Vardit Ravitsky informs the public while fending off attacks and threats on social media

Vardit Ravitsky

Vardit Ravitsky

In 5 seconds

Since the beginning of the pandemic, bioethicist Vardit Ravitsky has given many interviews and has been very present on social media, where she hasn’t always had an easy ride.

Vardit Ravitsky, professor of bioethics in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine in the School of Public Health at the University of Montreal, has been present in the media and active on social media for years because there is strong public interest in her field of expertise: emerging biotechnologies such as pre-natal genetic testing, medically assisted reproduction and embryonic research.

Ravitsky has 3,700 followers on Twitter and many others on LinkedIn. The basic goal of her many posts is to get the facts out there and encourage the public to engage in informed debate on the bioethical issues raised by emerging technologies, on the policies that govern them, and on scientific articles and conferences that deal with them. The knowledge she shares, however, has sometimes made her the target of aggressive comments and even threats.

Why are you active on social media?

I’ve been doing it for several years because my field of research raises very controversial social and ethical questions concerning, for instance, eugenics, the rights of people with disabilities, non-traditional family structures and privacy when it comes to sharing genetic information. So I’ve been present on social media and have given numerous interviews to various media outlets.

However, since the beginning of the pandemic, things have changed. As a bioethicist working in a school of public health, I’ve been receiving several requests per week, or even per day, from journalists to comment on the social, ethical and psychological dimensions of management of the pandemic.

Suddenly, public health ethics was no longer something only experts cared about; from one day to the next, everyone was interested. As a specialist who is able to explain the ethical principles behind COVID policies, I realized I could help the public understand—and hopefully follow—the public health measures. I decided to make myself available to journalists 24/7 and to increase my presence on social media.

Since March 2020, I’ve given more than 250 interviews in print media and on radio and television. I’ve written a number of opinion pieces on the subjects I’m particularly passionate about, like global vaccine inequity and triage protocols. I have hosted a series of podcasts and posted hundreds of comments on social media.

Are you trying to reach the people spreading disinformation or the people who might believe it?

There are two types of people who help spread misinformation. There are the super-spreaders who intentionally create and circulate false information to promote a political ideology. Then there are people who pass on or re-post it, not with any bad intent but because they naively believe what they see and don’t have the critical mindset or scientific background to evaluate the validity of what they are reading and passing on.

I mostly target the second group. I want to help get more “good information” on social media and draw as many eyeballs as possible to it. It is important to make this information accessible and intelligible, so that people are inclined to share it.

Are you concerned that disinformation is gaining ground?

Yes, absolutely. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen disinformation on all aspects of COVID-19 spreading fast: about the virus itself, its effects on humans, the efficacy of public health measures in slowing its spread, the effectiveness and safety of vaccines, the situation in the health care system. There’s been false information about every aspect of pandemic management. This is why it’s become so important to share information based on scientific evidence.

We’ve also seen extreme social polarization about the vaccine and the politicization of health measures. Therefore it is very important to offer thoughtful, nuanced analysis of the situation and to explain the data and ethical principles that factor into policy-making.

What is your strategy to avoid getting drawn into quarrels?

I try to limit the amount of time I spend reading false information. I look at it to understand what people are being exposed to and how to address it, but I restrict my exposure to disinformation to avoid feeling too pessimistic and despondent.

When someone responds aggressively to your comments, how do you react?

When I took a clear stand in favour of the public health measures and vaccination, very aggressive groups of anti-vaxxers started targeting me. I even received death threats and my office address was shared on Twitter. I thank the University of Montreal for providing immediate support and all the necessary resources to protect my security and to make me feel I wasn’t alone. I even received a personal message of support from the rector, which I really appreciated.

The research shows that reacting to violence on social media only makes things worse. It is best not to respond to verbal violence. So I ignore people who threaten me and I block them. But I don’t let them silence me; I just carry on sharing accurate information and a nuanced point of view.

What advice do you have for colleagues who want to comment on social media?

First of all, consider not just where your expertise lies but also what you are passionate about. Being active on social media takes time and energy that could otherwise be devoted to research and mentoring. So it’s important to do it in a field you really care about and that can be of value to society.

Secondly, learn how to be effective. Develop the ability to communicate in an accessible and concise way, using concrete examples and narratives. Create short news flashes that people will find useful and interesting, and will want to share.

Finally, if you want to tackle controversial subjects, such as vaccine passports, be prepared for very aggressive reactions and even personal threats. Think about the resources you have to help you deal with that. Make sure your family and colleagues are there to support you so you can face these very unpleasant experiences and be resilient.

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social media COVID-19 ethics