Doctors Who Fought COVID-19 Turn To Fighting Online Abuse; They Aim To Keep Harassment From Impeding Future Medical Efforts

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hideaki Oka, who has dealt with social media slander and defamation, speaks in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, in May.

Doctors who encouraged people to get vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic instead became targets of severe slander and defamation on social media, accused of being responsible for the COVID-19 crisis.

Knowing that if doctors hold back out of fear of such slander, it will prevent accurate information from being shared when the next pandemic happens, some have decided to fight back and try to hold slanderous posters responsible for their actions.

Verbal abuse

“A scumbag murderer who killed people by promoting vaccination.”

“Go to hell, Corona Brain.”

“Your life is worthless.”

Such were just some of the bile spewed at Hideaki Oka, a professor at the Department of General Internal Medicine of Saitama Medical Center, in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, who got involved in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak. He has suffered from persistent abuse on social media since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in 2020.

Immediately after the virus broke out, Oka began disseminating information via Twitter (now X) about the severe pressure hospitals were under and calling for people to take infection prevention measures. Almost immediately, the social media slander and abuse began. The situation got worse around 2022, when he started commenting online about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in preventing severe illness and related problems.

“You’re terribly disgusting.”

The abusive comments from anonymous accounts never stopped. Since around May 2023, Oka has submitted legal requests for disclosure of information on the senders of about 50 posts. So far, about 20 people have been identified. Nearly half immediately acquiesced to his demand for an apology, and agreements for restitution were reached for as high as ¥1 million.

“I should not have been so emotional. I should have expressed my opinions in a level-headed manner. I was a coward,” read one remorseful letter that he received.

Still, others dug in their heels and kept posting even more aggressive comments such as: “My urge to kill is rising,” or “I want to kill you.”

In cases of especially abusive comments, Oka filed both civil lawsuits demanding compensation and criminal complaints with police. Oka said there were more than 5,000 slanderous posts against him.

“If doctors become reluctant [out of fear of slander], accurate information cannot be disseminated to the public. I want social media operators to strictly regulate slanderous, harassing and defamatory posts,” Oka said.

A long wait for disclosure

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hideaki Oka

Also a victim of online slander and abuse was Dr. Takahiro Kinoshita, 38, who shared information about COVID-19 vaccines on X and other online platforms as a deputy representative of CoV-Navi, a website about COVID-19 vaccines that ceased operation in November 2023.

His home address was published online, and groundless claims were disseminated that Kinoshita only pretended to be vaccinated. For that, he decided to take legal action.

However, it took at least six months for any of the posters’ information to be disclosed. In one case, he spent an entire day looking over about 1,000 slanderous posts against him in order to find the most defamatory ones.

“Even if I win in court, it doesn’t benefit me at all. But I decided to take legal action out of concern that such slander and defamation might hinder the implementation of public health policies, rather than [as punishment] for the slander against me,” Kinoshita emphasized.

“I want simpler procedures to be introduced for the disclosure of information about people who make obviously illegal posts.”

Lawyer: Keep evidence

What should people do if they become victims of online slander and defamation? Yohei Shimizu, a lawyer well-acquainted with internet-related trouble, emphasized the importance of collecting and keeping evidence.

The typical process to identify a slanderous poster is as follows. First, a victim submits a request to a court to disclose the poster’s information under Japan’s provider liability limitation law. Then the relevant social media operator discloses the IP address of the poster, and the internet service provider informs the victim of the poster’s name, address and other information.

The test to determine whether the post legally infringes on the victim’s rights or not is if it includes false information or content that besmirches the victim’s character. The lawyer recommends victims display posts in question on their computer screen and save the content, date, time and URL of such posts in a PDF format.

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s Illegal Harmful Hotline said that it received 5,745 inquiries in fiscal 2022, more than four times the number in fiscal 2010.