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Using TikTok and Instagram, college students push the science behind covid vaccines

The Covid Campus Coalition uses social media to try to spread science-backed information about the importance of vaccines to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus

The William & Mary campus in Williamsburg, Va. (Kevin Ambrose)
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Samantha Callinan had long since stopped reading all the warning emails about the coronavirus from her school. They seemed long, they stressed her out and she figured if there were something really important, she would hear about it on social media.

So when vaccines became available — and the chance for something she desperately wants, a return to normal college life — she knew the best way to spread the word at William & Mary in Virginia.

It certainly wasn’t through cable news or official emails. After a year of restrictions and warnings, and with some students fearful of the vaccines or dismissive of the need for them, she said, “it’s important that we have a social media account run by students to explain this information.”

There have been targeted efforts to promote vaccination for the elderly, for Black people, for the homeless and other populations.

And at a growing number of universities across the country, students are trying to reach their vaccine-skeptical classmates where they are — on their phones — and persuade them to get shots.

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Callinan is one of a coalition of people at more than 40 universities across the country sharing information backed by scientific research with classmates in ways they can relate to, hoping to counter misinformation being passed around on social media, bypass the ominous formality of official updates and drive the message home.

“The most important message at my school is covid is not over,” Callinan said. “We want to have our college experience back — have the football games and everything. We’re saying, ‘Go get this, so you can go do that.’ ”

Jordan Tralins, a junior at Cornell University with an interest in medicine and public health, launched the Covid Campus Coalition this year after noticing that the posts she was seeing on social media about vaccines were misleading; people were sharing baseless claims and things taken out of context.

“Most people my age don’t typically spend a lot of time reading true scientific literature,” she said. “They really look at what’s on their social media, and that influences the way we feel.”

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A senior at Cornell, Olivia Pawlowski, designed graphics to help spread the group’s message on Instagram. “Millions of individuals have received Covid vaccines, and no long term side effects have been identified (CDC),” one post reads.

They addressed skeptical questions such as, “I am young and healthy, so I’m not worried about Covid. If I get Covid, I will recover — no big deal,” noting that more than 2,400 people younger than 30 have died of the coronavirus and pointing out the potential long-term effects of the infection. They cited sources for further reading such as articles in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Their slogan: “Get the facts. Get the Vax.”

On TikTok, Tralins explained how vaccines work and other topics.

After seeing people share the posts, Tralins wanted to scale up the effort to other schools. “The goal is to get factual information about coronavirus vaccines circulating across social media as much and as widely as possible,” she said, “to provide students with the facts so they can understand the safety and efficacy of these vaccines.”

Vaccination is required for students at Cornell and hundreds of other universities, but many schools leave the decision to students.

“Howdy!” James Lifton, a junior at Texas A&M University, writes on posts to his campus, using the Aggie greeting and knowing many of his classmates are not only hesitant, but hostile, to the vaccine. A political science major, he said he was sorry to see the science get overwhelmed by politics.

So, he invokes the school’s values to urge people to get vaccinated: “One of those core values is being a selfless person — putting yourself forward so other people can be helped,” he said. Getting vaccinated “is a good step forward that says I care for those around me,” not just about protecting yourself. “That’s how I would summarize what getting the vaccine means: Just, ‘I care.’ ”

He has hecklers — people who counter that the vaccines kill people or cause other problems. In conversations with friends, he has felt uncomfortable, shut down and ignored.

“It’s definitely a frustrating process,” he said. “But you just keep going and pushing forward with your message.”

It feels urgent. “More young people are getting the virus,” he said. “It does worry me a lot. … Seeing pictures of people my age strapped to a hospital bed and just dying before they can do anything with their lives — that’s what scares me the most.”

Lately, Lifton said, he has gotten less pushback and more questions, more people sharing his posts.

“I hope it works,” he said. “Cases are rising.”

It’s a sound approach, said Anna Song, an associate professor of health psychology at the University of California at Merced whose research focuses on decision-making by young people. People make better decisions when they’re well-informed, she said, so it’s good that they’re getting facts out there.

At a time when many people have lost trust in different sources — whether it’s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cable news or the college administrator who keeps announcing new restrictions — there’s an advantage to having the message come from a classmate. It subtly tells students this is a social norm, she said, signaling “this is what we’re hoping for in our age group.”

Social media is unlikely to go very deep, she said, so it is most effective as part of a multipronged strategy. But its potential reach, as well as its ability to repeat information, keep it on people’s radar and connect with others, makes it powerful. Because it’s a grass-roots movement, she said, it spreads the message, “We’re caring about each other.”

“Young people know how young people think,” Song said. “I can’t stress that enough.”

In Grand Forks, N.D., Miranda Olson hears a lot of skepticism about the vaccines. But the public health education student at the University of North Dakota knows how life-changing the shots can be. Getting vaccinated allowed her to finally visit her mom again in the assisted-living facility where she lives.

“I don’t get frustrated” when hearing people express doubts about the vaccines in response to her coalition posts, she said, “because I know it comes from a place of fear and also misleading information. I can understand if you don’t have the information to make that decision comfortably, I can see why people would be hesitant.”

“It has allowed me freedoms like being able to see my mom, or go out in public and not feel like I will get someone else sick,” Olson said. “It makes me sad that they can’t have that freedom as well.”

It comes down to this, Callinan said: “A fellow student saying, ‘Hey, I want you to be safe.’ ”