Influencers are being recruited to fight dangerous conspiracy theories about COVID-19 as people shun experts’ warnings

covid-19 information fitness influencer
Shauna Harrison

  • Data scientists at Public Good Projects are partnering with a “network of micro-influencers” to spread facts on COVID-19 and vaccines on social media. 
  • Public health officials worry misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines on social media could prevent Americans from getting the shots.
  • Just 129 accounts are predominantly responsible for misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines on Twitter, according to peer-reviewed PGP data.
  • Everyday social media users and micro-influencers have been sharing true, scientific vaccine information to help combat misinformation. 
  • Experts say people will trust those who aren’t politicians or health experts to get public health information online.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Fitness instructor Shauna Harrison’s Instagram feed consists of simple workout routines and yoga stretches she shares with her 84,000 followers.

Occasionally, though, Harrison, who has a doctorate in public health, will share photos of herself wearing masks that say “Talk Data to Me” with captions relaying the importance of staying home and social distancing. 

“I know I get some heat on here for promoting masks and supporting Black Lives and LGBTQIA rights and vaccines,” Harrison wrote in one caption. “I’m here to promote health, to promote wellness. Which inherently includes protecting the rights and lives of marginalized people.”

Harrison is part of a “network of micro-influencers” who have partnered with data scientists at Public Good Projects, a public health communication non-profit, to help spread correct vaccine or COVID-19 information. 

Fake claims about COVID-19 have spread on social media throughout the pandemic, complicating public health practices. Messages telling people not to wear masks – despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the face covering can slow COVID-19 transmission – have snowballed on Facebook and other social media platforms. In April, trolls and bots flooded social media with hashtags encouraging anti-quarantine messages, while some Americans held protests demanding states re-open businesses. 

Now, as the US ramps up vaccine distribution, experts warn misinformation could hinder widespread immunization. Facebook removed a post falsely claiming the COVID-19 vaccine would lead to infertility after it already garnered hundreds of shares.

A Pew Research Center survey in November found 39% of respondents would not get a COVID-19 vaccine, and Black Americans in particular indicate skepticism stemming from historic racial inequity in healthcare. Anthony Fauci has said the US can return to “some degree of normality” after at least 75% of the population gets a vaccine.

Read more: Amazon is quietly building a business to offer medical care to major companies. Here’s an inside look at Amazon Care.

Joe Smyser, the CEO of Public Good Projects, said monitoring COVID-19 misinformation over the last nine months had been “overwhelming and at times exhausting.” Smyser said the lack of coherent messaging on COVID-19 vaccines has created a “vacuum,” allowing fake claims to reach Americans on social media. 

“Right now the volume of information about vaccines, but also just about public health policies and the pandemic in general, the volume is much bigger on the bad side of things than the good side of things,” Smyser told Business Insider. “There’s more misinformation than there is truth.”

Data scientists and influencers are working together to combat COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.

PGP began tracking vaccine hesitancy on social media last year, and created a complementary system to track misinformation related to COVID-19 once the pandemic began in 2020. Data scientists track which false claims could harm public health, and work with public health experts make a rebuttal to debunk the misinformation on social media. 

Smyser said PGP selects microinfluencers based on their audience. The team seeks audiences with high rates of vaccine hesitancy based on past research. The influencers PGP works with include fashion and beauty influencers, mommy bloggers, and music creators.

“Some of the people we work with have a health background, but most are just average everyday people who, for their own reasons, have more influence where they live than other people,” Smyser said. “We find that the way that’s most effective to communicate with people is a non-health expert saying something in whatever way they want to say it.” 

Read more: See the 39-slide presentation that Moderna used to win over investors before the upstart became the hottest company in biotech

Smyser said a danger to sharing vaccine information online is the “global network” of conspiracy theorist groups that monitor hashtags used by major public health agencies and flood posts using them with fake claims. Harrison, the fitness influencer, said she’s had to combat “trolls” on posts about wearing masks.

“They’re just looking through hashtags looking for people who are posting these things and they come and they start throwing their 2 cents into your comments, saying that COVID is not real or that masks are going to cause breathing,” Harrison told Business Insider. “There’s a million things that they say that don’t make any sense.”

Smyser said people against vaccines and other public health tools organized into a political movement in 2020. Just 129 accounts are predominantly responsible for misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines on Twitter, according to peer-reviewed PGP data.

Anatoliy Gruzd, director of research at the Social Media Lab, which tracks the spread of debunked COVID-19 claims on social media, said even though a “small percentage” of bad actors create misinformation online, fake claims spread quickly from regular social media users who can easily circulate messages they do not double check. According to Social Media Lab, fake claims on social media spiked starting December 1, around when vaccines began receiving authorization from regulators.

Good Samaritans have started to understand how positive vaccine information can reach people online, and are allocating their own resources to inform the public.

Unlike Harrison, Rob Swanda doesn’t see himself as an influencer, but he has also devoted his free time to spreading good information on COVID-19. 

The 5th year PhD candidate at Cornell University’s biology sciences program had been designing mRNA therapeutics to treat cancer. On December 7, he posted a video explaining how Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines work using illustrations on a whiteboard. 

The video went viral on Twitter, amassing 134,000 likes and 44,000 retweets.

He originally made the video to explain how the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines worked to his grandmother, and after hearing her and his own parents share misinformation, like that the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine will inject people with the coronavirus or mutate cells. 

Swanda estimates his video took off due to the fact he used a simple whiteboard to explain the vaccine rather than a complicated graphic design. 

“I think there’s a big challenge in terms of making the information come across accessible,” Swanda said, adding that scientists sometimes struggle with explaining complicated research in layman terms.

 

Visuals, like the ones Swanda and Harrison used to spread correct COVID-19 information, can help skeptical people understand facts around COVID-19, according to Emma Frances Bloomfield, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Bloomfield has studied how to engage with climate change and COVID-19 skeptics to relay correct, scientific information.

Bloomfield said leveraging personal relationships with friends works best when conveying facts about science and public health. People who are predisposed to doubt authority will trust non-political sources of information, like social media influencers, Bloomfield said.

“Actually having people get the vaccine is going to be the crucial thing,” Harrison said. “There’s a lot of different reasons why people are nervous about that or against it. I think that’s the biggest hurdle right now.”

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