When Your Doctor Is on TikTok
In the second week of March 2020, uncertainty ruled TikTok. Students shared clips of school PA systems announcing closures and cancellations. Travelers filmed their frantic efforts to return to the U.S. before President Donald Trump’s border restrictions went into effect. And yet many users speculated that warnings of a life-reordering pandemic were overblown. Comment sections seemed angsty, but conspiracies abounded, hinting at the diverging versions of reality that lay ahead.
As the first wave of coronavirus shutdowns began, an epidemiologist named Katrine Wallace joined TikTok to combat her boredom and isolation. Wallace, a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, watched as the viral dances and humor of “quarantine” took over the app, but she told me that she didn’t consider making any kind of video herself until the app’s algorithm began showing her coronavirus conspiracy theories.
“At that point in time, it was like the conspiracy that the disease wasn’t even real, like it was all something to throw the election, that everything was miscoded, that it was really the flu and we were pretending it was something else,” she told me. “Naively, I thought to myself, Well, I’m just gonna fix this on this app.”
With all of 20 followers, Wallace dropped her first video on August 2, 2020: a minute-long explainer walking viewers through how COVID-19 death certificates are filled out. The video racked up nearly 100,000 views in a few days. Less than two years later, “Dr. Kat, Epidemiologist” (as she’s known online) now has 250,000 followers. Her more recent videos explain which COVID tests to take and when, how to use the federal government’s new at-home testing portal, and why “Flurona” (being sick with flu and COVID and the same time) isn’t a doomsday sign. She’s wrapping up a series explaining common techniques that anti-vaxxers and COVID skeptics use to mislead audiences, and often partners with the many other science communicators who have joined TikTok since the pandemic started.
Creators such as Wallace are filling a void of knowledge and expertise on the platform. TikTok, like Facebook and YouTube, has struggled to contain the spread of fake news and other falsehoods. For better or worse, these medical influencers are taking on the role that governments and public-health agencies have struggled to perform during the pandemic. Social-media users aren’t necessarily the people you’d expect to provide clear and nuanced information about staying safe during a pandemic, but these doctors, nurses, and academics are slowing the bleeding of trust that institutions have suffered over the past two years, and informing a new generation of news consumers.
Reaching new audiences on TikTok is different from connecting with audiences on other platforms. The central “For You” feed often funnels new videos to users from accounts that they don’t follow. Inevitably, some of these scientifically literate videos make it to anti-vax feeds and vice versa. Those crossovers set the stage for conflict.
A few weeks ago, I encountered a concerning clip on the app. A thin blond woman looked into the camera before beginning to rant.
“You have to be careful of these big TikTok accounts that are, like, virologists, epidemiologists, doctors, nurses, all different kinds of medical people—and other people too, scientists. They are actually actors and they are not real.”
The original video, by a fitness and home-remedies TikTok creator, is no longer online. But the joking reactions from the many doctors and scientists she claimed were frauds proved that at least one thing that she said was true: Science communicators and medical professionals on TikTok have gotten more organized since the pandemic began. TikTok wasn’t built to stop a virus, but its tools have given truth a way to compete with lies.
Frequent collaborations between these TikTokers create the sense of a distinct community of science communicators on the app. Not all of them joined TikTok at the same time, but many began posting in the spring and summer of 2020, like Wallace. At the time, the platform wasn’t as saturated as Instagram or Twitter were with science content, and these doctors and scientists saw a need to reassure people that though the virus was concerning, masks and social distancing worked. Early on, these creators took a different path than their colleagues on other platforms. Instead of focusing on lifestyles (like influencers on YouTube) or provocative takes (like Twitter academics and physicians), the influencers I spoke with all told me that they wanted to cut through speculation and conjecture to simply explain what they knew. Some of them have since joined Team Halo, a United Nations–backed social-media campaign that enlisted scientists and health-care professionals in late 2020 to address vaccine hesitancy and false information about the coronavirus. They compare notes in group chats and comment on each others’ posts, but their accounts each offer distinct ways of reading data, scrutinizing news, and rebutting lies. Their styles are different—some lean into memes, some debate anti-vaxxers on livestreams, and others get emotional about experiences with patients—but on the whole, what stands out is how purely fun their content is.
Morgan McSweeney, an immunologist who specializes in monoclonal antibody-based therapeutics at a biotech startup, goes by the moniker “Dr. Noc” on TikTok. He has over a million followers, and he told me that he traces part of the success of so many science communicators to two social aspects of the platform: its trends and its users’ willingness to trust pseudo-anonymous accounts.
“For a week or two weeks at a time, everyone’s using the same audios, everyone’s using the same type of meme or same type of video but adapting it to their niche, which I think gives rise to a collective. It’s almost like a personality,” McSweeney said. “The trends foster a sense of connectedness, even among people who are really just sitting alone, independently scrolling on their phones.”
That sense of community helps to explain why so many of these popular accounts are also semi-anonymous: Unlike on Instagram or Twitter, science influencers on TikTok tend not to advertise their full names, especially if they’re directly rebutting an unreliable account’s pandemic misinformation. McSweeney told me that he creates a sense of distance between his personal life and his public persona by using the Dr. Noc pseudonym, and other creators said that anonymity adds another layer of safety, because they are frequent targets of harassment and trolling. One was even doxed.
Still, scrolling through the app, I was stumped by how audiences could trust creators whose only solid claims to truth are their own assertions that they are reliable. Their videos are trustworthy because the creators are transparent about their logic and provide evidence for their claims, but I could see some parallels between how these audiences engage with partially anonymous science accounts and how COVID deniers engage with misinformation. When I asked these creators about credibility, they didn’t deny the parallels to how some users blindly follow purveyors of misinformation, and they recognized the limits of convincing skeptics to trust them. But each of them pointed to their track records and their professional pledges to own up to any mistakes, and they reminded me that they have had two years to build trust with audiences—and to be called out if they mess up.
My conversations took on a more serious tone when I asked these creators who they hoped to reach when making these videos. All acknowledged that they are concerned that they’re no longer persuading skeptics and only confirming the prior assumptions of the majority of Americans who already believe in the threat of the virus and the efficacy of vaccines. But that might not be as big of a problem as it was earlier in the pandemic. Though vaccine skeptics remain frustrating holdouts against inoculations, they are a shrinking, if vocal, minority. Direct rebuttals and fact-checks of coronavirus lies made more sense during the heart of the crisis, and that work has translated into larger follower counts and engaged viewers, but these creators also see their work paying dividends through its ability to convince their audience to be aggressive with truth in the long run.
“My followers are like-minded; they wouldn’t follow me unless they already thought like me,” Christina Kim, a nurse practitioner at Massachusetts General Hospital with 350,000 followers, told me. “I might just be speaking into an echo chamber, but a big part of what I do is arm them with the ammunition they need to go out and talk to people in their own communities.”
Many of the communicators I spoke with told me that they were focused on reminding viewers how to recognize traits of misinformation, or pointing out propaganda, or teaching them to scrutinize studies and data sets. By doing this, they hope they can pass on news- and information-consumption tactics that can apply to other topics, scientific or not, and skills that will stick with their audience long after the pandemic subsides. But two years in, it’s a bit depressing that hundreds of thousands of people are relying on a lip-synching-and-dancing app to do the work that the federal government should have been doing from the start.