(Credit: Gustavo Fring, Pexels)

Scientists and doctors in Turkey have become the target of abuse on social media from campaigners against the Covid-19 vaccine. Like in other countries, anti-vaxxers circulate conspiracy theories online – one false claim, that vaccines are responsible for births of “creatures” with three ears and five eyes, was even repeated by the president of a minor Turkish political faction, the New Welfare Party, in September. 

The country’s scientists have been vocal in their criticism of anti-vaccination rallies that have taken place in Turkey, while a large lobby of doctors is urging the government to make vaccines mandatory. Mehmet Ceyhan, a prominent Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist, has been one major target of the anti-vaccine backlash, with a social media campaign calling for his arrest. 

Prof. Dr. Mehmet Ceyhan (Credit: His own archive)

“There need to be safeguards in place to protect the experts who are being harassed, because they’re being subject to physical and psychological violence,” Esin Şenol, an infectious diseases expert at Gazi University, told Inside Turkey. “Anti-vaxxers are trying to leverage this rhetoric for increased popularity, sponsorships and selling merchandise. So they should really be monitored closely for criminal activity.”

Prof. Cenk Kıraklı, head of the intensive care unit at the Health Sciences University training hospital, said that people who are able to offer correct information should be protected by law. 

“This should be provided by the state or official institutions. There should be repercussions to attacking or insulting these people in particular,” he said. 

Mehmet Ceyhan, chair of Infectious Diseases Association (EHD), also said that the government should do more to crack down on harassment.

“The government is able to enforce what it wishes; the perpetrators of all harassment campaigns can be identified if the government wants to prosecute them,” he told Inside Turkey.

Government officials, artists and opinion leaders in Turkey should all make public statements supporting vaccinations, Ceyhan added.  

“Another factor is religious leaders who affect vaccination decisions. Anti-vaxxers aren’t as common as is thought in Turkey. The majority of the problem is the feudal nature of communities in the east and the southeast; religious leaders in these regions need to be informed properly so that they can guide the public correctly,” Ceyhan said. 

Turkey’s Religious Affairs High Council has publicly encouraged people to get their jabs. 

“Vaccines that were produced in compliance with scientific standards and were proven by experts to be protective against infectious diseases are appropriate according to religion,” read one statement from the body. “In this context, it would be a violation of public rights and the rights of Allah’s subjects to not comply with precautions against threats to public health.” 

Ceyhan believes a focus on religious and community leaders would be more effective than efforts to directly counter anti-vaccine propaganda. 

Prof. Dr. Esin Şenol (Credit: Her own archive)

“Anti-vaccination rhetoric should just be ignored. If you engage with these people, you’ll spread a message they delivered to a few thousand people to millions more. It’ll create even further confusion among the public,” he said. 

Some 51 per cent of Turkey’s population have received first and second doses of the coronavirus vaccine as of November 19 2021, according to health ministry data. Officials should make greater efforts to increase awareness about vaccinations through public service announcements, Şenol said, adding that offering positive incentives to get vaccinated would improve take up. 

“It’s important to spread correct information, especially to target those who are hesitant about the vaccine, rather than anti-vaxxers. This process should be directed by the health ministry, health institutions and hospitals,” Şenol said.

Social media was a key frontline in this effort, Şenol continued.

“Anti-vaccine statements should absolutely be stopped on social media: YouTube started blocking anti-vaccine content, and other platforms should follow in their footsteps. This is an issue that could end in death and concerns the whole public.” 

Virologist Semih Tareen (Credit: His own archive)

Semih Tareen, a Turkish virologist now based in the US, also said that it made sense for social media platforms to censor accounts that spread misinformation.

“It’s not enough to have experts talk, as the public needs correct interpretation of the information. This is where scientific literacy comes in, alongside delivering the message to the correct audiences and to inform the public on traditional media outlets,” he said. 

Social media has allowed celebrities to participate in the rhetoric around anti-vaccinations, said Tareen. “The Turkish public thinks that anyone with the title ‘doctor’ is a medical expert, so it’s confusing when people of this calibre create anti-vaccine rhetoric.” 

However, Alpay Azap, a board member of the Turkish Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Association (KLIMIK) warned against any general social media crackdown. 

Prof. Dr. Alpay Azap (Credit: His own archive)

“The perpetrators of criminal rhetoric should be prosecuted. People should be free to express all thoughts on social media, but with respect to others’ rights. There’s no reason why scientists should hesitate to do so about promoting vaccinations, as the data is solid,” Azap said. 

“I believe the media has an important role to play in this matter. Unfortunately, TV broadcasters provide screen time to people who disperse incomplete or even incorrect information for the sake of views. Not every medical expert or academic who’s on TV has the right facts about vaccines. Broadcasters need to let experts speak, and to consult the right sources in order to provide the public with correct information,” Azap said.

Some TV programmes have featured misleading statements from people purporting to be medical experts, including claims that bone marrow soup would protect against the coronavirus and that Turkish genes were more resilient.

Anti-vaxxers employ two common tactics to sway public opinion, Azap said, noting that the first was “defending incorrect information with grand claims”. Anti-vaccine rhetoric is always able to produce more arguments once scientists refute their initial claims, the expert added. 

“Not only are they unashamed that their previous claims were refuted, but they also create the appearance that their former statements were insignificant, trying to deflect to another point. It’s an endless cycle,” Azap said. 

The second method is more insidious, Azap added, noting that “anti-vaxxers are really aware of the power of scientific facts, which is why they try to give themselves an appearance of scientific credibility. Instead of outright lies, they misrepresent scientific facts or draw incorrect conclusions from scientific data to use the science itself to lie”.