Scientists and medics turn to TikTok to reassure public on vaccine safety

Tik Tok is unlikely to spring to mind as a source of reliable information about complex issues, but scientists are using it to fly the flag for COVID-19 vaccines and other health topics.

The social media platform, which allows users to share short and often frivolous video clips, has a growing number of experts using it to communicate important information to a broad audience, and particular teenagers and young adults.

One such scientist is Dr Anna Blakney (pictured above left), who is working on the COVID-19 vaccine project underway at Imperial College London in the UK and has attracted an impressive 205,000 followers.

She told the BBC that her approach on TikTok is “come for the entertainment, but stay for the science.” Her videos cover a host of topics from the science behind the immune system, side effects caused by the shots and vaccine hesitancy and the clinical and regulatory path to approval.

Dr Austin Chiang

Another is Dr Austin Chiang, a gastroenterologist and the chief medical social media officer at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, who said in an interview with the New York Times that covering vaccine-related topics on TikTok can be a minefield.

“When we talk about vaccines as health professionals, people who are vehemently anti-vaccine can take it out of context for their agenda. That makes me hold back sometimes,” said Chiang.

“The approach that I try to take is to leave room for the grey. If you say vaccines don’t cause any harm and are the best things in the world, it can alienate people who are vaccine hesitant. If we instead acknowledge that there are risks just like anything else in medicine and life, it’s a more effective message.”

TikTok itself meanwhile says it has taken steps to make sure its users have access to reliable information about the pandemic, which will be stepped up as immunisation programmes start in the UK, US and elsewhere.

Kevin Morgan, head of product and process, Europe, at the social media firm, notes in a blog post that in January it introduced an in-app notice so that when users searched for hashtags related to the pandemic, they would be provided with easy links to the World Health Organisation’s website and the British Red Cross.

The following month it rolled out an information hub in-app to provide the TikTok community with access to accurate information, which has been viewed 2 billion times since June and will be updated on 17 December with new information on vaccines

“Additionally, we will soon introduce a new vaccine tag to detect and tag all videos with words and hashtags related to the COVID-19 vaccine,” says Morgan.

“We will attach a banner to these videos with the message ‘Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines’,” which will redirect users to “verifiable, authoritative sources of information.”

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