NH doctor works to rebuild online reputation after TikTok spreads false news

Dr. Andrew Spector

Dr. Andrew Spector

Dartmouth Health is working to correct the record after one of its physicians was misidentified as a man using racial slurs in a viral video.

Dartmouth Health is working to correct the record after one of its physicians was misidentified as a man using racial slurs in a viral video. NHPR

By PAUL CUNO-BOOTH

New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 02-28-2024 2:42 PM

Dr. Andrew Spector was in the middle of surgery on Friday when he received an urgent text from an administrator. Strangers were calling his employer, Dartmouth Health, demanding he be fired.

He soon learned it was because of a video going viral on TikTok. It shows a white man in a car with Massachusetts license plates using a racist slur toward a woman behind the camera during a confrontation in a parking lot.

Spector – a Manchester-based ear, nose and throat specialist – was not the man in the video. But social media users had connected the license plate on screen with another, entirely different Andrew Spector in Massachusetts.

What followed, Dr. Spector said, was a “nightmare” – one that illustrates how quickly online misinformation can spread and the harm it can cause, as well as the unique digital safety risks faced by health care professionals.

The video blew up, getting hundreds of thousands of views. People posted links to Spector’s Facebook and Instagram profiles, claiming the video showed him or one of his relatives. They bombarded medical websites with negative reviews. They sent threatening and harassing messages to Spector and his wife.

“It is really easy to have keyboard courage,” he said Monday. “And people started saying, ‘Hey, we know where you work. We are coming for you. We are coming for your wife, we’re coming for your family. We’re going to hunt you down.’ ”

Spector said it’s been scary, especially the targeting of his family. While none of the threats seemed credible, he said, “all it takes is one person.”

The physician said his thoughts are with the woman subjected to racist verbal abuse, whom he called the “real victim” in this incident. (Representatives from Dartmouth Health tried to reach out to her through social media but were unable to contact her, according to Cassidy Smith, a spokesperson for the health system.)

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But Spector said this should serve as a cautionary tale about how quickly misinformation travels, and urged people to think twice before attacking someone online.

“Even though it’s going to be a forgotten news story very quickly, I think it’s going to take a lot of time to repair any damage that’s been done to my reputation,” he said.

Even though he and Dartmouth Health are working to correct the record, and get the malicious reviews taken down, it will likely be impossible to scrub all traces of this false accusation from the internet.

“It absolutely breaks my heart and devastates me that at some point, somebody is going to need an ear, nose and throat doctor, and my name is going to come up,” he said. “And they’re going to Google it, and this negative association will be made, and people will make a conscious decision not to see me.”

Sam Mendez, a graduate student at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health who created a digital safety toolkit for public health workers, said political divisions during the COVID-19 pandemic fueled a wave of harassment against health professionals – and the problem hasn’t gone away.

Mendez said it’s more common for health care workers to be deliberately targeted based on disinformation about their work, including vaccination, reproductive health care and transgender medicine.

“But I think the same technology and social structures that make this purposeful, targeted harassment very feasible [and] increasingly common – it makes sense that we would see this also lead to people accidentally being targeted as well,” they said.

That includes increasingly sophisticated social-media algorithms, heightened emotional reactions to allegations against authority figures and the semi-public nature of many health professionals, which makes their information easier to find online.

Mendez said health care institutions need to have plans for dealing with online harassment, and they should center the needs of the person being targeted when deciding how to respond. In some cases, it may make sense to ignore something entirely, or elevate a positive story about the employee’s work.

At other times, an institution may want to aggressively push back on misinformation. That’s what Dartmouth Health has been doing in Spector’s case – issuing a public statement refuting the false claims, putting a note on his online bio explaining the situation and arranging interviews with NHPR and other media outlets.

“I’m happy to hear that the health system was ready and able to connect the dots – with media, with their own stories,” Mendez said.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.