When Kim, who is a nurse practitioner at a large hospital in Boston, started scrolling through TikTok, Covid-19 misinformation seemed endless. “There is the idea that masks are evil, Covid is a hoax, the pandemic is real but not nearly as bad as the media is making it out to be, the conspiracy theory that it was created by scientists and that it was delivered during the election year to sabotage Trump,” she says.
Many of their clips are fun and sarcastic, using TikTok’s unique features, such as duetting and song clips, to make their messages more engaging. “We can treat only one patient at a time, but if we can get a message out there that can hit thousands or hundreds of thousands, then we can change their thoughts, hopefully,” says Assad, who also combats Covid-19 misinformation on a Spanish TikTok account, which has over 281,000 followers, more than his English-language one.
But after a while, she noticed a concerning trend: videos and comments filled with false information about Covid-19. “It was a huge eye opener,” she says. “I was so shocked to be exposed to this world of people—people who didn’t believe in science.
When social media first appeared in the early 2000s, early efforts at misinformation on blogs or MySpace often featured bad graphics, background music, or poor page layout, making them easier to detect, says Jen Golbeck, a professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.
She recommends truth-tellers focus on people who are confused and maybe slightly wary of medical professionals. “Figure out what is the language that appeals to them,” Golbeck says. “How are you going to bring them in and explain things in a way that is as straightforward as the misinformation, which is really oversimplified.
That’s exaggerated by the prolonged Covid-19 pandemic. “It’s not just a couple of days after an earthquake or hurricane,” says Starbird. “This is uncertainty for months and months and months about what the disease is, what the best response is, how well do masks work. It’s pervasive.
When the pandemic hit, he noticed a disturbing number of people sharing misinformation about the virus, including numerous comments that the pandemic is a political agenda—something that is particularly concerning to Assad because McAllen is a Covid-19 hot spot.