Much like the coronavirus, social media influencers have become a persuasive force that often do more harm than good.
This was unfortunately highlighted through rapper Nicki Minaj’s one tweet which has gone viral for all the wrong reasons.
Minaj tweeted that her cousin will not get the vaccine because his friend got the vaccine and became impotent.
The tweet has since snowballed following Minaj’s claim that the friend, again according to her cousin, had “swollen testicles” as a result of getting the vaccine.
The tweet prompted the attention of major news media houses such as CNN and public figures such as Dr Anthony Fauci, who had to publicly deny the claim made by Minaj.
Closer to home, Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh also had to quell the rumours generated by Minaj’s tweet.
The haste by public health officials to denounce the false claims has served to publicise Minaj’s tweet further, which, in turn, feeds the fire of vaccine hesitancy.
However, the single tweet encapsulates what we’ve known all along.
We’ve been fighting two pandemics—the coronavirus and misinformation.
The latter has been propelled by social media to an extent where it has become a socio-political tool to discredit the fight against Covid.
The news of Minaj’s viral claim reminded me of Jamaican science fiction writer Stephanie Saulter, whom I interviewed on my podcast, The Caribbean Science Fiction Network.
Saulter said our brains have not evolved to keep up with the evolution of technology.
This has been played out in Minaj’s claim, where the technology of social media has allowed the misinformation about vaccines to spiral out of control and influence our belief systems.
Even if Minaj did not deliberately attempt to discredit the known and validated efficacy of Covid vaccines, her careless statements only serve to drive home the point that celebrities and social influencers need to be better and do more in the fight against the coronavirus.
With over 22 million followers on Twitter, I believe Minaj is representative of popular sentiments about the coronavirus vaccine.
The claim that the vaccines cause impotence isn’t particularly new.
In a 2021 peer-reviewed journal, Sallam et al, after conducting a survey in December 2020, found that 23.4 per cent of male respondents believed that the vaccines are related to infertility.
While Minaj seems to have reproduced one of the main conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccines, what is particularly new is her unintended power to influence her followers.
The dangerous effect of her actions is that her power to influence people to listen to her music, gain viewership for American Idol after her guest judge appearance, and patronise her make-up brand can now spill into her ability to influence people that will, like her cousin, reject the vaccines.
The implications of Minaj’s tweet speaks to the larger problem of how to control the spread of misinformation about Covid.
While we cannot choose what celebrities such Minaj say, we can choose where to get our information, especially during this pandemic.
While for many Facebook is the go-to platform for what is going in the world, it is not a reliable news source.
Facebook’s algorithm sells you more of what you are buying. So, if you have been “liking”, “commenting”, “sharing” or “joining” any content and groups on Facebook that purport misinformation, chances are you will continue to be fed misinformation.
Even if you think you follow reliable news media, Facebook thrives on users being engaged. And as the saying goes, “rage is engaging”.
Therefore, content that makes incredulous claims about vaccines or denies the severity of the coronavirus will eventually find a way to your news feed.
Furthermore, where WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, the forwarded messages about Covid conspiracy theories to your phone create a digital footprint on your Facebook app, ensuring a consistency of conspiracy transmitted across your devices.
Given Facebook’s unreliability, your go-to source of information should always be major health organisations such as Carpha, PAHO, WHO and the CDC.
If you were to find information while scrolling through Facebook or other social media, you should run that source through an independent fact-checker.
Another source of reliable information is peer-reviewed, research journals.
The extent of social media misinformation has become too widespread to blindly believe anything it claims as true.
Nicki Minaj’s tweet is the latest precautionary incident that should warrant greater examination of who we follow and what they believe.
To continue following them is to continue being influenced in all the wrong ways.