April 6, 2021

How COVID-19 misinformation on social media shapes student experiences

By Zoe Kurtz, college junior and TSI intern

 I can’t believe it’s been a year since our “new normal” began. The COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout has made many people, myself included, question the reliability of news sources and think twice about where we get our information. Throughout the past year, I’ve spent more time on social media than ever before. Every platform is filled with an abundance of pandemic facts, opinions, half-truths, quotes taken out of context, and so much more.

  • TikToks showcasing different perspectives on the vaccine and its efficacy.
  • Instagram stories offering people’s personal thoughts on COVID. 
  • Facebook posts showing an endless stream of memes, articles, and opinions.
  • Tweets with unsourced or unverified stats or half quotes.

Through it all, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction as social media has become a catalyst for misinformation on the pandemic. The World Health Organization even warned of the amplification of an “infodemic,” with the spread of unreliable information at an all-time high.

Understanding misinformation on social platforms 

Social media continues to play an essential role in updating the public on COVID-19 protocols and vaccine distribution. It’s an immensely powerful resource, as long as you’re aware of the potential misinformation traps. 

MORE: Social media’s impact on social-emotional health

Take, for instance, the role of algorithms. Not everyone sees the same content, and people searching for the same information might see different stories offering up entirely different narratives. According to Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, “The Instagram algorithm is driving people further and further into their realities, but also splitting those realities apart so that some people are getting no misinformation whatsoever and some people are being driven more and more misinformation.”

COVID is complex and constantly evolving, which makes social media platforms tricky for confidently finding reliable information. Avi, a high school senior in North Carolina, explains how vaccine misinformation on social media further muddies the waters. “Every time I go on TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat, I hear something new regarding the vaccine. It’s gotten to the point where I am not sure what I can believe because not everybody sees what I see, but also not everybody trusts the same sources.”

What does that mean for students like me with news-filled feeds? A research study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that people who rely on social media for their information were more likely to be misinformed about Covid-19 and vaccines than those who used traditional news sources. Even if you don’t rely on social media for news, it still leaves everyone asking, “Who can I trust?”

Doctors and nurses spreading truth online

Medical experts have been turning to TikTok to respond to misinformation, helping teenagers and users worldwide understand the truth. Christina Kim, an oncology nurse practitioner, has more than 248,800 TikTok followers with more than 7.1 million likes. She told Wired magazine, “I was so shocked to be exposed to this world of people – people who didn’t believe in science.” In her hundreds of TikToks, she uses creativity and entertainment to spread the truth and educate.

@christinaaaaaaanp

Reply to @imthatbitch591 ##evidence ##data ##casereport ##anecdotalevidence

♬ original sound – CHRISTINA NP

While misinformation can spread quickly, TikTok empowers young people to come together and ask questions. According to the World Economic Forum, “TikTok’s popularity could be significant when it comes to encouraging vaccination in young people, who tend to be more skeptical about vaccines than older age groups.” 

TikTok’s influence indirectly extends to students who don’t even use it. Russell, a 12th grader from California, shares, “I don’t use social media very much, so I don’t have any first-hand experience. However, a lot of my friends do, and at least indirectly in conversations we’ve all had about it, there does seem to be a lot of misinformation and a lack of trust in the vaccine. Hopefully, with more scientists and doctors on TikTok, trust in science and the vaccine continues to grow.”

Two simple tips for navigating social media misinformation

Sure, social media can sometimes be overwhelming and confusing. The good news? We’re not powerless! Two simple strategies for navigating social media feeds can go a long way towards building awareness and limiting misinformation.

Firstly, pay attention to flagged content. On TikTok, if a video is about COVID or other topics related to the vaccine, they often are flagged at the bottom stating, “Learn the facts about Covid-19.” This serves up a simple reminder to double-check sources and compare them to others before sharing or liking.

Secondly, remember that social media makes it easier than ever to connect. So when in doubt, speak up! Asking questions in TikTok comments and engaging directly with reputable doctors, nurses, and scientists from groups like TeamHalo expands and deepens our connections. 

When it comes to fighting off misinformation on social media, remember that building up awareness is half the battle. And you definitely don’t have to delete every social media account in order to limit the impact of potentially harmful misinformation.

When used responsibly, social media itself provides plenty of opportunities to find credible sources and squash misinformation.


About The Social Institute

The Social Institute partners with schools nationwide to empower students, parents, and educators to navigate social-emotional health, social media, and technology positively through comprehensive, gamified lessons that meet students on their level as well. We have partnered with forward-thinking institutions across the nation, including Ravenscroft School, Gaston Day School, Bryn Mawr, Gilman School, Woodward Academy, U.S. Olympic athletes, Duke Men’s Basketball, ESPN, and others. For more information, contact us.