Meet the medical professionals fighting COVID-19 misinformation on TikTok: 'A lot of people just need to be empowered'
Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare professionals were hailed as heroes. Many neighborhoods did nightly rounds of applause for these workers, with people emerging from their windows to bang pots and pans as a way to show appreciation.
Yet months later, there’s a new battle that many medical professionals are fighting: the one against vaccine hesitancy, much of which is fueled by misinformation on social media.
That's been sounding alarm bells for many public health officials, who see the virus mutating further as it finds more hosts to infect. It’s also a problem for the medical system as a whole: The more overwhelmed hospitals are with COVID-19 patients, the less room they have to care for everyone else.
Enter Team Halo, a group of scientists and healthcare professionals from around the world who are using social media to address vaccine concerns and to dismantle misinformation.
Established by the United Nations and the Vaccine Confidence Project as a campaign to build trust in COVID vaccines, Team Halo’s medical professionals, who are not paid by the organization for their posts, are now offering regular content on topics from how MRNA works to whether you’re actually magnetic after getting the jab. They share updates on new studies and break them down for the non-scientists on the app, as well as stitch misinformation spreaders and debunk them with their medical expertise.
As Team Halo’s communications coordinator Kathryn Chapman explains to Yahoo Life, “From the start of the pandemic we saw acts of heroism, solidarity and sacrifice get increasingly lost in waves of misinformation, fake news and hate speech. Last year as the upcoming debate on vaccines loomed large, we wondered why people weren't more amazed by these incredible scientific achievements. Why weren't we hearing from the everyday heroes who were helping the world end this pandemic? We wanted to hear from them and realized other people did, too. That's where the idea of Halo was born.”
Together, #TeamHalo videos have more than 150 million views from more than 70 experts worldwide. Together, they battle misinformation — along with a few trolls.
Epidemiologist Dr. Katrine Wallace — known on TikTok as “Dr. Kat” — initially joined the app for entertainment during the stay-at-home order, but became alarmed when she saw widespread misinformation about COVID-19 alongside the typical fun and silly videos. As an epidemiologist, she knew she had the unique expertise to shut down these COVID-19 myths. Now, she’s using the platform to spread awareness about the COVID-19 vaccines — and trying to make real connections in hope that her information gets to the people who need it most.
“If I can tell if a person is asking genuine questions, or is afraid because they have been listening to misinformation, I will reply to those comments,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Right now, as the delta variant is making its way across the country, I am starting to get more and more comments from people that are terrified of the vaccine due to misinformation they have heard, but they want to get it because they are more scared of getting COVID-19. I empathize with these people and I do take the time to answer as many of those comments as I see. A lot of people just need to be empowered with real, evidence-based information, and I think that is my duty.”
Dr. Kat, who says she first realized her TikTok reach when her Starbucks barista recognized her from the app, adds that she gets daily messages about how her videos encouraged people to get vaccinated.
“It’s an honor to be able to help people in this very direct way,” she notes. “As a public health scientist, I cannot imagine a more important impact I could be having on people's lives during the pandemic. Additionally, I get a lot of young women messaging me that because of my videos they are interested in also becoming an epidemiologist. That, to me, is also the best compliment anyone could give me, and it is amazing to be in a position to inspire women to pursue science.”
Internist Dr. Siyab Panhwar, who has seen COVID-19 patients die from the virus, took to TikTok earlier this year to make “funny medical videos,” but quickly found himself on “anti-vaxxer TikTok.” Dr. Panhwar, who previously promoted vaccine advocacy on social media platforms like Clubhouse, decided to use his platform to debunk false vaccine information.
“People call me a paid agent, pharma ‘shill’ paid by Bill Gates, a fear monger...It doesn't get to me,” he shares, adding that he’s had some threats sent to him. “I keep going with my message because I know I'm on the right side. I know what I'm talking about.”
Though the trolling can be hard to deal with — all the professionals who spoke with Yahoo Life for this story say they've been harassed by online commenters, in fact — Dr. Panhwar wants to make sure the message gets across.
“When I do react to specific people, I always make sure to attack the message and not the person,” he says. “So you won't see me calling people names, or cursing at them. The focus is correcting the wrong message.”
It was correcting a wrong message that scored Mass General Cancer Center nurse practitioner Christina Kim her very first viral TikTok. In the early days of the pandemic, she debunked the false claim that masks limit oxygen saturation by donning a mask and testing her own levels.
“There were commenters who felt validated that there was someone demonstrating that masks do not cause CO2 accumulation. And there were commenters who hurled insults, saying I was wrong, or picking apart my ‘methods,’” she explains. “Several other videos have gone viral and seemed to resonate with people, and they always fall into those two camps: people who agree and feel validated, and people who fervently disagree.”
Yet no matter how many people disagreed, Kim felt “obligated” to respond to the breadth of misinformation — and “the followers kept coming.”
As a member of Team Halo, she knows that she can’t use her views and likes as a barometer for the success of her message, especially as the “For You Page” is essentially self-selected. So she may be reaching people who were already enthusiastic about getting their COVID-19 vaccine.
Still, Kim knows Team Halo’s message is reaching people: She gets DMs from followers who tell her that they were convinced to get vaccinated due to her post, or that her TikToks encouraged their loved ones to do so.
“My hope with my posts is to empower my viewers to be armed with data and verbiage to take to their own communities, and to have confidence in addressing misinformation they come across in their own lives,” she says. “I want people to feel like they understand the data so that they themselves can fight misinformation.”