The rise of 'doctor influencers': 7 things to know about vaccine engagement efforts on social media

While COVID-19 didn't create the idea of physicians who have influence on social media, the pandemic did help "doctor influencers" find an audience as people grappled with understanding the new virus and combating misinformation, according to a Dec. 28 MIT Technology Review report.

Physicians, nurses and other medical professionals across the internet have started documenting and discussing their own experiences getting the COVID-19 vaccine across platforms including Twitter, TikTok and Instagram.

Seven things to know:

1. Sharing the narratives of clinicians getting vaccinated helps fight anti-vaccine propaganda because their stories feel personal; by being honest about the experience and potential side effects, clinicians help set expectations and open up communication among individuals who might otherwise be prime targets for misinformation.

2. Valerie Fitzhugh, MD, a physician and associate professor of pathology, immunology and lab medicine at Rutgers University, in mid-December began tweeting about her experience as a COVID-19 trial participant as the first vaccines in the U.S. began rolling out to medical professionals.

3. Dr. Fitzhugh's Twitter thread got thousands of retweets and tens of thousands of likes; she told MIT Technology Review that she posted it because she "wanted to do the right thing," adding that. "…There was a lot out there about 'It's too fast, it's rushed.' And I just wanted people to understand that the process occurred as it normally would. Yes, it was faster, because they threw $10 billion at it to get this vaccine going."

4. While posting these stories can help, sharing them does present risks as anti-vaccine activists online have a history of fueling mob harassment against their targets, including medical professionals. And even bigger risk is the opportunity to decontextualize authentic stories to create false vaccine narratives, said Kolina Koltai, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at University of Washington.

5. In mid-December, a nurse at a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based hospital fainted on camera after getting the vaccine as the result of an existing medical condition. Anti-vaccine activists then used the image of her fainting to spread a false claim that the nurse had died and the hospital she worked at was covering up the incident.

6. Dr. Koltai told the publication that hospitals and healthcare professionals should be aware of these vaccine misinformation campaigns and know that people "using their own stories as misinformation, is not something that's going to go away anytime soon."

7. Dr. Fitzhugh said the responses to her Twitter thread were mostly positive, but there were still some hateful responses. She noted that there were a lot of people who replied saying they were also in vaccine trials and started sharing their experiences. As those stories build on each other, she said that hopefully "you've got something that goes beyond the anecdote. And that's where it can become powerful."


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