How Physicians and Their Organizations React to Online Hate

Ute Eppinger

August 19, 2022

"A sad day. A new low point in the spiral of hate, violence, and lies. Behind every account, there is a person. Do not forget that. In loving memory," a Twitter user wrote about the death of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr, MD.

"This outcome is very saddening indeed. It should cause everyone to reflect. About interactions in our society, about 'social' media, about tolerance, about consideration, and about freedom," tweeted Dirk Heinrich, MD, chair of the Virchow Association.

The suspected suicide of Kellermayr, an Austrian vaccinator, is stirring emotions in Germany, too. The active exponent and supporter of COVID-19 measures had been seriously threatened by anti-vaxxers and pandemic deniers. Thousands of people in Vienna said goodbye to her with a solemn vigil. Kellermayr's death raises the question of how life-threatening online hatred can be.

Kellermayr, a vaccination campaigner, had received hateful comments and death threats since the start of the pandemic. But a single post on Twitter changed everything. On November 16, 2021, anti-vaxxers held a demonstration outside the Wels-Grieskirchen Hospital. Kellermayr tweeted in disgust, "Today in Wels: a demonstration by conspiracy theorists spills into the street under the gaze of the authorities and blocks both the main hospital entrance and the Red Cross ambulance exit."

At the time of her tweet, Kellermayr was not aware of additional access that had been made available for ambulances. The police reacted to her tweet, calling it a "false report." As Florian Klenk writes in the Austrian journal Falter, the police basically criticized Kellermayr publicly, including in front of the 12,000 Twitter users who follow the police on Twitter.

A screenshot of Kellermayr's tweet and the authorities' response went viral on relevant Telegram forums and triggered a flood of hatred. A COVID denier immediately posted her address online. The next wrote underneath, "someone should leave the stupid cow a few nice words — what sheeple...."

Kellermayr deleted her tweet and asked the police to also delete their tweet, but they did not respond, and the tweet remained online. The country physician was inundated with insults, slurs, and death threats. She was beset by alleged patients who came only to disrupt her work, take videos on their cell phones, and share the photos in anti-vaxxer groups. She privately paid for a security guard, who confiscated butterfly knives from multiple "patients" on their way into the waiting room. Kellermayr looked for help from the medical association, the police, and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. She made her problem public.

Police Recommend Supervision

Kellermayr received emails in which the senders described in detail how they would kill her and her practice team. The physician took the threats seriously; the police did not. The officers investigated. With the evidence that the perpetrators were operating via the dark web, the officers insinuated to Kellermayr that it was not possible to find them, Klenk reported.

Kellermayr filed a complaint for the first time on November 22, 2021. The law enforcement authorities in Upper Austria said they did not have domestic jurisdiction. The Austrian authorities launched another investigation. The German prosecution authorities joined the search for those posting death threats on social media. Even the Munich chief public prosecutor's office and the Berlin public prosecutor's office investigated the case.

According to some reports, Kellermayr did not receive police protection; a patrol was sent over from time to time. According to the police, she should "not be afraid," and if she was, she should just call them. She was also advised to undergo supervision ― in other words, psychological treatment.

Those who had the power to help her provided no support. On the contrary, the spokesperson for the Upper Austria Police said in the Ö1 Mittagsjournal radio program that Kellermayr was "putting herself in the public eye for her own selfish benefit." Even Peter Niedermoser, president of the Medical Association of Upper Austria, told the Austrian daily newspaper Standard, "I understand that you have to defend yourself, but it is a whole other question as to whether you have to discuss every topic to excess on Twitter. Sometimes it's better to step away."

Leaving Twitter

A German network specialist who hunts pedophiles online offered Kellermayr her help and was quickly on the trail of suspects, including a neo-Nazi from the Berlin area and a man from Upper Bavaria. Then the Office for the Protection of the Constitution stepped in. Omar Haijawi-Pirchner, head of the Austrian State Security and Intelligence Directorate, stated that the evidence provided by the network specialist would be pursued.

At the end of June, Kellermayr closed her practice. The situation was no longer tolerable for her staff, and the costs for security, €100,000 up to that point, were no longer manageable. At the start of July, she announced that she wanted to reopen the practice.

In her suicide note to the Upper Austria State Police Department, she wrote "that there was a lot of talking, but no one did anything." In her letter to her medical association, she also made it clear that she had felt abandoned.

"Every suicide is a tragedy. This one more so: a woman in need was abandoned by the police and authorities. That is a social failure," tweeted physicist and author Florian Aigner.

"Threatened. Ruined. Left alone by the state. Because she did her job. Because she got involved. Because she spread information. Because many want to be understanding for the self-styled 'unconventional thinkers,' the 'Querdenker.' Because many did not want to take the threat seriously. Because we tolerate them," tweeted the intensive care physician Lämêth.

"Many colleagues using their real names get all of this outside of Twitter too: emails, phone calls, letters, or even visits by radical fanatics. If you are lucky, there is police protection, or a few reports, but often not a lot happens juridically," tweeted Flow, anesthetist and emergency physician.

"More and more of the people who shaped Twitter by spreading reliable information voluntarily are now backing out. As long as the concept of freedom is abused here for hate and intimidation, individual responsibility can only mean self-defense. Sad," wrote Christian Lübbers, MD, on Twitter. Since the ENT physician started vaccinating patients against COVID-19, he has been tormented with insults and death threats from anti-vaxxers and COVID deniers, Medscape reported.

Examples of people who have backed out and deactivated their account are the virologist Isabella Eckerlek, MD, PhD, of the University of Geneva, and Natalie Grams, MD, spokesperson for the Information Network Homeopathy. For a long time, they spread information about COVID-19, corrected false assertions, and were increasingly faced with insults and hostility.

General practitioner Christian Kröner, MD, has repeatedly been the target of threats and insults and has been under police protection from time to time. He made a statement regarding Kellermayr's death and has shut down his account for the first time following multiple instances of hostility.

Harassment Continues

The hatred, harassment, and slander have not stopped, even after Kellermayr's death. Harald Laatsch, who sits in the Berlin house of representatives for the Alternative for Germany party, commented that it seems "much more likely that she could no longer live with the heavy guilt of being a vaccine propagandist."

"It is repulsive how the Querdenker deride a medical colleague who was driven to death by harassment and violence. She lost her life by saving the lives of others. Others are continuing her work. The state must protect people like her," tweeted Karl Lauterbach, MD, PhD, who has also been overrun with hate campaigns by Querdenker and COVID deniers.

The page "Ich habe mitgemacht" ― Das Archiv für Corona-Unrecht ["I Joined In" ― The Archive for COVID Injustice] probably did not help to deescalate the situation on Twitter. Anonymous archivists there collect allegedly ostracizing quotes and share them, along with names. The context in which these statements were given at the time is not mentioned. Some politicians and journalists have given this online pillory the name, "We joined in! We have ostracized, defamed...".

Being humiliated and defamed is par for the course for those who spread information across social media. As doctor and politician Rainer Röver, MD, wrote, "Whoever is involved in spreading information, science, fighting against fake news and protecting the patients, pupils, clients, or mandates entrusted to them, is being shouted down, threatened in writing, or driven to suicide." The lying, baiting mob is taking over sovereignty of the discussion. According to Röver, the politicians are doing nothing "to actually put a stop to the violent mob."

For some time now, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) of Germany has considered anti-vaxxers or COVID deniers as a "relevant risk" in connection with attacks on vaccination centers or medical practices.

Increasing Aggression

At the start of November last year, participants at the 125th German Medical Assembly demanded that violence against healthcare professionals be outlawed, Mark Berger, deputy spokesperson of the German Medical Association (BÄK), recollected. At the assembly, various medical associations shared reports of an increase in aggression during the pandemic.

The State Medical Chamber of Physicians of Saxony confirmed threats of violence against physicians, death threats against employees of the Vaccination Committee of Saxony, and criminal damage to medical practices that administer vaccinations. Physicians who administer vaccines in schools receive abuse.

Owing to the increasing amount of aggression, the State Medical Association of Thuringia has set up a special email address as a first point of contact to report violence for those who are affected. "In recent months, we have received a large number of reports from physicians who have received threatening letters in relation to the COVID vaccination, or letters purporting to be liability information or notices of liability," explained the Association. In the cases of which the Association becomes aware, a criminal charge is issued most of the time. The investigative proceedings are ongoing.

The State Medical Association of Hesse has devised a reporting form with which it can obtain information on the forms of violence inflicted against physicians and their teams. The reporting is anonymous, and the data are statistically analyzed.

Peter Bobbert, MD, PhD, president of the Berlin Medical Association, provided reports of threat scenarios, "the kind and frequency of which we have never experienced." He received many messages from physicians asking for help because they had received threatening letters or because their addresses had been posted on social networks.

To date, there have only been isolated cases, said Oliver Erens, MD, spokesperson of the State Medical Association of Baden-Württemberg. "But it is true that some colleagues have already had these kinds of experiences." Those affected have primarily reported "discussions, debates, and verbal altercations with patients on the topic of the COVID vaccination, compliance with the mask mandate, and other COVID-containment measures — definitely with a high potential for aggression from some of the patients," said Erens. Cases of physical violence have not been reported to date.

Above all, there has been a need for advice over the phone, predominantly in the legal department of the regional medical associations. "All physicians and their teams are being recommended by their associations to consistently prosecute any cases of threat of, or use of, violence against them," Erens said. In October 2021, the University of Heidelberg started a study on the victimization of physicians. The analysis is ongoing.

Staying on Twitter

Lübbers considered leaving Twitter but decided against it. "I decided not to do it and to carry on spreading information about pseudo-medicine and vaccination. I see this as necessary civic courage and will not give way to hate," Lübbers tweeted.

As understandable as any departure is, "we must not surrender Twitter to the trolls and harassers. Who is still here? #Iamstaying," wrote Flow. Others wrote, "I will stay on Twitter as a physician. With my real name, too. [...] We must not surrender it to the Querdenker, idiots, Nazis, and enemies of freedom."

"We need people to share information, we need voices of reason, just as Kellermayr was. How can you say that it would be better to remain silent? Does everyone who is against idiocy, Querdenker, and conspiracy theorists now have to remain silent?" asked Janos Hegedüs, MD, in his podcast.

Hegedüs, who uncovers fake news about COVID-19 and vaccination, was and remains a frequent target of insults and threats. His attempts to take action against them has had only limited success. His conclusion is sobering. "If you decide to spread information, you should know: you are alone. You will get all of the hate and when you have a problem with it, no one will help you."

Media attorney Chan-jo Jun, who for many years has taken a stand against hate and harassment, has deactivated his Twitter account. However, this is not a retreat, as he clarified in an interview with the German radio station Deutschlandfunk. "I do not intend to give up the fight against hate, harassment, and misinformation, but I will do it in a different place."

He sees Kellermayr's death as a turning point. "I thought that we had learned something after Lübcke [ie, politician Walter Lübcke, who was murdered by a neo-Nazi]. But we are seeing that the death of a political opponent is not just the goal, but also a success for the other side. And that is shocking."

The judicial means of taking action against hate are still not effective, said Jun. He also sees the platform operators as responsible, since they are not obliged to remove unlawful content. "German law and the German constitution hold no sway on Twitter."

Right-Wing Extremism

What happened to Lisa-Maria Kellermayr is the same as targeted terrorism. An organized group set out to annihilate her. Social psychologist Pia Lamberty has spoken, in the context of COVID, about a pandemic of violence, the threatening nature of which has barely been recognized, both in the virtual and analog world.

In an article for the Jüdische Allgemeine, Lamberty criticizes the fact that "the mistakes made with Pegida [ie, a far-right, Islamophobic political movement in Germany] are being made once again" in the classification of Querdenker and COVID deniers. From the very start, the protests against the COVID measures have been a rallying point in the mobilization of right-wing extremists. "The Querdenker movement is unifying radical, right-wing extremist elements. Antisemitism and racism were always welcome." Still, the right-wing extremist motivation has not been clearly labeled as such.

The classification is not just a question of statistics. "It is also about analyzing the potential for danger and deriving political measures from this. And there is an urgent need for action here: The right-wing extremists will utilize the climate crisis, but also the war in Ukraine, attacks against refugees, and LGBTQ rights for further mobilization. Rather than the state, the focus of the attacks will be people who are labeled as the bogeyman. This also must be clearly labeled for what it is," said Lamberty.

She wrote on Twitter, "The COVID-related attacks that took place in the last two years will not simply stop, they will shift. If we do not want more and more people to stop expressing themselves publicly, something urgently has to happen." She added, "Once more: the next few months will be very difficult. This will probably also be accompanied by an increased level of threat for socially engaged people. More protection is urgently required."

This article was translated from the Medscape German edition.

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