These Doctors Are Using TikTok To Fight Covid Misinformation
Young people have been unfairly accused of a lot of things, but when it comes to the Covid-19 vaccines, the statistics don’t lie.
18 to 29-year-olds are the least vaccinated age group in the UK, with around 70% of young people having taken up the jab so far.
The end of restrictions has made it easier for many of us to ignore the pandemic, but with the Delta variant continuing to pose a risk to people of all ages and with 75% of those who have died from the virus unvaccinated, the need to convince more people to change their mind about the jab hasn’t gone away.
The problem is, social media myths and misinformation have continued to drive a wedge between the experts attempting to promote vaccine confidence and the young people they’re trying to convince.
‘Social media is a huge part of people’s lives, especially to young people, so they are more susceptible to misinformation’, says NHS general surgeon Amalina Bakri. ‘When I spoke to some of these people – the younger generation – and asked them the reason why they were hesitant, it’s because they received messages over the internet or by WhatsApp and chain messages, and even on TikTok about the vaccine.’
She would know. With more than one million followers across Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, Dr Bakri is one of Gen Z’s go-to healthcare experts. Before the pandemic, she was well known for her work debunking celebrity-endorsed pseudoscientific health products, but over the past 9 months, her attention has shifted to dispelling the seemingly endless flow of myths and conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccines.
‘I basically just focus on communicating and explaining the science with evidence-based medicine… making short fun simple videos that people can easily tune in to, that are easily understandable and not too complicated,’ she tells UNILAD.
When it comes to young people, a growing number of healthcare experts like Dr. Bakri are meeting them on their own turf, taking to social media platforms – and TikTok especially – to directly address some of the concerns they have about the vaccine.
@dramalinabakriWhich COVID-19 vaccine should you take? ##covid19 ##vaccine ##doctor ##medicaltiktok ##fyp ##foryoupage♬ original sound – Dr. Amalina
‘As we were moving down the age groups I realised that the hesitancy and the concerns were different for younger people than they were for older people’ says Dr Bnar Talabani, a kidney transplant specialist and immunology scientist from Wales who, like Dr Bakri, is one of 75 medical professionals under the umbrella of the United Nations’ ‘Team Halo‘ campaign who use TikTok and Instagram to combat vaccine misinformation.
‘A lot of the misinformation is spread on the internet via those platforms, so it makes sense that we take to those platforms to spread the accurate information,’ she tells UNILAD.
Anti-vaxx misinformation is everywhere online. At some point, you’ve probably come across it yourself while scrolling through your For You or Explore page. And as with other radical movements that have gained traction in recent years, social media’s algorithms make it disturbingly easy to get dragged down the rabbit hole.
In fact, according to the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, more than two-thirds of anti-vaxx misinformation shared on social media stems from just twelve individuals and their organisations, demonstrating just how organised and effective attempts to spread dangerous misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines has been.
Some of the conspiracy theories shared by these bad actors are plain ridiculous, but others – especially those pushing disproven links between the vaccine and negative health consequences – have succeeded in preying on the fears of younger audiences.
The anti-vaxx campaign has been worryingly effective, with the twelve groups cited by CCDH reaching an estimated 59 million followers across major social media platforms. As a result, government and public health bodies across the world have redoubled their efforts to convince people of all age groups to get their jabs.
For many people for whom the decision to get vaccinated is a no brainer, it’s easy to label anyone who expresses hesitancy as one of the rabid conspiracy theorists claiming that Pfizer is in league with Big 5G.
But Dr Bakri says this is one of the number one traps to avoid. ‘I think you need to make sure you don’t mock them: no yelling, no head shaking, you have to try to understand their perspective and their concerns and values,’ she says. ‘[Hesitancy] is understandable because the vaccine is a new thing and people are concerned and they are worried about it. And so it is our duty as healthcare professionals and also scientists who understand the science behind it to explain.
To do this, it’s important to be able to make a distinction between people who are vaccine-hesitant, and those who identify as part of the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement. ‘If somebody has genuine concerns and is willing to engage in dialogue, I do make the time to listen to their concerns in a really non-judgmental way because actually that carries much more weight and is much more powerful than saying ‘no, you’re wrong,”says Dr Talabani.
‘But where I’ve tried to engage and there’s just been nothing but rudeness and [comments like] ‘you’re going to hang for your crimes’ or ‘you should have your medical license taken away’… for those ones I do block and report them.’
This kind of abuse is shocking, but it’s all too common, with both Dr Talabani and Dr Bakri telling UNILAD they’ve been targeted online by radical anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists who can’t be reasoned with.
Healthcare professionals are continuing to play catch up with a very well-organised and committed anti-vaxx movement, and Dr Talabani recalls that ‘there was so much information flying around that the damage was done before we’d even had a chance to address any of the concerns.’
One of the most effective pieces of misinformation to have taken root on social media alleges links between Covid-19 vaccines and infertility.
As both Dr Bakri and Dr Talabani have stressed in their videos, there is no scientific evidence to suggest any links between vaccines and infertility or miscarriage. In fact, as Dr Talabani has pointed out in one of her TikTok videos, 57 women involved in Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials became pregnant unintentionally after receiving the vaccine, and all carried healthy babies.
Other common reasons for not wanting to get the vaccine – such as the belief that the immune systems of young people are strong enough to fight the virus unaided, or the fear the vaccines were rushed through – are also easily disproven by science. But the extent to which they have gained traction among people who would otherwise not describe themselves as vaccine sceptics shows just how much of a task doctors like Dr Bakri and Dr Talabani have on their hands.
So how do you change people’s minds? ‘Normally what works best is to just listen to people’s concerns,’ Dr Bakri says. ‘I would normally do an Instagram live Q&A session, TikTok live [or] answering questions on Twitter, to provide a platform where the public can ask questions.’
‘It’s nice to have a conversation with someone and say actually I’m not going to tell you what to do but I will give you the evidence and the science so you can decide for yourself,’ Dr Talabani says. ‘A lot of people don’t expect a response but when I say I’m going to get back to you I mean it.’
As a member of Muslim Doctors Cymru, Dr Talabani also takes this approach to discussing the vaccines with her community, making herself available at vaccine drives at her mosque to speak to people who may have specific questions related to their faith or who may not be confident enough to voice their concerns in English.
‘Having someone from your own community who speaks your language, follows the same faith as you, can tell you that yes, the vaccines are safe…we found that to be so so powerful,’ she says.
This kind of open-minded, good-faith discussion works. Posts made by Team Halo guides have been viewed more than 175 million times on TikTok, and both Dr Bakri and Dr Talabani tell UNILAD that they’ve received messages from people who came across their videos online and decided to get vaccinated as a result.
The work being done by dozens of doctors like the ones UNILAD spoke to is done in their spare time, and completely voluntarily. They’re not told what to say, and they haven’t had any training. Meanwhile, their day to day life continues to be on the front line of the pandemic, where the urgency of their work is all too clear.
Towards the end of our conversation, Dr Talabani tells me about a woman who got in touch with her about the vaccine a few weeks ago. She and her partner ended up getting vaccinated after speaking with Dr Talabani about their concerns, but their brother-in-law did not, and is now in intensive care after being hospitalised along with his wife with Covid-19.
‘They’ve got four children at home,’ she says, ‘It’s just so, so heartbreaking and it just reminds you when it can get a bit too much that there is a reason we’re doing this.’
With cases showing no signs of abating as the winter flu season approaches, the race is on to talk round as many more people as possible.
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