“I’m Not An Epidemiologist But…": The Rise Of The Coronavirus Influencers

What happens when Twitter engagement decides who’s in charge of the coronavirus public health crisis?

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According to Tomas Pueyo, his Medium post titled “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now” has been viewed over 37 million times as of this week. On a phone call with BuzzFeed News on Tuesday, he excitedly rattled off the famous names who have shared it.

“The type of people retweeting this,” Pueyo said. “Just overwhelming, the profile of the people who've been tweeting it.”

A representative for the content marketing firm currently promoting Pueyo and his coronavirus article to journalists would later email BuzzFeed News a full list of the celebrities who had shared his post, complete with bios and a link to their tweets. Which included former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, actor George Takei, Twitter cofounder Ev Williams, author Margaret Atwood, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker.

Pueyo’s article quickly became the defining piece on the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has infected 205,452 people worldwide, with 6,519 in the US as of Wednesday. The Medium piece has been translated into over two dozen languages and has been updated several times, most recently this week, with “an update on containment vs. mitigation strategies.”

Pueyo isn’t the only person to suddenly become the voice of public health — as far as Twitter is concerned. As online social platforms have become up-to-the-second hubs of information about the pandemic, a new class of corona influencers has risen up. Incentivized by Twitter’s need for constant content and its lack of fact-checking, peer review, or nuance, scientific studies are dissected, exponential growth models are graphed, and good information is mixed with stuff that’s unvetted and objectively wrong.

Pueyo is the first to tell you that he’s not a doctor nor a scientist. He’s the vice president of growth at Course Hero, an educational content sharing platform that allows students to collaborate on study notes — a process similar to the one he used to write “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now.”

“You make decisions first and then you correct later.”

Head over to Twitter and search “not an epidemiologist but" if you want to see how prevalent and freewheeling the speculation about COVID-19 has become. As the pandemic has affected lives around the world, it seems like nearly everyone on social media wants to be a public health expert.

Pueyo said he started posting coronavirus updates on Facebook, and his followers responded to it — so he kept going. Someone asked him if there was an easy way to share everything he had been collecting. So he threw it all together on Medium.

“What I did was aggregate the opinions of experts,” he said. “Everything I have is from the raw data or analysis from other people.”

Pueyo’s piece is chilling and comprehensive and has been lauded by some health experts and scientists. The translations into other languages, however, haven’t been as airtight. Pueyo said he has been crowdsourcing them and had to switch a few out for better or cleaner versions.

“You want to get the message out as fast as possible and correct it if it's wrong,” he said. “You make decisions first and then you correct later.”

The correct speed and delivery method for COVID-19 information has emerged as one of the central dilemmas of the outbreak. For as much good as social media is doing in terms of coordinating a global response, the internet is also awash in hoaxes, misinformation, conspiracies theories about deep state plots and bioweapons, and state propaganda.

There are also genuinely malevolent actors using the pandemic to build new audiences; the QAnon YouTuber Jordan Sather has told his followers they can protect themselves from COVID-19 by drinking chlorine dioxide — the oxidizing agent used in bleach. Or Tom Kawczynski, a white nationalist in Maine, who hosts a daily Coronavirus Central podcast that has been in Apple’s top 20 podcasts under the “Health & Fitness" category since the outbreak began.

The Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk has similarly, though much less nefariously, rebranded himself as a corona influencer following his piece titled “Cancel Everything.” Also like Pueyo, Mounk is not a public health expert — he’s a political scientist. Which would explain his tweets such as: “A new paper suggests that drugs commonly prescribed for hypertension could make their users more likely to succumb to corona. Is that true? I've no idea. But these kinds of discoveries are a key reason why slowing corona's spread could save many lives.”

Far more common, though, are people genuinely trying to share correct information but not quite hitting the mark. Alexis Madrigal, also at the Atlantic, had to delete a tweet at the center of a sprawling — and terrifying — thread about private University of California, San Francisco, COVID-19 panel discussion notes. The panel notes, which were posted to LinkedIn and are now no longer online, contained shocking estimates for global infection rates.

“The reason I tweeted the document was because it was the first I had seen where someone laid out—clearly, plainly—why and how your life will probably be different over the next 12 months,” Madrigal tweeted. “BUT...when a tweet goes that viral, the burden on it to be the best available source of information goes up and it requires more context because it is reaching people who are seeing this kind of information for the first time. And it's not ultimately the best source of information.”

"Is that true? I've no idea."

Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was one of the first corona influencers. He’s been tweeting about the outbreak since it was still localized largely in Wuhan. “I was watching the data come from China in early January. I also have family in China," he told BuzzFeed News. “They were feeding me information about how there's this weird epidemic.”

His Twitter account has grown to more than 120,000 followers since he started tweeting about COVID-19. (He had about 2,000 before.) He shares the same philosophy as Pueyo: that in a public health crisis, fast information with possible inaccuracies is better than waiting. He also said it makes sense that Twitter has become the central place for following the outbreak. “The information on Twitter is about half a day or two days faster than newspapers,” he said.

Twitter’s audience and speed of information, though, have gotten him into trouble. In late January he tweeted an unvetted preprint — a preliminary draft of a coronavirus study — that estimated every person who has caught the disease could give it to almost four other people, absent an intervention like quarantine or hospitalization. According to the preprint, its contagiousness was 3.8, measured by a variable called R0. (Current estimates of its R0 place the value at between 1.5 and 3.5.)

“HOLY MOTHER OF GOD — the new coronavirus is a 3.8!!!” he tweeted. “How bad is that reproductive R0 value? It is thermonuclear pandemic level bad — never seen an actual virality coefficient outside of Twitter in my entire career. I’m not exaggerating.”

Feigl-Ding is not a virologist. People who actually are have criticized him for tweeting an inaccurate R0. Feigl-Ding tweeted another batch of sensational findings a few weeks later, in a nine-tweet thread that exploded across Twitter, that COVID-19 could be somehow related to HIV. Feigl-Ding noted that the study was “not peer-reviewed" and warned his followers, “Let’s not draw conclusions yet.” Which, of course, didn’t stop his tweets from going viral and launching a full-blown conspiracy theory that has only emboldened an increasingly vocal section of the American right-wing who believe COVID-19 is a bioweapon.

“The bioweapon thing, I don't even want to talk about it,” he said (though he has tweeted about it). “Let's focus on the fact that imperfect information is still better than none.”

According to Feigl-Ding, people want information, but scientific research and many newspapers hide behind paywalls. He said the scientific community doesn’t have the communication infrastructure in place to circulate information fast enough. “Information in this day and age is like a raging river. It will flow to wherever there's least resistance,” he said. “By the time the CDC or [the National Institutes of Health] publishes a press release or update on their website, it's already been well discussed on Twitter.”

This kind of “move fast and break things” approach to disseminating COVID-19 information has largely become, for better or worse, an accepted reality for many actual scientists as the coronavirus pandemic has worsened. Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University and host of the podcast This Week in Virology told BuzzFeed News it’s not even a new phenomenon.

“It's happened for other outbreaks like Ebola and Zika,” he said. “With the onset of social media, it gives everybody the opportunity to be an expert.”

"It's mostly garbage. ... It's really hard to find that good information."

Racaniello is less optimistic than Feigl-Ding and Pueyo about the power of good information to beat out the bad, however. “It's mostly garbage,” he said. “It's really hard to find that good information.”

He said there’s absolutely an incentive on social platforms to constantly be providing updates, but the insatiable need for experts is also due to a lack of leadership from the federal government. “We're getting very little federal guidance,” he said. “There's no pandemic plan.”

He said that, as far as something like Pueyo’s Medium piece is concerned, it’s not great that laypeople are suddenly becoming public health leaders, but it is helping mitigation efforts.

“My take is: I wish there was no bad information there, but that's the way it is,” he said. “It’s based on conversations on social media that people are realizing they have to stay away from each other. That didn't come from above.”

Despite many scientists using Twitter to put out good information in accessible language, Racaniello said real scientific writing is dense and doesn’t fit in a tweet; most people aren’t going to read studies even if they aren’t paywalled. “I have a two-hour podcast every week,” he said. “Very few people are listening because it's long and complicated.”

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