. X” and give him an electronic cake in the face.

    @unsafetv: I don’t have a Facebook account, and I have no plans to get one.

  3. #3 unfortunate
    August 24, 2011

    As a long-time reader of his blog and an epidemiologist who has been to a couple of lectures by EpiRen in the past, I am deeply saddened that he had to end his blog. I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation of scientific evidence and design methodology. In the past year, I have had 2 friends (who worked for the Federal Government) get fired due to personal blogging. Understandably, pseudonyms are important for purposes of liability, especially when you are blogging about your employer or about your work (common sense). However, I also believe we are at a greater loss for not having a blog like EpiRen. The public health community needs people like EpiRen to combat unsound or misguided science (such as the damage caused by Dr. Wakefield and the media).

  4. #4 Rozzer
    August 27, 2011

    I very much wonder about the effectiveness of specifically internet participation (i.e., comments and/or blogposts, rather than print articles then published on the web) in countering and combatting egregious positions on contentious topics like vaccines, research using animals or chronic fatigue syndrome, just to name a few. I’m not saying such participation does not have a positive effect, I just have never seen any serious research or analysis that shows that it does have a positive effect.

    Does anyone reading this have anything other than anecdotal evidence to prove this particular point? The impression I have had for quite a while is that internauts with very rigid (and counter-factual) views are here simply to reaffirm those prejudiced views and by no means to be open to challenge and questioning. Obviously it would be nice if that weren’t so, but if it is so then why endanger yourself under your own name talking into the wind?

  5. #5 Kelly
    September 13, 2011

    I think that because many bloggers do not come from a journalism background they do not understand that harassment by a tiny percentage of the public is common place in journalism and in all subjects not just science. As well, many times kooks who have nothing to do with an issue latch onto it because they are angry. Happens in politics all the time.

    This isn’t defending it simply pointing out that nothing is really new under the sun.

    There are some key things you can do besides using a pseudonym.

    Moderate comments – if you don’t feel like they contribute to the discussion delete them. Just make sure you aren’t deleting them because you are closed to any point of view not your own. Be open to being challenged and questioned if you can. Being closed to challenge and questioning is a human thing not exclusive to people writing comments.

    Don’t encourage nastiness by being nasty and unprofessional yourself. For example, ERV writes a good virology blog, but I’d rather read Dr. Vincent Racaniello’s virology blog because he sticks to the facts. Comments on his blog rarely get out of hand. On the other hand ERV is extremely nasty, antagonistic and vitriolic in some areas and is then furious when a handful of people unfortunately sink to her level. Libel cuts both ways.

    Differentiate between obnoxious emails and comments from patients following the model of AIDS activists and ACT UP and other issues. Patients who are housebound and bedbound with a severe disease are very different from healthy people throwing bombs.

    There are different levels of harassment and danger. Tarring everyone with the same brush is an easy way to marginalize people instead of understanding their point of view.

  6. #6 Liz Ditz
    September 16, 2011

    Thanks for the link and the kind words — I read this when it was posted, and forgot to say thank you.

    Lassi Hippeläinen: “Mr. X” was fully out — I just didn’t want to give him any more Google juice by using his real name. It didn’t work; he came to my blog, outed himself, and proceeded to threaten me with litigation and so on..

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