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UTHSC Researchers Uncover How Celebrities Influenced Public Opinions on COVID-19 Vaccines

Arash Shaban-Nejad, PhD, MPH, led the study that explored celebrity influence on public attitude toward the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research conducted at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center is receiving national attention for explaining how celebrities may have influenced the public’s opinions of COVID-19 vaccines before, during, and after their development.

According to the study, published in the journal BMJ Health & Care Informatics and covered by CNN, Medpage Today, and other news outlets, the most influential people who shared social media posts about the vaccines conveyed a message that was overall more negative than positive.

“This is one of the biggest public health concerns,” said the study’s lead investigator, Arash Shaban-Nejad, PhD, MPH, associate professor and director of Population and Precision Health in the UTHSC-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Center for Biomedical Informatics. “Misconceptions, misinformation, and disinformation impact and even paralyze many of the public health efforts and put the public’s health in danger.”

The team of researchers examined nearly 13 million tweets from the first two years of the pandemic and identified a group of 12 entertainers, athletes, politicians, and news personnel who were the most influential people to post about COVID and the vaccines on the platform. According to Dr. Shaban-Nejad, those individuals publicly made statements that were either anti-vaccine in nature or were identified as misinformation.

Those individuals, described by the researchers as people in the public eye (PIPE), included rapper Nicki Minaj and football player Aaron Rodgers, who shared the highest number of negative comments, according to the study. Tweets mentioning former President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz received the most likes, totaling more than 122,000, which suggests they had the highest impact in the group.

The other PIPE the researchers found made frequent anti-vaccine statements were singer Eric Clapton, tennis player Novak Djokovic, Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, TV host Tucker Carlson, commentator Joe Rogan, radio host Phil Valentine, and commentator Candace Owens.

“Our findings affirm other studies on the impact celebrities have on different things. They potentially can be very helpful, for example, in helping public health authorities send messages to the public, but if they are misguided or are pushing a specific agenda, they can have a very negative health impact on the population.”

Arash Shaban-Nejad, PhD, MPH

According to Dr. Shaban-Nejad, public health should be a nonpartisan matter. He encourages public figures to avoid weaponizing public health to advance their individual, ideological, political, or economic agenda, and he urges the public to seek out information from legitimate public health and medical sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and local hospitals and doctors.

Dr. Shaban-Nejad hopes this study exposes the need for updated policies and regulation of public health messaging. “Public health should have very clear messaging, and the message should be customized based on different populations,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. We have to find a way to send a message to the public in clear and accessible language.”

The study’s other authors are Brianna White, MPH, research coordinator at the UTHSC-ORNL Population Health Intelligence Lab; Robert Davis, MD, MPH, founding director of the UTHSC-ORNL Center for Biomedical Informatics; Parya Zareie from the UTHSC College of Medicine; Chad Melton, PhD, from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and Robert Bednarczyk, PhD, from Emory University.