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Scientists Lynora Saxinger (left) and Anna Blakney (right) have a goal in common: to counter the misinformation around vaccines.

Scientists battle COVID-19 misinformation in social media

Scientists and doctors fight fear and misinformation one post at a time.

By Elizabeth Melimopoulos and Madina Karabalina , in Health , on April 13, 2021 Tags: , , , ,

Fake news, confusion and public panic over COVID-19 and vaccines have pushed some health workers and scientists to join the ranks in social media in a bid to combat fear and misinformation. 

One of the many scientists to have taken on this battle is Anna Blakney, an assistant professor in the University of B.C.’s Michael Smith Laboratories.

With more than 200,000 followers on TikTok and tonnes of creativity, colour and rhythm in her posts, she has been inviting users for several months to “come for the entertainment, but stay for the science.”

Blakney’s efforts are part of a campaign called Team Halo that, in partnership with the United Nations and the University of London, gathers dozens of doctors and scientists at the heart of the vaccine effort on TikTok with a goal in common to counter the misinformation around the vaccines and help build confidence.

“Vaccine hesitancy is not new; it’s been growing in society for like a decade now,” Blakney said.

“It’s just really important right now that people are vaccine-literate …  TikTok is the perfect platform for stuff like this.”

According to Datareportal’s Digital overview, TikTok currently has about 689 million active users and has kept growing throughout the pandemic.

“[In] TikTok … everything you do is digestible. You can see what it means to be in the lab and make the vaccine, and how we test for safety,” Blakney said. “I think seeing is believing for people.”

According to Statistics Canada, nearly all Canadians have been exposed to COVID-19 misinformation online.

At the beginning of the pandemic, 96 per cent of Canadians who used the Internet to research the diseases saw COVID-19 information that they suspected was misleading, false or inaccurate. 

Only one in five checked the accuracy of the information and, during the first months of the outbreak, half of them shared COVID-19 information without checking its accuracy. 

Blakney is not alone. In Alberta, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Alberta, Lynora Saxinger, also a medical doctor, took to Twitter to fight misinformation. 

In the middle of the pandemic, “I was seeing how misinformation was travelling farther than good information,” Saxinger said. 

“Low-quality information, biased information flowing, I thought misinformation was going to prove to be deadly.”

Lynora Saxinger uses Twitter to fight misconceptions around the vaccine and the pandemic Photo from Dr. Saxinger’s personal archive.

The efforts of these two scientists have not gone unnoticed. 

“It’s reassuring to hear from somebody at the heart of the vaccine research,” socialmedia user Rob Savage in England said. “I have total faith in Dr Blakney’s videos.”

Her followers are also willing to help.

“I was surprised that they seemed really short of equipment, and I did think about asking [Blakney] what piece of equipment she doesn’t have that she would love to have and start a just-giving page to raise funds to buy it,” Savage said. 

For Blakney, an important aspect that allows her to establish a connection with her followers is her vulnerability. 

“In my TikTok videos, I will dance and sing, and I’m not good at dancing or singing. It is embarrassing,” Blakney said.

“But I think that’s why people like them, it helps them overcome this stereotype of what a scientist is. I’m more approachable to people.”   

TikTok video by @anna.blakney

In her effort to fight misinformation, Saxinger went from 500 Twitter followers to over 15,000 throughout the pandemic. She decided to start responding to questions and to flood “the market with more information.”

But it was not all a pleasant experience.

“I have a filter on my email now to pull out unpleasant comments from people who have strange beliefs,” Saxinger said.

According to a report by Northwestern University and the University of Chicago released in January 2021, one in four physicians reported being attacked on social media, going from negative reviews and harassment, all the way to having their information shared publicly.

Some attacks were particularly disturbing, such as threats of rape and death. 

This seems to be a trend when experts, and particularly women, take on social media and introduce topics from a personal perspective, says a media expert.

“It is a real danger and it’s particularly bad for women,” Alfred Hermida, a professor at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism, Writing and Media said. 

“In some ways, to be effective on social media, you [have to] show something of yourself, a personality … and people are going to judge you on it. Women are much more exposed to this than anybody else.”

Earlier this year, Ann Collins, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said online harassment against public health officials evolved into threats and in-person intimidation.

Despite the adversity, Saxinger also managed to establish a positive connection with her followers.

“Dr Saxinger’s Twitter account is informative and sometimes comforting,” said Shanne Marie, a Twitter user based in Alberta. “I know the tweets are taking time away from her very busy medical practice but I have really appreciated getting the information.”

For the most part, Saxinger believes that people tend to be nice.

“We’re all trying to raise the bar a little bit on people’s knowledge and get them to do good things. So whatever.”

An inspiration to others

And through their social-media presence, these scientists and doctors are also becoming a source of inspiration for many. 

“These are role models for other women, for young girls to say this is possible to see somebody in that position and to see themselves reflected in that position, that is a very powerful message,” Hermida said. 

According to Blakney, she has about 50 per cent female followers in her TikTok account. The reach of both doctors is global. 

“Anna being a professor is an amazing example to any woman aspiring to be a scientist and a leader,” said TikTok user Deniz Çizmeci.

TikTok video by @anna.blakney