The Power of Local Celebrities in the Fight against Vaccine Hesitancy

Calling all doctors, local politicians, clergy, social media influencers, and others with clout in your communities: Please become public advocates for vaccines. Right now.

Calling all local journalists, too: Please amplify your neighbors’ advocacy, and add some of your own. This is a time when you should transcend the norms of your craft. You cannot be neutral and still claim to have done your job—not on this topic, not now.

Why do we need local celebrities and influencers to take on this role? After all, more than 324 million doses have been injected into Americans’ arms already. In coming months, all Americans who want to be vaccinated against COVID will have been.

But there’s been a significant drop-off in daily shots in the U.S., amid an alarming rise in infections via the “Delta” variant that is roughly twice as infectious as the original coronavirus. And even when everyone who wants to be vaccinated has gotten their shots, that will leave an alarmingly large number of Americans unprotected—as much as 25 percent of the population. That’s bad news in a major way, not least because the larger the pool of unprotected people, in the U.S. and abroad, the more chances the coronavirus and variants have to mutate into even worse strains. 

Vaccine hesitancy got an unfortunate boost earlier this spring after the government temporarily halted vaccinations using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while experts studied exceedingly rare blood clots. Meanwhile, an ongoing spate of antivaccine lies and context-lacking, scare-story journalism threatens to set us back in a major way.

Which means, in turn, that society needs to pull out all the stops to persuade the “vaccine-hesitant”—people who either refuse, or are reluctant, to get inoculated—to do the right thing. Among those who may be in the best position to help are celebrities, and not just the kind you see in People magazine or TMZ.

Sadly, some of those highest-profile celebrities (you’ve heard their names but we’re not going to repeat them here) have misrepresented proven science and public health information as part of a years-long campaign against vaccinating children against common childhood diseases. One result has been an uptick in measles cases around the nation. Some of those anti-vaccine celebrities opportunistically moved into the coronavirus world with equally misguided “advice” during our current deadly pandemic. 

Their malevolent influence has been countered, to some degree, by public health messaging including help from major celebrities—thank you, Dolly Parton and Morgan Freeman, among others—who’ve done fine work to spread the word for vaccines. These people may outnumber the anti-vaccine celebrities. But they’ve been in a reactive mode most of the time, and the stories they tell to explain why vaccines are so important haven’t been as compelling narratives as the slickly told lies from the anti-vaccination forces.

Less noticed, meanwhile, partly because they don’t make for alluring media clickbait, is a group we might call local and minor celebrities. We need them more than ever, and there is already evidence that they are playing an important role.

Here are some examples of their great work:

  • In Philadelphia, the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium has worked tirelessly to persuade people of color—who have been among the worst hit by the virus and have long-standing trust issues with big medicine—and just passed 25,000 vaccinations administered in a month.
  • While it’s great that Pope Francis advocated that Catholics get their shots, it may ultimately be even more important that local clergy members from many faiths are urging their congregations—especially doubters—to get vaccinated.
  • Social media influencers in Oregon are working with the state’s health agency and a marketing firm to persuade their followers to get vaccinated.

We need this kind of activity everywhere, in every physical and virtual community. We also need a better understanding of how it works. 

When it comes to the efficacy of local celebrities’ provaccine messages, we need interdisciplinary research into (a) how different messaging affects the intended audiences, i.e., whether they respond with more positive views of vaccinations; (b) whether vaccination rates among the hesitant improve; (c) which demographic groups respond most positively (and why); (d) how we can make these efforts scale; and more.  We stand to not only increase vaccination rates, but also learn more about systems of trust in our local media.

NEWS MEDIA’S ROLE

For this to happen, we particularly need the help of a core, though financially threatened, institution in our society: local media, especially local news organizations. Many are doing their part already. “We implore you to get vaccinated.” said Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County News, in an editorial, “We believe you have an ethical duty to do so. And we’re not alone in believing this.”

The vaccine campaign needs journalistic help in a way that may challenge some long-held assumptions in the craft.

Journalists, local celebrities in their own right, are trained to be “objective”—a notion that has wide support but, unfortunately, often means publishing or broadcasting stories with absurdly false balance. This issue has one legitimate side.

First, they should highlight the science—notably the overwhelming evidence of effectiveness and safety in the already approved vaccines—and the dangers if we do not vaccinate a great majority of people. Yes, cover cases of bad reactions, but do it in the full context showing the overwhelmingly positive outcome from widespread inoculation. 

Second, they should highlight the efforts of the kinds of local celebrities mentioned above, and do it consistently. Help audiences understand that their own friends and neighbors are doing the right thing for themselves and their communities. In its exemplary editorial, Lancaster’s news site cited just such contributions from notable members of the community.

Third, even in a time when journalism as a whole has been targeted by people who want to discredit the craft, some local newspeople retain enormous credibility with people of all political leanings. TV news anchors and weather forecasters, for example, can make a huge difference in promoting the vaccines. 

None of this will make a difference if what is becoming a major group of vaccine-reluctant people—white male Republicans—continues to balk at science and reality. The people most likely to persuade them are the politicians who’ve promoted coronavirus mythology and the Big Lie about the 2020 presidential election. 

In the end, we need broad and deep participation. If you are one of the people who can help, please do. Whoever you are—celebrity or not—get vaccinated and take that selfie at the vaccination center. Send it to everyone you know, including the local newspeople, and post it on social media. Your example could be a lifesaver.

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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