A year and a half filled with uncertainty has left Cornellians and Americans nationwide grasping at the straws of capricious public health advisory in search of information to protect their communities from COVID-19.
Cornell Tech experts note that social media has played an irrevocable role in allowing avenues for disputing the science surrounding COVID-19, straining pandemic response globally.
“To me, it’s fairly clear that information ecosystems are at the very least not supporting trustworthy sources in any principled way,” Prof. Mor Naaman, information science, said. “We face the danger of losing a shared sense of reality and facts.”
Naaman and Asher Williams, chemical engineering, are analyzing online information ecosystems — the platforms that allow dynamic social relationships to share information that moves and transforms — and contributing to unraveling patterns surrounding misinformation and the pandemic.
Experts continue to warn that relaxed rollout of the vaccine, allows for the selection and proliferation of strains of the virus that are able to evade any immune response. Nonetheless, FDA data shows that the vaccines are able to adapt to new variants.
“It is extremely unfortunate that mask-wearing and even vaccination became political,” Williams said.
Williams, who was recruited in early 2021 by team Halo, a TikTok initiative launched by the University of London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the United Nations’ Verified initiative.
The group is working towards unspooling the bias caused by the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic by promoting videos by scientists and doctors — recently passing 95 million views.
Williams can be found on TikTok under the handle @dr_asherwilliams and says she began making informative videos oriented towards family and friends on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter long before becoming a part of Team Halo.
The content that Williams creates has garnered backlash, but it has also received positive feedback from people who say her videos have improved their trust in vaccines. Williams said she received feedback from people who are apprehensive in seeing her, a Black woman, behave as an “agent of the system.”
“A lot of people say they’ve never seen such a push for Black people to get any medical intervention or help in the past, so they’re very suspicious of just this large push by the government,” Williams said.
While Williams underscores the need for everyone to get vaccinated, she also argues assiduously for empathy in persuading others.
“I think there’s this missing link where the government thinks that because they say ‘you should get vaccinated,’ that people should go get it,” Williams said. “But I think [people are] missing the education addressing [their] concerns or answering questions, to get people to a point where they’re comfortable, [with the vaccines].”
The reels made by Williams address everything from the nomenclature behind the virus variants to tackling information disorder — inaccurate information she sees on TikTok. In her videos, she tries to pack a punch while being humorous.
Following an anecdotal video by a skeptic citing breakthrough infections in vaccinated individuals as evidence that the vaccines are ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus, Williams was quick to dispel the misgivings of that presumption.
Using academic publications, Williams discussed that evidence actually shows that vaccinated individuals are less likely to contract the virus and show quicker improvement — the high transmission rate of the delta variant is characteristic of lag in herd immunity.
“What I have noticed is that people with misinformation tend to be very vocal about it, and tend to be sharing it a lot,” Williams said. “And then the people who have the facts, [are saying] ‘Oh, it’s a personal health decision.’ I want to appeal to people who are in that second group to be more vocal, speak up — it’s a pandemic.”
Naaman echoes Williams’ interest in reconciling facts by addressing gaps in information that has led to the divide between “anti-vaxxers” and others. However, he also advocated for tighter regulation in social media apps to prevent the spread of misinformation that is endangering millions of lives.
“How do we combat misinformation or the other elements of our information ecosystem? Nobody knows for sure,” Naaman asked. “The short answer is not how we were doing it so far.”