Hate mail and cyber trolls: the view from inside public health

The blogosphere is a sewer of frothing, often anonymous, swill. Flickr/joeshoe

The Charlotte Dawson troll saga shocked many Australians, with revelations of vile tweets, death threats and online intimidation. Nobody should have to endure this kind of abuse, but unfortunately it’s surprisingly common for those of us working in areas that challenge strong interest groups.

Over 35 years, my work as a public health researcher and advocate has upset many disease-promoting industries, their cheer squads and various nut-job cause leaders.

In the 1990s, after lobbying for gun law reform, I got lots of feverish hate mail from “decent, law abiding shooters” and a traced death threat. Each anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre I’m sent anonymous white feathers. Sixteen years on there has not been another mass shooting.

A leading anti-vaccinationist challenged me to bare my backside on TV while I was injected with all the evil vaccines I supported, calibrated up to match my weight. I didn’t do it but by coincidence, the next day I had five vaccines for an African trip. I write from the grave.

More recently, Gerard Henderson told readers that because I have no medical degree, no one should believe a word I say about the problems with prostate cancer screening – despite similar concerns having been raised by every expert group that investigated the issue. I’m sure Gerard wouldn’t listen to Oxford’s Sir Richard Peto, the world’s foremost epidemiologist, either. After all, he’s a mere mathematician.

Gerard’s sentiments are shared by UK blogger “Big” Dick Puddlecote, who sounds like he might be a Beatrix Potter villian. According to Dick, I’m a “swivel eyed loon … a sociologist who has posed as health expert for the past 30 years.”

The pro-tobacco people also have a way with words. And the growing momentum toward plain packaging has made their heads spin like Linda Blair in the green projectile vomit scene in The Exorcist.

According to the tobacco lobbyists, I am “the Worst Public Health Person In The World … the perfect storm of a card-carrying public health person who is harmful to both public health science and the public’s health.” I am also “responsible for the most pointless deaths of his countrymen since the guy who ordered the army to Gallipoli”.

All this is because in the 1980s, I advised the government to ban smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco and snuff) in Australia, thwarting a circling US tobacco company hoping to start a whole new route of addiction here.

For years, the author of this nastiness, “Professor” Carl Phillips who “runs a university-like research shop”, took money from the smokeless tobacco industry. Unlike the fools who awarded me various medals for my work, Carl notes that “nothing Chapman ever did made any substantial difference in the inexorable flow” away from smoking. Apparently, it all happens by itself.

Bathing in cyber sewage

Within the blogosphere is a sewer of frothing, often anonymous, swill. The comments are today’s equivalent of the threatening call from a phone booth. A dozen or so blogs I check on occasionally – with the compulsion we have to look at car crashes – are echo chambers for the same small group of serial hate mongers.

Jay, who has the gift and never exaggerates, says of me: “Like a vicious herpes infection, or a stinking, floating turd that just won’t be flushed, Simon Chapman won’t go away. To say he is a petty, hateful bastard is being way too kind. This man is quite possibly the root of all evil in modern society. In the fullness of the time, the world will see him as one of the most hateful beings to have lived.” I don’t believe we’ve met, Jay.

Always on the spot with timely comparisons, Lou observed recently, “The similarities in reasoning between Simon Chapman and Anders Breivik are terrifying. Both are convinced of their own ‘right’ and thus their justification to take life. Simon Chapman only wants official sanction to do this and I have no doubt he would derive great pleasure in shooting smokers. Indeed I suspect he would spend many years doing little else.” Lock your doors.

One commenter suggested that April should be “make Simon Chapman regret saying silly things on Twitter month”. Terrified, I locked myself in my lead-walled bunker.

Patsy had a red hot go, insisting I earn $3 million a year (that’s around the total competitive grant funds I share with various colleagues, spread across five years, all of which pays for staff). But Pasty won’t hear a bar of it. She says I’m “a dangerous sociopath and he scares me.”

Another troll says I’m “the kind of vermin that now infest our society … I believe he’s been involved in producing several studies which I would dearly love to boil down in fish oil and force feed him every rotten scrap.”

But nothing prepared me for the UK’s Christopher Snowdon, an “independent” blogger who is now a cyber errand boy for Big Tobacco. I’ve copped “grandpa”, “scrotum-faced head-banger” and “wrinkled rocker”, all because I have attained the advanced age of 60 and sing in a band. With life expectancy of at least another 20 years, about half of young Master Christopher’s age, I plan to be around for a while.

Meanwhile, smoking rates are the lowest on record and still in free fall. Today’s male lung cancer rates per 100,000 were last seen in 1962 and female will never get to half the peak seen in males.