To Struggle Vaccine Lies, Authorities Recruit an ‘Influencer Military’

LOS ANGELES – Ellie Zeiler, 17, a TikTok inventor with over 10 million followers, received an email in June from Village Marketing, an influencer marketing agency. It was said that it wanted to come forward on behalf of another party: the White House.

Would Ms. Zeiler, a high school graduate who usually posts short fashion and lifestyle videos, be willing to participate in a White House-sponsored campaign urging her audience to get vaccinated against the coronavirus?

“There is a tremendous need to raise awareness within the 12-18 age group,” Village Marketing wrote to Ms. Zeiler’s business email. “We’re moving fast and have only a few vacancies, so please let us know as soon as possible.”

Ms. Zeiler quickly agreed and joined a broad, personality-centric campaign to address an increasingly pressing challenge in the fight against the pandemic: vaccinating the young population, who have the lowest vaccination rates of any eligible age group in the United States .

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than half of all Americans between the ages of 18 and 39 are fully vaccinated, compared with more than two-thirds of those over the age of 50. And around 58 percent of 12 to 17 year olds have not yet received a vaccination.

To reach out to these young people, the White House has recruited an eclectic army of 50+ Twitch streamers, YouTubers, TikTokers, and 18-year-old pop star Olivia Rodrigo, all of whom have huge online audiences. State and local governments have launched similar campaigns, in some cases paying “local micro-influencers” – those with 5,000 to 100,000 followers – up to $ 1,000 a month to promote Covid-19 vaccines to their fans.

The effort is, in part, a counterattack against an increasing flurry of vaccine misinformation that has flooded the internet, where anti-vaccine activists can be so vocal that some young creators say they chose to keep quiet about vaccines to get one avoid politicized backlash.

“The anti-vaccine page of the internet is still tuned into all of this vaccine news,” said Samir Mezrahi, the administrator of several “meme sites” like Kale Salad, which has nearly 4 million followers on Instagram and posts viral videos and other content . “We’re posting about J. Lo and Ben Affleck.”

Renee DiResta, a researcher investigating misinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said that while influencer campaigns can be useful, they may not have grown with mass, organic online movement. She noticed the difference between creators asked to spread pro-vaccine messages and vaccine skeptics who made it a personal mission to question the injections.

“That’s the asymmetrical passion,” she said. “People who think it would hurt you talk about it every day. They promote hashtags, distribute content and do everything they can. “

But even if the influencer campaigns amount to a sprinkler in wildfire, some creators have said they felt compelled to join in.

“I wasn’t worried about the backlash,” said Christina Najjar, 30, a TikTok star known online as Tinx. “It was right to help spread the word about vaccination.”

Ms. Najjar said she was thrilled when the White House reached out to her through her manager in June. She soon posted a question-and-answer video about the vaccines with Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, on Instagram.

Their banter was easy. Ms. Najjar discussed what she called a “happy Vaxx girl summer” and satiated Dr. Fauci with questions: Was it safe to go for a drink? Do we have to worry about getting pregnant after vaccination? Do I look 26? “You look timeless,” he replied.

“I’ll tell my botox doctor that,” she said.

Ms. Najjar called the session “a great time” and added, “I think I had a good time with Dr. Fauci flirted, but in a respectful way. ”A White House official said Dr. Fauci was not available for comment.

Public health officials have been using celebrities to reach out to people since Elvis Presley rolled up his sleeve on the 1956 “Ed Sullivan Show” to get the polio vaccine. According to a 2018 study by marketing agency MuseFind, young people are more likely to trust the advice of their preferred content creator than a mainstream celebrity.


Aug 7, 2021, 5:39 p.m. ET

As a result, “we need to get an army of influencers to get the pro-vaccine message across,” said Jason Harris, executive director of Mekanism advertising agency, an authority on influencer marketing. “Only in this way will we have enough voices on social media to drown out all the false information that is happening.”

The White House began pondering the power of online creators in January and re-using the influencer marketing tactics Mr Biden used on the vaccination promotion campaign, said Rob Flaherty, director of white’s digital strategy House.

Mr Flaherty said he and Clarke Humphrey, the White House’s Covid-19 digital director, partnered with Village Marketing and Made to Save, a national campaign to promote access to coronavirus vaccines. In June, they hosted several secret briefings about Zoom so online creators could ask questions about the vaccines and how they work.

Since then, the Biden government has had influencer talks with Dr. Fauci introduced and brought Ms. Rodrigo to the White House, where she told people to “actually go to a vaccination center”.

Credit…White House, via Reuters

In March, the White House also orchestrated a live Instagram chat between Dr. Fauci and Eugenio Derbez, a Mexican actor with over 16.6 million Instagram followers who openly doubted the vaccines. During their 37-minute discussion, Mr. Derbez spoke openly about his concerns.

“What if I get the vaccine but it doesn’t protect me from the new variant?” He asked. Dr. Fauci acknowledged that the vaccines may not fully protect people from variants, but said, “It is very, very good to protect you from serious illness.”

Understand the state of vaccine mandates in the United States

Flaherty said the whole point of the campaign is to be “a positive information effort.”

State and local governments have taken the same approach, but to a lesser extent and sometimes with financial incentives.

In February, Colorado awarded a contract worth up to $ 16.4 million to Denver-based Idea Marketing, which includes a program to pay developers in the state $ 400 to $ 1,000 per month to buy the vaccines to apply.

Jessica Bralish, director of communications for the Colorado Department of Health, said influencers are paid because “too often, different communities are asked to contact their communities for free. And to be fair, we know that we have to compensate people for their work. “

As part of the effort, influencers have shown where they were injected on their arms and used emojis and selfies to showcase performance. “I’ve joined the Pfizer Club,” announced Ashley Cummins, a fashion and style influencer in Boulder, Colorado, in a recent smiling selfie while holding her vaccination card. She added a mask emoji and an applause emoji.

“Wuh! That’s so exciting! “Commented one fan.

Contributions from creators of the campaign will include a disclosure that reads “Paid Partnership with Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment “.

Patricia Lepiani, President of Idea Marketing, said local micro-influencers are in demand because they can come across as more authentic than national social media stars. “Vaccination campaigns will only be effective if you know your community,” she said.

Colorado officials recently said the state had only two months to use 350,000 doses of stored Covid-19 vaccines before they expire.

Other locations, including New Jersey, Oklahoma City Counties, and Guilford County, NC, as well as cities like San Jose, California, have partnered with digital marketing agency XOMAD, which is identifying local influencers that can help spread public health information about the vaccines .

Government interest in the campaigns has increased significantly over the past week, said Rob Perry, CEO of XOMAD, as concerns about the spread of the Delta variant of the virus have grown. He added that “if a large number of influencers post over the same period, vaccination rates go up”.

Things moved quickly for Ms. Zeiler, the TikTok star, after she joined the White House-sponsored vaccination campaign. In June she had an online conversation with Dr. Fauci and used the time to dispel the false rumor that vaccines cause infertility. It was a conspiracy theory that she had heard from friends and seen videos of on her TikTok For You page.

“When I saw that I thought, OK, I have to ask him about it,” she said. “It was kind of sad to see him say: No, that’s not true.”

Since then, Ms. Zeiler has shared her footage with Dr. Fauci used it for other platforms including Instagram and created original content for YouTube promoting the vaccines. In a 47-second video, she spoke directly into the camera, thwarting the reasons why she got vaccinated and why others should, too. “Reason one,” she explained, “you can go where you want.”

Ms. Zeiler said in an interview that her job was not done. “I know I won’t stop until all of my followers are safe and vaccinated,” she said.

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