If you browse the #teamhalo hashtag on TikTok, it might not be clear at first whether the videos are advocating for or against vaccines. The short previews for the videos have text boxes on them with captions like “What’s in Covid19 vaccines?” “Vaccine and infertility,” and “Rushed vaccines?” Click on any of the videos, though, and you’ll see doctors and scientists commenting on other TikToks to debunk falsehoods, dancing underneath text that summarizes up-to-date information, and relaying the results of scientific studies in meme format.
These videos are the products of Team Halo, a group of scientists who moonlight as social media influencers. Since the group’s start last summer, Team Halo-tagged videos have amassed over 81.8 million organic views on TikTok alone. According to the group’s website, Team Halo was established as part of the United Nations’ Verified initiative with The Vaccine Confidence Project at the University of London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“We looked at the communication strategies that were coming from large institutions,” said Rebecca Christopher, a director of Team Halo who previously worked in digital media and politics. “They tended to be heavily invested in crafting the perfect message… and every molecule of oxygen is taken up by that single perfect message. It’s a hallmark of institutional communication at a time when people don’t really value or trust them.”
That model clearly wasn’t working, Christopher said, since there isn’t one message that will universally build confidence in vaccines. Instead, Team Halo’s objective has been to spread as many different messages as possible by creating a “content engine” powered by individual vaccine experts. Team Halo doesn’t tell the creators—or “guides” as they call them—what to post about, although they provide them with training on how to communicate effectively and maximize their posts’ reach and engagement, she added.
Some of those experts take an identity-based approach, either because they want to or because they have to, in order to engage distrustful people in their community. After Asher Williams, a presidential postdoctoral fellow at Cornell and a Team Halo guide, posted a TikTok of herself dancing in the lab and sharing facts about the safety and efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, she said that commenters accused her of being a “traitor” to other Black people because of Johnson & Johnson’s role in marketing baby powder allegedly contaminated with asbestos to Black mothers.
“There was this general belief that all Black people should be against the vaccines because we don't trust the medical system, we don't trust healthcare, and we especially do not trust Johnson & Johnson,” Williams said in an interview.
Williams posted a follow-up video to dispel worries about the vaccine from her perspective. As she explains why she is excited about J&J’s emergency use authorization, the words “I don’t work for J&J,” “Distrust is understandable,” and “Thorough & transparent development” flash across the screen.
“I am also a Black person, and I've also experienced discrimination and other unsavory things within the medical system, but at the same time, this vaccine is a life-saving medical intervention,” she said, adding that she hopes she can foster vaccine confidence by showing her audience that there are people that look like them on the inside of the vaccine development and approval process.
Meeting people where they’re at is a crucial part of Team Halo’s mission, Christopher said. The most insidious part of misinformation on social media is that it can be indistinguishable from factual information to someone who isn’t an expert. When people ask questions to clarify what is real and what isn’t, they are often met with backlash just for asking questions.
“They’re going to feel demonized, or labeled a flat Earther or anti-vax, and this kind of backlash turns normal persuasion opportunities into a crystallization of their hesitancy,” she said.
Anna Blakney, a biomedical engineering assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and another Team Halo guide, said she tries to keep her videos positive and refrain from mocking other users.
“My videos fall into a spectrum of educational and entertaining. Usually the more entertaining ones get more views,” she said.
Team Halo’s success raises the question: should TikTok itself be combating scientific misinformation on its platform? While some social media platforms have made good faith efforts to battle conspiracies, “the reality is that they have not been particularly effective in combating misinformation,” Christopher said.
In the absence of any effective top-down crackdowns on misinformation, Team Halo’s efforts seem to be making a difference. Williams said that people have DM’ed her on TikTok, Instagram, and even LinkedIn to tell her that her videos convinced them to get one of the COVID-19 vaccines. And even though TikTok’s audience skews young—according to a Statista report, about half of TikTok users in the U.S. as of March 2021 were under 30—the Food and Drug Administration’s expansion of the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine means that people ages 12 and older are now eligible to receive a dose.
There have been unintentional consequences to the guides’ stints as content creators, too; Blakney said that during a recent mandatory occupational health meeting, a nurse at her university recognized her and asked, “Are you the Anna that has the TikTok account?”