TikTok Is Stoking Our Vaccine Fears: Now What?

TikTok Is Stoking Our Vaccine Fears: Now What?

12.15.20
Photo: Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
12.15.20

In the lead-up to the approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S., thousands of social media users — and especially those of the millennial and Gen Z variety — turned to the video sharing app TikTok to express their excitement, concerns and other reactions to the news.

In the last few weeks, we’ve poured over hundreds of vaccine-related TikTok videos, and spoke to a few prominent creators on the platform, in an effort to take the temperature of vaccine acceptance on the app. Spoiler alert: It’s a pretty mixed bag. 

Coronavirus and pandemic-related content — including everything from memes about life in quarantine to medical explainer videos on the importance of masks — are incredibly popular on the app, which is no surprise given just how much the virus has altered Americans’ (and especially young people’s) daily lives. 

However, one of the most common themes seen across the platform is a feeling of skepticism around the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, in light of how quickly it was developed. 

We talked to one popular TikTok creator who goes by “Dr.Noc” and is a PhD scientist and respiratory disease researcher. (He asked that we not publish his name.) He says the skepticism he sees on TikTok doesn’t rise to the level of conspiracy thinking or anti-vaccine rhetoric, but can still be damaging.

“There’s a big difference between being an anti-vaxxer and being vaccine hesitant … Vaccine hesitancy though, is extremely common among the audience right now.” 

According to Ashley Locke, a TikTok user who gained attention on the app after documenting her experience as a volunteer for a COVID-19 clinical vaccine trial in Nashville, this hesitancy is often couched in humor.

“There are some people making jokes where they will say that they’ve gotten the vaccine when they haven’t, and then fake a side effect, or make the video glitch, or pretend to be a zombie or something like that,” said Locke. “And some [of the videos] are in jest, but some of them are frightening people about symptoms that they could have if they get the vaccine.”

Here are a few viral examples of the sort of videos Locke is describing:

@rdcworld1

When you the first person to try the coronavirus vaccine 🤣🤦🏾‍♂️ never be the first person on any vaccine

♬ original sound – Mark Phillips

A TikTok spokesperson said in an email exchange with YR Media that the platform is committed to removing misinformation related to COVID-19 and vaccines, including anti-vaccine disinformation, in accordance with their community guidelines. However, it’s unclear whether these videos would be considered misinformation, given their satirical, sarcastic or otherwise humorous tones.

Either way, “Dr.Noc” says these videos have the power to sow doubt about the safety of the vaccine, and may even contribute to more overt conspiracy theories on TikTok, such as the (surprisingly popular) theory that each dose of the coronavirus vaccine contains a microchip that the government or private business would use to surveil anyone who receives the shot. 

Here’s an example of one such video, containing allusions to this theory:

(Language Warning: This video contains some F-bombs.)

https://www.tiktok.com/@conscious.house/video/6894080706880802053

Luckily, Locke says that TikTok is also home to a growing number of healthcare professionals, educators, scientists and others like herself who use the platform to shed light on scientific issues that the public might find confusing or mysterious, as a way to combat misinformation. 

“Science wasn’t something that I was interested in in school because I felt like I was never good at it,” Locke said. “And I just think it’s so amazing that we have this resource now that does make things easier to understand for people, that does break things down that seem sort of mystifying. People want that information and they want to understand. And so I think most of what is happening on TikTok is a genuine curiosity.”

“Dr.Noc” shared this sentiment, saying that he believes TikTok has ultimately educated more people than it has misinformed.

“I think it will end up being net positive on the platform … I think that the actual high-quality information about COVID and about medical science is received quite well on TikTok, and I think that people do recognize that there’s difference between, you know, someone sitting there postulating about different hypotheses about COVID-19, and someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.”

Here are a few examples of the popular educational videos that we observed on TikTok, including ones posted by “Dr.Noc” and Locke:

https://www.tiktok.com/@dr.noc/video/6901711076870606086
@ashealo

If you have other questions, comment and I will answer them! #covid19 #vaccinetrial #vaccine #vaccineswork #nashville

♬ original sound – AL🌿

Locke says that her content and presence on TikTok has sparked a nuanced, informative dialogue about vaccine safety that would be difficult to find on other, more politically-charged social networks like Facebook, or image-based apps like Instagram. Since beginning to document her journey, she says her videos have even inspired several friends and viewers to join her in volunteering for COVID clinical vaccine trials. 

“I just feel like it really is so different for the millennial generation and Gen Z users, compared to any other platform,” she said. “I think in a way it’s brought people a lot closer when it comes to sharing information and informing them and making them feel like it’s ok to ask questions and be curious.”

“Dr. Noc” agreed, saying that despite its proclivity for spreading vaccine hesitancy through jokes and memes, TikTok offers medical educators a unique opportunity to inform users that they may not otherwise reach.

“People just have questions that they want to have answered before they’ll consider taking a vaccine … It’s just the people sometimes don’t have access to the answers, either because they’re in the form of a scientific publication that can be difficult to interpret, or they’re buried somewhere in government documents. And so I think there’s a real need and an opportunity for connecting people with those answers that we have, to reduce some of that hesitancy.”