At first glance, the December video looks like just the latest rendition of a TikTok trend. On one side of the split screen “duet,” a video game car bounces down a mountain; on the other, the TikTok user “dr.noc” scrambles to talk as much as he can before the car slams into the ground. But while other videos feature stream-of-consciousness chatter, Dr. Noc’s words are precise. Noc, who in real life is Morgan McSweeney, a PhD scientist who researches treatments for diseases like COVID-19, is trying to debunk as many myths about coronavirus vaccines as he can before the final animated explosion.
Since the start of the pandemic, misinformation of the sort debunked by McSweeney has mushroomed across TikTok, spreading rapidly thanks to an algorithm that has allowed misleading videos to rack up thousands of views before the app can remove them. Many of these videos are as simple as an individual talking to their video camera about some false fact, but they can take off—perhaps because fiction is (usually) stranger than the truth; a convoluted conspiracy theory involving the government and global billionaires can be far more compelling than the straightforward reality that a vaccine is safe and effective. However, these videos are more insidious than legends about Bigfoot. Misinformation about COVID-19 can discourage people from taking precautions that limit the spread of the virus, such as receiving a vaccine.
TikTok misinformation is unique in its reach among the very young, who comprise the majority of its user base. Despite the fact that young adults are less likely to get severe COVID-19 disease, stopping the spread of the virus among this demographic is essential to limit the damage done by the pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that outbreaks of the virus among young people seem to drive later outbreaks among older people, who are more likely to become severely ill and die from the disease. But slowing the spread of the virus among the young poses particular challenges. Young people are more likely to work frontline jobs like food service that make social distancing difficult; additionally, people who are 18 to 29 years old are less likely to take precautions known to slow the spread of COVID-19, such as avoiding crowds and maintaining a distance of six feet from other people.
While the young tend to be more comfortable online than older people, that hasn’t inoculated them against the spread of false claims. In fact, some studies have shown they seem even more prone to believe misinformation about the pandemic: A September survey of more than 21,000 Americans by researchers led by a group from Northeastern University found that adults under 25 had the highest probability of believing a false claim about COVID-19. For instance, 28% of respondents ages 18 to 24 incorrectly believed that the coronavirus passed to humans by eating bats, compared to just 6% of people over 65.
It seems as if one of the reasons young people often believe misinformation is because they tend to get more of their news on social media. In 2018, 36% of Americans ages 18 to 29 said they often get news on social media, making it the most common news source for that age group, according to Pew Research Center polling. And for many young people in 2021, social media means TikTok; in 2019, about 60% of the 26.5 million active monthly TikTok users were between 16 and 24, Reuters reported.
Although the company has mounted an effort to cut back on false claims—including taking down 29,000 videos about the virus posted by European users this summer—you don’t have to look far to find misinformation about COVID-19 on the app, from false claims about vaccines to misleading posts about masking. However, the spread of misinformation on TikTok has also had the effect of drawing in scientists and healthcare workers to combat false claims with their expertise.
At the forefront are scientists like McSweeney, who has tirelessly posted COVID-related clips of himself on the app since last winter. McSweeney says that because even users with small followings can post videos to TikTok that gain a major audience, it’s a great way to reach new people, especially the young, who might otherwise miss important facts about the pandemic–or be exposed to misinformation. McSweeney says that homemade TikToks seem to come off as more authentic than polished videos by official organizations like the CDC. “When it’s just you in front of a camera, it’s a little bit more like a conversation,” McSweeney says.
It’s difficult to get an exact estimate of how many healthcare workers and scientists use TikTok to talk about their work and public health issues, but they appear to number at least in the dozens. Although some of the most popular health TikTokers have become celebrities elsewhere, including dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee (who first gained notoriety as “Dr. Pimple Popper” on YouTube) most are everyday nurses and doctors who spend their days caring for patients. Prior to the pandemic, many of them covered perennial favorite topics—such as women’s health and dermatology—but in the last year, many of their videos have turned to the pandemic—and, more specifically, to dispelling the misinformation proliferating across social media.
To combat misinformation on TikTok, scientists like McSweeney draw upon their expertise to dissect complex science for their viewers, and back it up with real evidence. By posting videos from their living rooms on TikTok and responding to comments, they’re also able to build familiarity with their viewers. For example, Kristin Patel, a 29-year-old Illinois-based graphic designer, says that she started deliberately avoiding the news in 2020. Between what she sees as the political polarization of news sources and the ever-rising COVID-19 death count, she realized that she just didn’t want to hear any more. But McSweeney won Patel over with the way he combined scientific evidence with entertainment, and has remained a constant presence for her throughout the pandemic.
“I think seeing Doctor Noc’s face from the beginning, I trust Doctor Noc way more than I trust NBC, or some, like, no-name reporter. I don’t know their agenda. But I know that Dr. Noc doesn’t really have an agenda, outside of science,” Patel says.
Dr. Rose Marie Leslie, a chief family medicine resident at the University of Minnesota Medical School, frequently posts TikTok videos about health issues from her home and the hospital. Leslie, who TikTok named one of the “most impactful creators” of 2020, says it’s especially important to her to reach young people, because many of them are at a time in their lives when they’re really hungry for health information, but don’t know where to look for it and often aren’t going to the doctor frequently. Leslie aims to show young people that the decisions they make about COVID-19 can make a huge difference for their communities.
“I just had a direct message from somebody who said, ‘I’ve been wearing my mask every single time I go out, because I’ve been watching your videos. Thank you so much.’ Just little things like that are so meaningful to me—knowing that there are people who are listening,” says Leslie. Among her most popular TikToks is a video of her getting the vaccine and sharing her experience with side effects-—just some tenderness and soreness in her arm, although she noted that there can be others, like headaches.
Combating misinformation about the pandemic with younger Americans has taken on even greater urgency as the U.S. has begun to roll out vaccines—given how important those vaccines are to ending the pandemic, and how malignant anti-vaccination sentiment is in the U.S. and especially on social media. Survey data suggest that younger adults are more hesitant about getting vaccinated than older U.S. residents; only about 55% of adults 18 to 29 and 53% of those 30-49 said they definitely or probably would get a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 75% of those older than 65, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in November.
Halthcare workers like Christina Kim, an oncology nurse practitioner at Massachusetts General Hospital, have countered misinformation with their own videos taking on misinformation head-to-head as well as taking questions from their audiences. Kim, who has over 228,000 followers on TikTok, for example, posted a Dec. 13 TikTok responding to a comment from a viewer who was confused about why vaccines don’t give people COVID-19.
Kim tells TIME she’s thought at times about quitting the app, given the level of angry messages she’s received from people who disagree with her posts. However, she feels a sense of responsibility to fight misinformation, even if it’s just a “drop in the bucket for the pandemic on the whole.”
“I genuinely want this pandemic to end. I want people to recognize what we need to do to make it end,” says Kim. “And I have responsibility, now with this platform that I have, I think it would almost be irresponsible to step away from that.”