Rivaled only in recent times by the AIDS epidemic, COVID has been a dividing force world-wide. It has been a politicized issue, often pitting science against ideology. This has been compounded by the many anti-vaccine movements and disease deniers that make the situation even more dreadful. As providers toil in the emergency departments and intensive care units, there are people posting (often on social media and other online sites) about the risk of vaccination and their right not to wear a mask, despite solid science about both interventions.
There have been physicians and nurses who have made misinformed claims, and this has been damaging. This is often carried out in the realm of social media and thankfully that reach is often limited. Celebrities, however, have a much larger platform, and for this reason, a much louder voice. The latest is NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has faced scrutiny for the allegations that he lied about his vaccination status. He has proclaimed that he is a “deep thinker and not a sheep”, suggesting that those of us who chose science are lemmings who would jump off a cliff if the CDC told us to. Rodgers claims his newfound friend Joe Rogan, a podcaster and sports commentator, as his source for medical information. Rogan infamously publicly criticized COVID-19 guru Dr. Anthony Fauci, before admitting he did not possess the expertise to provide a cogent argument. Despite questioning FDA-approved vaccines against COVID-19, Rogan happily took a cocktail of unproven and possibly unsafe medications including Ivermectin when he himself got COVID.
Rodgers isn’t the only celebrity to admonish the vaccine. Other NFL players including Cam Newton and Lamar Jackson are among a handful of unvaccinated athletes. Baseball has had their share as well. Almost half of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team was unvaccinated during the 2021 MLB season. In the National Hockey League, San Jose Shark’s Evander Kane was suspended for lying about his vaccination status. And it isn’t just athletes. Jennifer Biel, Jim Carrey, Jenna Elfman, Rob Schneider and Robert DeNiro are just a few vocal anti-vaccination proponents.
The media has created a giant platform for these celebrities to spout their uninformed non-sense surrounding vaccination and prevention of COVID-19. Much more so than for the scientists and healthcare providers that we should be listening to. This is irresponsible and should be considered a public health threat. The anti-science movement created by Trump and his colleagues has been detrimental to these efforts, and misinformed celebrities given a worldwide stage are only making matters worse.
Why is this so dangerous? Who really cares what these people have to say? Unfortunately, a lot of us do. Celebrity “endorsement” actually affects our brain chemistry. This occurs because they become familiar to us. Even though we may not know them personally, we feel like we do. They become a close friend, or even part of the family. Our brains are tricked into accepting what they say as fact. They often invoke positive memories that build trust. There is a reason companies use celebrities to endorse their products, and there is a reason why we listen to celebrities even when they lack credentials.
I understand that we cannot suppress what these people have to say. They are allowed to state whatever they believe, within reason, just as much as you or I can. That does not however mean that the media needs to give them a larger platform than they deserve. If a celebrity wants to tweet about the risks of vaccines, so be it. This does not mean that CNN, CBS, NBC, the NY Times, or any other media outlet should also broadcast that message. Especially when there is far less attention to scientists and medical professionals. If you Google “Anthony Fauci COVID Vaccine” you get 22,900,000 results. Put in “Aaron Rodgers COVID Vaccine” and you get 30,800,000 results. How does an NFL quarterback get more hits than the Czar of COVID? It is simple. People are more interested in hearing from a celebrity than they are a scientist, and that is dangerous.
This is a slippery first-amendment and financial slope. The media benefits from reporting on these celebrities. People are and always be interested in what these people have to say. They have a right to say it. Certainly, there are celebrities who have had an informed and positive message. Others have been misinformed and have provided inaccurate and, in some cases, dangerous information. We know that there is science behind accepting celebrities’ word as gospel. Many people are going to take that information as factual regardless of the validity of that claim. This is especially true when it is broadcast by typically reliable, fact-checked news sources. This creates a dangerous situation where science is muted and the bigger platform and louder voice wins.
There is a responsibility for the media to temper misinformation and to provide balance in reporting. Sure, there are many people who aren’t going to listen to a scientist they never heard of no matter what the outlet. But many others will. To that end, there is no first amendment requirement to publish stories from celebrities who lack the scientific background to make these claims. Media has a responsibility as a public health measure to deliver factual information. That is imperative as we continue to face this deadly pandemic. While website hits, retweets and Instagram follows are increasingly important to these outlets, it’s more important that we just this right and stop this pandemic in its tracks. This means that evidence-based data should be the norm and the responsibility. A louder voice needs to be given to people with the facts, celebrity or scientist.
Stephen P. Wood (@StephenPaulWoo4) is a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School.