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Safe Spaces for Health Care Advocates

This essay is the first of a series

The other day I posted this picture of me wearing an N95 mask on Twitter. I have a big-ish following on Twitter and I feel a responsibility to talk about the need for COVID precautions during the pandemic like masks, ventilation and booster shots. Public health officials have stopped communicating clearly about public health, so it is up to advocates to step up and fill this gap.

The trolls got a hold of my tweet. I had restricted its replies, but over 1,900 anti-maskers quote tweeted me and sunk their teeth into my picture, my name and my words. I received some despicable emails too.

Conventional wisdom says block the trolls, but in order to block trolls, you have to click on their tweets and see their vile insults, name-calling and threats. It is gross. I kept being added to unsavoury lists. And being followed by people with 5 followers and miserable right-wing tweets.

Followers – my own followers – who responded positively to my tweet – were targeted by these people too. If you are someone who was attacked because of your reply to my tweet, I’m sorry. I feel terrible about that.

There is obviously an organized campaign against those of us who speak up in favour of masks and other COVID precautions. I don’t get why these people are so angry. Their lobbying and convoys have worked, as they won. As a result, to my absolute horror, public health officials and governments have withdrawn almost all the COVID precautions.

On one hand, I preach about the importance of speaking up, even if you are afraid. On the other hand, Twitter is not a safe space for me anymore.

If you are reading this and not on Twitter, this probably makes no sense. Being on Twitter is starting to make no sense to me too.

I’ve been on there for 12 years and grown my followers to over 7,600 followers, which is amazing. I’ve met many people on that platform that I would have never met in real life, like nurses, physicians, other health professionals, students and researchers. Importantly, I’ve connected with patients and caregivers in other communities beyond my own breast cancer and Down syndrome worlds.

Twitter has given me greatly-appreciated insights on health equity, harm reduction and clinician well-being. I’ve peeked into health care systems in other parts in the world and realized how much more we have in common, no matter where we live or what our roles are. We all are desperate for health care environments that heal and not harm.

My Twitter interactions have recently tipped from being healing to causing harm. I’ve locked my account so only my current followers can see my Tweets and I’ll approve any new followers. But I’m not interested in being public and throwing myself to the wolves again. This isn't out of fear. It is about spending my time in a place where I am valued, not ridiculed. I've learned over the years, as Nina Simone said, to get up from the table when love isn't being served.

At my book launch earlier this week, I talked about the importance of having a safe space to share stories and support each other as health advocates. Twitter is not that place for me anymore.

This is not a "boo-hoo I’m leaving Twitter" essay. Instead, this problem is a chance to, as I say in Ducks in a Row, reimagine the world I want to see. I don’t see many people other than close family since the pandemic began and most of my social contact is online. I need to be connected with other health care advocates around the world for peer support, to swap resources, and so we can offer guidance and a listening ear to each other.

Since current social media platforms aren’t working for me anymore, I am going to build my own. My partner in crime Mike Waddingham and I are designing a safe, closed online space for health care advocates. It will be called the Give A Duck Community.

Next up in this series, I will wave my magic wand and share my blue sky thinking about a new safe spot for health advocates to gather online.

As I often say about health care: There has to be a better way. This applies to the way we connect online too as we collectively rail against the status quo and pine for authentic change. Watch this space for updates.

Peace out. Stay safe out there.

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