Scientists hired by the government to spread Covid-19 messaging on TikTok and Instagram have spoken of the level of misinformation and abuse they have encountered online.
The creators of the new communications strategy, which saw the Department of Health embark on public health messaging on social media, also told the AP news agency how bad the pandemic has been. difficult for young people.
The SciComm Collective, launched in the first half of last year, was intended to deliver government messages on Covid-19 to young people via platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.
It was also a key part of an attempt to dispel myths and misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines.
Andrew McGovern, a 27-year-old PhD researcher at the University of Limerick, started with a podcast in February 2021, before receiving a surprise email from the Department of Health.
“I was kind of like, ‘Excuse me. Is this a scam?’ It was very unexpected.
“Back when I was teaching at UL, I was a teaching assistant in the biosciences program, so it wasn’t that far from my field. And I had made a few short videos on the Covid.
Now, Mr McGovern is a regular presence on the smartphone screens of his 20,000 followers – posting frequent updates and explanations from his own personal TikTok account, as well as appearances on Department of Health platforms.
“They never told us explicitly, ‘you have to do a video on this or you have to do a video on that,'” he says.
It has sparked a largely positive working relationship and he praises the government’s communications during the pandemic as a whole.
While he says there was no “tension” with the Department of Health, there was often a lack of room for “nuance” when making videos.
“If you were in the shoes of, say, the government or the ministry, you can’t make a nuanced statement when you’re trying to explain something and what the general public should do.
“You can’t explain the nuance so well, because people are going to jump on it and resent you and that weakens the reason why we’re doing it, and even if there’s a nuance, it’s better that we follow the public health advice.”
He says that when he made videos for the government, he was careful not to “muddy the message”.
“On my personal TikTok, it was more like ‘Look guys, it’s not perfect, but it makes sense’.
“And then I talked about it and I thought – look good we could do this, that and the other, but we know it works, so might as well go for it.
“It was something that gave me an edge when I was doing mine.”
The reluctance of Irish health officials to give vocal support for antigen testing is one example, he says.
The description of antigen tests as ‘snake oil’ by Professor Philip Nolan, a member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), Mr McGovern said, ‘should not have been said’ .
“What was the big deal, the communications were awful.”
“What should have been said was ‘we are keeping an eye on it, the current evidence does not support it being a public health measure’.
“The point is that at the time, if you go back to the evidence they had at the time, it was a fair enough statement to say that.
“We now see that it is much more useful. It takes time to develop that trust.
Mr McGovern says people should realize it wouldn’t be right for the government to support a public health measure if ‘the evidence isn’t 100 per cent’.
“The problem is that in certain circumstances someone may have misspoken or someone said something slightly wrong.
“And when you’re trying to communicate with five million people, if you get it wrong, or if you say something that’s slightly wrong, or if you say something that can be misinterpreted, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. ”
“Some will say it’s wrong.”
He thinks the government was right to realise, however, that public health messages from savvy scientists on social media would reach young people better than any briefing from chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan.
More importantly, as someone who was in his 20s when the pandemic started, he understands the sacrifices many people have made.
“I think it was very unfair and very hard to accept. A lot of things were stolen from you. You can’t use years of your life that you’re supposed to be carefree.”
Dr Rafael de Andrade Moral, a 32-year-old mathematics professor at Maynooth University, took science communication to heart early on.
He remembers having to tape classes at the start of the pandemic, but realizing how boring they were.
“So I decided to sing about it. That’s when I put on the first song. I filmed my bunnies because I have two pet bunnies, two dogs.
“People seemed to like it.”
His efforts grew from there. In one video, he discussed the different types of vaccines to the tune of a Backstreet Boys song.
Originally from Brazil, he says his family and friends back home enjoyed the videos.
The Department of Health, he says, tapped into something much needed to communicate the complexities of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, he was “surprised” when the government contacted him.
“I thought it was exactly what we needed at the time and I think it really succeeded in terms of the commitment we got.”
Dr Megan Hanlon is a 27-year-old immunology researcher at Trinity College Dublin.
When the pandemic hit, she returned to her family farm in Co Westmeath. After completing her PhD, she started a new project – a podcast in which she interviewed fellow scientists.
That experience took her to the Department of Health, where she says it was a “big learning curve” to transition from podcasts to videos and TikToks.
“One thing that was on my side was that my sister is 16. So every time I would do anything, any video, she would like and judge them and be like, ‘No, that’s is shit “.”
Young people, she says, have been a key audience throughout the pandemic.
“They don’t really watch the news. They don’t watch public health briefings. They get a lot of information, and more importantly, a lot of misinformation and misinformation, from social media.
She praises the Department for giving creators space to discuss and disagree, but admits managing online trolling was “difficult”.
After a few videos sparked abuse, she decided not to put her face in her future posts.
She describes it as “a lot of people say ‘that’s wrong’ or ‘you shouldn’t do that'”.
“It’s directed against the government,” she said.
“It wasn’t personal to me, but there were some personal comments. A lot of people struggled with that.
“I’m not used to something like this.”
Despite this, she thinks it was a “brilliant” experience and praises the government for supporting her.
“I loved it, it was a great experience.
“Just so we can help out and do your part.”