January 23, 2021
Valerie Fitzhugh has watched the news a lot more over the past four years, certainly...

Valerie Fitzhugh has watched the news a lot more over the past four years, certainly more than she remembers doing at any other point in her life. In the first months of the pandemic, she kept hearing one message, from news outlet to news outlet, that she couldn’t stop thinking about: there weren’t enough people of color, particularly Black people, participating in clinical trials for the wave of potentially life-saving vaccines for covid-19. So she signed up for one. 

Fitzhugh is a physician, and an associate professor of pathology, immunology, and laboratory medicine at Rutgers University. But participating in the trial felt like a different sort of calling. 

“I thought to myself, if I could shut in this moment, show people who look like me that clinical trials are completely different things than the way my people were experimented on all those years ago,” she says. But as Fitzhugh watched all those news segments about the shortage of Black people in clinical trials, she understood why. Black Americans have been abused by the medical system for centuries. The Tuskegee study, a wildly unethical 40-year examination of the effects of untreated syphilis in Black men, only ended in 1972 after a leak to the media exposed the government-backed project. “For my dad, that’s in his lifetime,” she says. 

In mid-December, Fitzhugh tweeted about her experience in the trial, just as the first vaccines were rolling out to medical professionals across the country. Because she was participating in a double-blind study, she does not yet know whether she received the vaccine or not. Her Twitter thread on her experience got thousands of retweets, and tens of thousands of likes. 

By the time she tweeted, Fitzhugh had received two injections, either of a placebo or a vaccine. The first shot was easy. After the second, she had a few side effects that are common for the vaccine. She talked about those too. 

“I posted it because I wanted to do the right thing,” Fitzhugh says. “I thought it was important. ’Cause 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.” 

The idea of doctors who have influence on social media wasn’t created by the pandemic, but it certainly helped them find an audience. Doctor influencers rose in prominence first as people scrambled to understand the scary new virus spreading across the world, and then as the medical world sought to combat the rampant misinformation about that virus. Now, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals across the internet are documenting and discussing their own experiences taking the vaccine. 

Creators in the medical profession have chronicled their experiences with the vaccine shots in real time across social media. Madeline Dann, an emergency room doctor in the UK known as @MaddyLucyDann on TikTok, talked about getting the vaccine in a series of videos that have gained hundreds of thousands of views, taking the platform’s young audience through her experience after the first shot. 

“I’m feeling fine. Arm’s a little bit achy, just feels like a bruise,” she said in one update, a day after getting the vaccine.  “It hurts when I poke it so I’ve stopped poking it.” 

“I’ve actually been very effective and efficient this morning—I’ve dropped my car off for MOT/Service and I made eggy bread!” she said, joking, “Side effect of the vaccine is eggy bread.”

“Vaccine hesitancy is more of a spectrum”

Stories like this can be effective in helping people who are on the fence about a vaccine feel more confident that it is safe, say experts in online vaccine misinformation.

“I can’t even tell you how many I’ve seen in my feed, of physicians posting videos of their shots,” said Renee DiResta, a researcher with the Stanford Internet Observatory who studies health disinformation.

For a long time, anti-vaccine misinformation pushers have used anecdotes to back up false claims: YouTube videos of mothers discussing how they believe a vaccine had harmed their child, for instance, or personal stories of conversion by medical professionals who, having left science-based medicine behind, now make careers by selling information that they claim the medical industry doesn’t want you to know. 

But the narratives of medical professionals getting vaccinated work because they feel personal. Honesty about the experience, and potential side effects, can help set expectations and open up communication among those who might otherwise be prime targets for anti-vaccine propaganda.  

“When we talk about vaccine hesitancy, it’s more of a spectrum,” says Kolina Koltai, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington.

Yes, there are anti-vaccine activists. But there are many others who, for one reason or another, aren’t so sure they want to take this vaccine, but generally think of themselves as pro-science. Maybe they heard that the process was rushed. Maybe their community has a good reason for not trusting doctors. Maybe they just don’t know a lot about how the vaccine was developed. This is the audience that both anti-vaccine activists and those attempting to end the pandemic are trying to reach. 

“Here you have medical professions putting out ‘Hey, I got this shot. Here’s what the side effects are, here’s how I think about the side effects versus getting covid,’” says DiResta. 

Those stories can matter, but sharing them is not without risk. Anti-vaccine activists online have a long history of inciting mob harassment against their targets, including medical professionals and others who promote the safety of vaccines. 

They span the moment into a false claim that the nurse had died, and suggested the hospital where she worked was covering it up

An even bigger risk, Koltai cautions, is the decontextualization of authentic stories in order to promote a false narrative. One nurse at a Chattanooga hospital fainted on camera in mid-December after getting the vaccine—the result of an existing medical condition that can cause her to feel faint as a response to pain. That didn’t matter to anti-vaccine circles online, which took the dramatic image of her fainting and ran with it. The false claim was that the nurse had died and the hospital where she worked was covering it up.

By the end of the weekend, Google searches for her name automatically prompted additional keywords like “death” and “obituary.” Results included a fake obituary circulating on Facebook, and YouTube videos where the top comments were filled with conspiracy theories. 

“It was Google results, it was Twitter results. Someone went on Instagram and created a fake in memoriam,” DiResta says. “They stole all her old photos, and made a whole in memoriam thing.” 

“All this misinformation takes little effort to create,” Koltai says. Even if this particular nurse hadn’t fainted, these sorts of misinformation campaigns would have simply found another target.  “Hospitals, health-care professionals, and the general public need to be conscious that misinformation about vaccines, and people using their own stories as misinformation, is not something that’s going to go away anytime soon,” she cautions.

“I don’t expect a miracle overnight”

For Fitzhugh, the response to her thread was overwhelmingly positive. There were still some hateful responses, and the hardest ones for her to see were those from other Black Americans. She spent days answering questions in the replies of her thread. The most common one? When will she know whether she got the vaccine or placebo. (The answer is: soon! And if she didn’t get the vaccine in the trial, she will then sign up to get vaccinated.) 

“I don’t expect a miracle overnight, you know,” she says. “Hundreds of years of experimentation and mistrust … you don’t undo that in a week or a month or a year.”

Still, something in the responses to her thread gave her hope. 

“There were a lot of people who came out and said to me ‘I was in a trial too,’ and started talking about their experience,” she says. As more and more of those stories build on each other, she says hopefully, “you’ve got something that goes beyond the anecdote. And that’s where it can become powerful.” 

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