There’s an old saying from the country where my mother was born relating to certain situations in which we are helpless. “You have to prove your sister is a not prostitute when you don’t even have a sister.” It seemed rough to me at first, when I heard it. But when I gave it some thought, it actually made sense and scared me at the same time.
I woke up this morning and scrolled through my Facebook feed, a usual morning routine I’ve adopted to help me get my day started. I normally laugh at the hilarious posts an old work friend writes, or smile at the cool videos a college colleague displays (go Bruins!), but today, this was not the case. I was actually horrified. Literally stopped dead in my tracks (albeit mouse tracks).
The post was displayed in a group that, while closed, included almost 4,000 members of the community where I lived. It consisted of two short but powerful paragraphs, the content of which I read, re-read, and re-read several times again.
A random Facebook user, who I did not know, had, according to her, had a terrible experience at a doctor’s office. We’ll call him Dr. Defenseless. The post briefly went into symptoms, testing she had done, a diagnosis, and finally, disbelief in the Defenseless’s conclusions. It went further, stating the user ended up seeing another physician in a separate practice, who told her something completely different and left her freshly satisfied with these now-acceptable results.
The catch was that she neither indicated who this new, exemplary doctor was, nor what the results he found actually were. Instead, matters went from bad to worse when she spelled out the name of aforementioned Defenseless. That terrible, horrible, no good physician, who dared to insinuate that maybe, just maybe, she may be experiencing some degree of anxiety, was doomed. There, typed in the black and white writing of Facebook, source to many, surrounded by colorful displays of friends’ birthday wishes, happy status updates, floating emojis, and videos of babies laughing hysterically, was the name of my friend, my colleague, and a physician who is not only kind and compassionate, but respected within our own medical community.
To top it all off, this stranger, unknown to any of the responding commenters on this particular post, was somehow able to convince these commenters that she held title as leading expert in physician reviews. Really? Was there some Zagat Doctor Guide published overnight that I had missed, and had she become lead investigator? What did this have to do with our closed Facebook group, where our community normally shared local events and cheery, newsworthy posts? Where did the emojis go?
What I was seeing here, playing out in front of my eyes, was a scenario where literally anyone could say anything about anyone else. Literally anything. No censorship. I could literally make something up and post it. If I decided to write a post in a public group, with 4,000 members, stating that you — yes, you — had been physically abusive to someone else’s child, what do you suppose would happen? Would anyone come to your defense? Would you expect people to respond, up in arms, and shield you with their outrage?
Quite the opposite. I imagine you a voodoo doll, a defenseless, naked name, needles slowly inching in. Comments would pile up, expletives in excess, your name the most despised (and possibly Googled) of the day, possibly the week. The post would grow exponentially, become more popular, more viewed, more liked. Even more so in the case of a physician, who is usually held to a higher standard.
Human nature dictates our response, and that response, thanks to the evolution of our free-thinking, intelligent society, is to defend the victim. But who’s the victim here? Certainly, it’s not you (insert sarcasm here). What you’ve become is the perpetrator in the judicial arm of this virtual reality, and you’re a guilty perpetrator at that. You see, there is no trial on Facebook. There is no judge and no jury. You are not innocent until proven guilty. There is no ‘proving’ on Facebook because it’s easier for people to blame, to take sides, to feel at one with the victim, even if it’s all made up. Nothing needs to be proven when you’re behind a screen.
So back to Dr. Defenseless, whose name was now appearing on almost 4,000 fresh morning screens of Facebook users. Most of them had not yet even reached for their a.m. cup o’ joe, but already they had made a decision to not see this doctor. Because of the experience of one person — literally one — there were now multiple others chiming in about changing their plans, not calling his office to make the appointment they had planned to make. Even those who had heard good things were convinced. Apparently a random Facebook review had much more clout than personal accounts, the experience of close friends. The years Defenseless spent building up his practice literally meant nothing at this point because, on the net, all seemed to vanish in a second at the click of a share.
This is where my mother’s saying plays over and over again in my head. How can we defend ourselves in this new world of technology, when you’re guilty until proven innocent? And when do we even get a chance to prove our innocence? Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and just imagine being there, helpless, staring at a screen, your name still glowing in the embers of betrayal. It took twenty-five years of schooling to earn my title as medical doctor, but I may need to gear up instead for my role as media defender. I don’t think I’d stand a chance.
Dana Corriel is an internal medicine physician who blogs at drcorriel.
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