Over the past few weeks, parents on Instagram who were paid to promote a Walgreens campaign to get the flu vaccine told BuzzFeed News their sponcon became the target of relentless harassment from the online anti-vaccination community.
Almost all of them said they were quickly forced to disable comments — but not before they began receiving threatening messages in their DMs.
"There were comments talking about how we don't deserve children or that we might as well just kill our children," said parents Bryce and Jeffrey, whose Instagram account @thisiswherewestarted has a modest 11.7K followers.
"Being a same-sex couple, we are used to people leaving mean comments while hiding behind their keyboard," they said. "We were shocked at the level of comments we received."
In fact, the #WalgreensFluFighter hashtag that was initially used as part of the social media promotion has now been infiltrated by mostly anti-vax posts. Walgreens did not immediately return a request for comment.
In late October, the sponsored social media initiative and its hashtag were leaked widely to anti-vaxxers, who reposted them on other social media platforms, like Twitter. One anti-vax tweeter, @Talialikeitis, called the parents who accepted the spon opportunity "#inFLUencers," which, to be fair, is quite brilliant.
"If you’re a celebrity OR a pro vax mom with a huge following on social media you can go ahead and give medical advice AND be compensated for it," @Talialikeitis wrote. BuzzFeed News has reached out to @Talialikeitis.
@Talialikeitis also leaked what they claimed was an email Walgreens sent to owners of growing Instagram accounts offering $200 and $400 to push their flu shot campaign. BuzzFeed News has been unable to independently verify the email, but a mom who participated in the campaign said it looked like the same email she had gotten inviting her to participate in the ad.
Laura, an Orlando mom of three young children with more than 30,000 followers on her account @frugalforluxury, told BuzzFeed News she received $200 for the sponcon. Bryce and Jeffrey said they also were paid $200 from Walgreens.
Despite the criticism, another mom blogger named Shannon, who has more than 74,000 followers on her Instagram account, said she does not see any ethical issue with accepting the ad opportunity.
"Advising people where to go for those wanting a flu shot is not giving medical advice," she told BuzzFeed News. "One anti-vaxxer commented that doctors know very little and have little training, which was very laughable to me."
"Obviously, like everything else, there can be side effects, but my family and I personally choose to get the flu vaccine because it has proven to work for us each year, and thankfully none of us have ever had side effects from the vaccine," she added.
Shannon has also become the victim of vicious harassment after anti-vaxxers discovered her post. "I was personally attacked by many of them and received some very threatening messages, which was very ironic [because] they wanted to hurt me for choosing to keep my children healthy," she said.
Laura said the attacks were so relentless that she considered canceling an upcoming family trip, fearing online dissenters would find out where they were going.
"The most vicious were saying that I’m poisoning my family...that it is child neglect," she said.
Laura said she and her husband come from a family of doctors so "vaccination is a no-brainer."
"Because the flu vaccine is important to me and our family, I decided to work with Walgreens. I honestly never-one-second thought that anti-vaxxers would rally up and attack," she said.