The New York Times recently wrote about the White House’s tactic to promote Covid-19 vaccinations using an “army of influencers”. The article confirmed what I had been seeing on social media recently, though what I saw took the form of memes and jokes surrounding 18-year-old singer Olivia Rodrigo’s visit to the White House. My initial reaction was positive and hopeful; I thought using the rising pop star was a great move by the Biden Administration. However, after seeing more paid vaccine promotion from younger and less prominent influencers, my concern grew. While I support the White House’s efforts to try to get more young people protected, I believe we must be careful when merging teenage influencers and something so serious and vital as medical advice.
While actors and celebrities have been used in the past to promote safe medical practices, the current world of social media brings new challenges and issues that must be carefully considered. Many young influencers on TikTok don’t have established agencies or agents offering them guidance and helping them choose the best brands or ideas to endorse. With the accessibility of social media, and especially the fast-paced way kids can sometimes go from zero followers to a million in seemingly less than a week, many teenage creators on TikTok are inexperienced about having a genuine impact on people’s lives and decisions. We are often dealing with kids who haven’t even graduated high school but we are giving them the ability to influence millions of lives. As a young teen in high school myself, I can say with confidence that people like me probably shouldn’t be entrusted to inform the masses during a global pandemic.
Pro-vaccination organizations are also not the only ones that have realized the power of online personalities. As reported by BBC News, several online creators have been contacted by anti-vaccine groups to be paid under the table to spread anti-vax sentiments. While some of those influencers have exposed these requests by making them public in disapproval, I worry that some teens who may be desperate for financial security could not have the same qualms. Misinformation is already incredibly prevalent on social media, and many lies about the vaccine have circulated on TikTok. This misinformation would be less of an issue if impressionable audiences were urged not to listen to other teens online about medical information. However, that seems to be opposite from the message the White House is trying to send.
By giving a handful of influencers the responsibility and license to influence people about medical vaccinations, and the endorsement of the President, we are inadvertently giving even more influence to other young creators. If vaccination rates end up increasing after TikTok promotion it will speak to the way that young people are truly influenced by online creators. While in the context of Covid vaccinations this may be positive, we should be incredibly careful about this power the White House is taking advantage of. No adult would ever recommend teenagers take medical advice from other teenagers, so is it the best idea to suddenly tell impressionable audiences to take advice from popular TikTokers?
It doesn’t personally surprise me that my generation might be more comfortable listening to online creators than medical professionals–we already give them the power to influence the clothes we wear, the things we buy, and the places we go. However, I do worry about allowing this influence to reach farther than the beauty products and video games that creators usually endorse.
Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but when working with something as delicate as young people’s minds, I hope Biden’s team is taking the delicate future of social media influence into consideration.