Todd Wolynn might not have expected to become a leading fighter in online battles. His passion was, and is, paediatrics—he’s currently the CEO of Kids Plus Paediatrics, and the Chief Executive Director of the Breastfeeding Center of Pittsburgh. He’s a national expert in paediatric sleep issues, practice management, and breastfeeding, and won an ‘America’s Top Doctors’ Award from US News & World Report for eight years in a row.
I first met Todd back in 2019 at the IPA Congress on Vaccine Communication, and we hit it off immediately.
Since then, I’ve admired his effort and willingness to put himself out there—braving the internet trolls for an incredibly important cause. Fighting back against anti-vaccine forces was extremely important before 2020, but now, with COVID-19, the battle has reached critical momentum.
Dr. Todd is an expert in immunisations, something which has unfortunately become a controversial issue. This topic has summited recently as the COVID-19 vaccines have been rolled out, however immunisations for years has been a topic for discussion for medical practitioners and the general public.
In summer 2017, Wolynn’s Kids Plus Paediatrics posted a 90-second Facebook video titled ‘We prevent cancer’, urging parents to get their kids the HPV vaccine—a seemingly normal and recommended means of prevention against the HPV virus. The video was a success, leading to an uptick in locals calling in for the vaccine.
It wasn’t long, however, before a very different response emerged: the video had been posted in anti-vaccine social media groups, and Kids Plus’s whole online presence (from Facebook to Yelp reviews) was under attack by anti-vaxxers. Some digging revealed it was a coordinated campaign, reaching far beyond locals in Pittsburgh—one of the most prolific posters was a woman in Australia. In just 8 days, their pages had received 10,000 negative comments from about 800 commenters, some violent or threatening.
“Social media platforms have been weaponized and turned into attack platforms for the anti-vaccine forces.” – Dr.Todd Wolynn
The experience was unsettling, but Wolynn and Kids Plus decided to turn it into a learning opportunity, researching who was behind the attack campaign, how it was coordinated, and how to fight back. They put together a response blueprint and a network of support, getting the attention of national media and many others. Dr.Todd Wolynn found himself embracing the role of acting as one of the main communicators of the effort.
“We made the decision to really stand by the facts, and to fight back from being attacked.” – Dr.Todd Wolynn
“It will be like a virtual cavalry,” said Wolynn. “If somebody is under attack, these will help defend and fight off these attacks.”
Despite the possible dangers (online harassment is increasing, and the confidence of keyboard warriors), Wolynn has not shied away from being one of the faces of the effort.
Dr. Todd Wolynn helped start Shots Heard Round the World, a “thoroughly vetted, proudly evidence-based, rapid response network dedicated to combating anti-vaccine attacks on the social media pages, web sites, and review sites of providers, practices, hospitals, and whole health systems.” The initiative is a network for backup (“light the signal fires of Gondor, and send in the Shots Heard cavalry!”) as well as a resource for an anti-anti-vax battle plan to fight off misinformation attacks.
Shots Heard Round the World recently joined up under the umbrella of the Public Good Projects (PGP), a non-profit focused on this kind of health communication work. Another project of theirs, Stronger.org has the goal “to stop the spread of misinformation by advocating for facts, science, and vaccines.” It seems like a great fit for Todd, who is now a Senior Advisor at PGP. This kind of behavioural, hybrid effort—mixing the power of the online and offline worlds, and building alliances to empower the scientists —is also a huge interest of mine, and support at ZN with cutting-edge campaigns.
Many days it seems like disinformation is winning the battle to dominate the social media conversation, however, Todd and others fighting back have made continuous progress, doctors are trusted, but the anti-vax activists can spread more quickly. The communication professionals Dr.Todd interacts with still report difficulties in coordinating and finding centralised, easily formatted and prepared content to use to fight back. Not to mention the brilliant use of TikTok!
Doctors are trusted, they’re authority figures – people will listen to them whether it’s face to face, or if they’re sharing this information on other channels. The Public Good Projects, stronger.org, Shots Heard and related initiatives from Todd and others are creating that content. And we believe data, science, and good faith will win the day—not Facebook groups coordinating harassment on Yelp pages.
Our social media toolkit, developed for DG Health:
We are facing a historical global crisis, and Dr. Todd is playing an important role in increasing confidence in science, trusted healthcare and vaccines. In my Hyperthinking podcast Dr. Todd explains how good communication and social media can make all the difference.