Teenage social media stars in fierce battle against COVID-19 vaccine misinformation


iStock / Pornpak Khunatorn

(NEW YORK) – Ellie Zeiler is known by her 10 million followers on TikTok for her fashion articles, beauty tips and viral dance videos.

Although his feed often includes mentions for big brands, his latest partnership came from the US government, which asked him for help in encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“They said they were starting this whole process to reach out to influencers – people who were in the public eye… who really wanted to stop these rumors and spread the word about the vaccine,” Zeiler told ABC News.

The 17-year-old, who was vaccinated in May, continued to share her experience of getting the vaccine in a bid to allay the concerns of other young Americans, who are the least vaccinated age group in the country. .

“I feel good afterwards. I feel like I have this armor around me, ”she said. “I had no side effects.”

As the highly contagious delta variant continues to impact communities and many children are already starting school, there is now a race to immunize American youth.

Young people aged 12 to 15, 16 to 17 and 18 to 24 have only 33.9%, 44% and 46.5% of their age group respectively vaccinated, according to the CDC. 25-39 year olds have 50.8% of their population vaccinated.

President Joe Biden’s administration reaches young people through their smartphones. They brought in some of the social media icons of the generation, like Olivia Rodrigo and Benny Drama to help get the word out.

Influencers like Zeiler are now helping educate the country on the realities of the vaccine.

“I think it’s just the impact of social media – that anyone can do it – which is very, very special,” Zeiler said.

They don’t just promote vaccines, but fight a growing wave of vaccine misinformation and baseless conspiracies plaguing social media.

“I used to, at the start of the pandemic… to be friends with these people who followed me… to give them advice on fashion, friends or people… [now, I] actually give them useful, straightforward factual advice, ”she said.

In an effort to encourage the vaccine and dispel misinformation, the Biden administration has held talks between Dr.Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, and a plethora of creators on social media platforms.

Many creators often rely on paid publications for their income, but many who have worked directly with the White House on the vaccination campaign are doing so for free.

“They do it because they believe in it,” said Taylor Lorenz, technical reporter for The New York Times.

However, it should not be forgotten that “promoting immunization and working with the White House is a status symbol,” Lorenz said. “Dr. Fauci is an extremely viral figure. And by the way, you know, doing an interview with Dr. Fauci, it generates a huge engagement on their social media. So these influencers are getting a lot of profit from the deal, even if they are. it is not a direct payment. “

This is not the first time the government has used digital creators to deliver messages.

“It didn’t surprise me,” Lorenz told ABC News. “Obama actually took advantage of YouTube to promote the Affordable Care Act and encourage people to sign up for their health care program in the mid-2010s and obviously Trump took advantage of influencers as well. He had high profile memes accounts. … This is becoming more and more of a trend among politicians, I think, as they recognize that the media environment has changed and that these influencers are undeniably having an impact.

This political trend has given way to a new generation of creators to organize.

Aidan Kohn-Murphy founded Gen-Z For Change, one of the organizations the Biden administration collaborated with to promote the vaccine.

The group recently partnered with MadeToSave, an organization helping to share vaccine information, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the White House to fight misinformation and promote vaccination efforts.

Gen-Z For Change is an organization of over 500 creators, who together number approximately 432 million people and collect a total of 1.5 billion views per month.

Their efforts have generated more than 27.5 million views on COVID-19-related videos since the start of the pandemic.

“These numbers are huge, and I think for a long time adults really struggled to contextualize them,” Kohn-Murphy told ABC News. “I think adults are realizing that these numbers… are real things that you can implement.”

Gen-Z For Change’s coalition of creators ranges from dancers to comedians to activists.

Missouri-based TikToker Alaysia Brandy, who calls herself “Laysie B” online, has over 1.5 million followers. She began her online activism speaking out on social justice issues related to black and LGBT communities. As the vaccine rolled out, she made it a point to ask Fauci about immunization issues in her community.

“I know people don’t trust the government,” she said, adding that she understood why there would be mistrust given the abuses black people have faced in the United States.

“I understand the hesitation… But I also want to make sure they get the research themselves and make sure they have reliable sources… even when I talk about these issues, I leave too. [hyper]links so that you can refer to them yourself and see this information yourself.

Brandy said she hopes to fill the information gap that has raised concerns about shooting in communities of color. In their home country, less than 50% of the total population is fully vaccinated and only 28% of the black community is in this group.

“In my videos, I speak English and Spanish and make sure I have captions just because I want to reach as many audiences as possible,” Brandy told ABC News. “And I want to make sure you understand, like I fully understand where you’re coming from, and I’m not trying to make you feel less than anything.” But I want to talk about it and I want to understand your concerns.

She said she wanted to make sure she addresses any reasons someone might be suspicious of the vaccine.

“You can’t group people who distrust the government because we’ve been treated so badly our entire existence in this country, versus people who just don’t believe in science – because they’re two groups completely. different, ”Brandy said.

“It’s really very difficult to navigate,” she added. “But when it comes to people saying… ‘The vaccine is going to chip you’… you just want to immediately reverse and demystify what is disinformation.… Let’s stop spreading fear so that they can actually do it. address real concerns.

Lorenz stressed, however, that misinformation is only part of the problem. She said there are influencers who also promote mistakes.

“The campaign faces a huge tsunami of disinformation on social media. So you have people who are also influencers. They’re just anti-vax influencers, ”Lorenz said. “You have tons of other lifestyle influencers and other people just promoting outright lies.… I mean, it’s actually shocking that people believe some of these things.

She said seemingly minor inaccuracies like explaining things out of context “can sow doubt in people’s minds, preparing them for” absolutely crazy disinformation. ” Gen-Z For Change makes a point of coaching its creators on the different types of disinformation online. Kohn-Murphy said he brought disinformation and disinformation specialists to the organization, who taught them the value of a “sandwich of truth.”

“[It’s] sort of with a very empathetic approach, explaining the truth behind the vaccine a bit, and then dislodging any rumors and misinformation that the person might believe without making them feel small, because no one ever wants to be told that she you are wrong, ”explained Kohn-Murphy. “Then end with, again, an empathetic approach and link them to sources where they can do their own research.”

Every creator ABC News spoke to noted that some of the inaccuracies they saw online came from their followers’ own parents. Zeiler called this reality “frustrating”.

“It’s kind of transferred [from] what parents wanted and what adults wanted, what I think [is] why the marketing strategy with the White House was so crucial and so important, ”Zeiler said. “Now I see my friends and the folks on TikTok parading, and they can educate themselves before they have… past thoughts about the vaccine their parents created for them, and they can tell their own story. “

Brandy said some of his supporters are minors with anti-vaccine parents who still want to get the shot. She said they must have tried to convince their parents. “I’m just talking about how you can help your parents find this information on their own so that they receive it and can try to help ease their tensions,” she said.

Experts say it’s an uphill battle for these creators. A study published in July by researchers at UC San Francisco found that about one in four unvaccinated people between the ages of 18 and 25 said they “probably won’t” or “definitely won’t” be vaccinated. against COVID-19.

Lorenz said pro-vaccine campaigns work well and can reach millions of people. However, she said that “it doesn’t live up to what Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok have let rampantly spread for years.”

“They are facing this very coordinated network of disinformation,” she added. “It’s very difficult. I think it might just be a drop in the bucket at the end. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, but that’s all they got it on. control.

Kohn-Murphy, on the other hand, thinks that if they convince “a person to get the vaccine” or “debunk a person’s mistaken beliefs” or help a child find the courage to talk to their parents about getting the vaccine. vaccinate, then they’re successful.

A year from now, Brandy said she hoped the pandemic would be a thing of the past. She said she wanted to do whatever was necessary to make this happen.

“It’s definitely a motivator to constantly keep the fire under me to make sure I’m doing my part and using my platform and my voice to get this information out to the public,” she said. declared.

Zeiler, meanwhile, expressed his hope and purpose in the work she does.

“Hope I help, especially when I get that one-on-one interaction where [someone tells me], ‘I got my first shot of the vaccine today because I saw your video’ or, ‘Because I saw you’, which is so crazy to say out loud, ”he said. she declared. “But that’s what keeps me going [to] want to do it. “

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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