A series of videos on TikTok show creators play-acting as patients who get sinister side-effects after taking a COVID-19 vaccine.
The videos are part of the "point of view" trend. Many are clearly fictional, but some dabble in widespread conspiracy theories.
Medical experts told Insider that even joking or fictional posts like these can help spread anti-vaccine sentiment.
TikTok declined to comment on the posts in the video; though it did remove some anti-vaccine comments from posts flagged by Insider.
Update: 2 of the 3 videos highlighted in this post were made unavailable after publication.
People on TikTok are pretending to experience painful or sinister side-effects from a COVID-19 vaccine in a series of videos identified by Insider.
The posts are part of the "point of view"(POV) trend on the platform, where creators invent fictional scenarios to tell a story.
The posters adopt the perspective of people who get early access to the coronavirus vaccine then either suffer painful side-effects or die.
Most of the scenarios are clearly fictional. But they embrace tropes from real-world anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, and medical experts warned Insider that they may help normalize the idea that vaccines are dangerous.
Insider identified around 30 videos that fit that pattern, which have collectively been viewed at least one million times.
A typical video, which had been "liked" 230,000 times, warns that the vaccine is the start of a zombie apocalypse. It was made unavailable after Insider published this post.
Another, with more than 700,000 likes, shows a man starting to bark and growl uncontrollably after taking a vaccine.
But some scenarios appear to embrace real conspiracy theories.
A third video, with 60,500 likes, shows a young man being given a vaccine by a doctor who is part of a conspiracy to insert tracking devices in the population.
That scenario is a widespread conspiracy theory, often linked to Microsoft founder and vaccine advocate Bill Gates. Polling earlier this year found that 28% of Americans believe the theory is true.
The video was also made unavailable after the publication of this post.
How even tongue-in-cheek posts can boost disinformation
Healthcare experts and scientists worry that videos like these can promote anti-vaccine sentiment, even if it was never the intention. Many of the comments beneath the videos embraced vaccine skepticism more seriously than the videos themselves.
Insider showed the videos to Dr. Noc, an immunologist and TikToker with more than 220,000 followers who is attempting to combat misinformation on the platform.
"When you see the videos, you see they're clearly playful, and if you ask anybody about them they would say that it's obviously a joke," he said.
"Obviously, nobody thinks that the vaccine is going to turn someone into a zombie."
However, he said, the videos could have "an accumulative effect" which leads to "social reinforcement of an idea that the vaccine isn't safe," he said.
Dr. Noc started his TikTok channel at the beginning of the pandemic after coming across a lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories on the platform.
He told Insider he wanted to get out some "actual information" on the platform to answer people's questions. Here is an example of his posts:
He said: "From what I've seen, there are two groups of people. One group, I consider being actually anti-vaxx in that they are passionately anti-vaccine either because they're against all of Western medicine or they think that big pharma is a hoax trying to make money. That is only a small portion of the population."
"But a relatively large portion of the population is people who actually don't know much about vaccines, and are not sure what to do with all the information that is fed to them on a daily basis."
"The creator of the video could be doing it completely as a joke and could be totally on board with taking a vaccine.
"But then it's very clear that when you look in the comment section, there's a huge group of people who see that and it's obvious that they've interpreted it as the vaccine is dangerous and that Bill Gates or the government is trying to inject a microchip in you, which is totally false," he said.
Dr. Nicole Baldwin, a pediatrician from Cincinnati, Ohio, also told Insider that the videos are "very disturbing."
"I think it plants these seeds of doubt in anybody's head about what is in a vaccine. And that's a huge myth that has been perpetuated not only by TikTok but by other social media platforms," she told Insider.
"It's super concerning that TikTok is allowing these videos on their platform. I don't know how much COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation TikTok is removing but it's dangerous to have that information out there," she added.
"Platforms do not serve us, they serve themselves and their advertisers"
There are no clear figures for how TikTok handles vaccine-related misinformation. But across social media platforms, it appears most misleading claims are never rebutted.
Baldwin told Insider that her impression was that TikTok is less vigilant than most platforms.
A recent report by the Center of Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a non-profit, analyzed 912 posts that were reported for containing vaccine-related misinformation.
The report covered Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but not TikTok. It found that the vast majority of the reports received no response.
A total of 4.9% did receive a response, and only 2.3% of reports led to the post being removed.
All companies, including TikTok, have made moves in recent months to ban any coronavirus misinformation on their platforms, although they don't specifically have a policy against anti-vaccine content.
TikTok announced a collaboration with Team Halo — a UN collective of vaccine researchers — earlier this week, urging them to upload more videos on the platform.
TikTok declined to comment for this story. Its moderators removed some comments under videos highlighted to them by Insider, but did not take action against the posts themselves.
After this post was published, two of the three videos described above were taken offline. It is not clear by whom. The accounts which published them remain online.
In an interview, Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the CCDH told Insider that social platforms have little incentive to counter anti-vaccination content.
He said: "Social media platforms do not serve us, they serve themselves and their advertisers. They're trying to keep people on platforms for as long as possible and the best way to do that is to keep them fed misinformation and keep giving them more engaging information, which also happens to be misinformation."
"The problem with these platforms is that they're introducing doubt. They have introduced doubt into a decision that should be pretty straightforward. Vaccines are one of the safest, most-effective, most consequential medical inventions of the last few centuries."
Americans are getting more skeptical of vaccines
According to a recent Axios/Ipsos poll, around 60% of Americans said they would not take a coronavirus vaccine as soon as it becomes available — up from 53% in August.
13% said they would get it immediately, whereas 23% said they would not get a vaccine at all, the same poll found.
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, scientists around the world have been rushing to develop a vaccine for the virus.
There are 193 ongoing research efforts currently underway, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The trials are meant to determine whether vaccines can have damaging side-effects before they are given to populations at large.
Some people in the trials have experienced bad outcomes. Scientists then have to determine whether the vaccine was to blame.
Earlier this week, a volunteer in AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine trial in Brazil died.
However, the vaccine-maker says the vaccine was not to blame. A news report by Brazilian paper O Globo said the man was in a control group and was given a placebo instead of the actual vaccine.
Previous COVID-19 vaccine trials have been temporarily suspended after participants fell ill.
Read the original article on Insider