Dr. Ilan Schwartz thought the joke he tweeted in July about the ineffectiveness of a COVID-19 treatment would maybe garner a few laughs among his fellow infectious disease colleagues.
When the tweet went viral, amassing 30,000 retweets, 110,000 likes and ballooning his social media following overnight, the University of Alberta researcher was astounded.
“It wasn’t even that funny of a joke. It was actually kind of stupid,” Schwartz said with a laugh.
The tweet featured a video of a man running alongside a subway and pretending to push the train out of the station as it gathered speed, offering the illusion that he possessed super-human strength. Schwartz captioned the tweet: “Hydroxychloroquine treating COVID-19,” comparing the drug to the man’s fake herculean efforts.
Schwartz, who has about 25,000 followers on Twitter — seven times more than when the pandemic started — didn’t expect to become one of the go-to voices for COVID commentary. Many of Canada’s medical experts feel the same about the minor celebrity status they’ve reached over the last 12 months.
While TV, radio and print interviews have contributed to new-found fame for some, others have seen their popularity soar because of their social media presence.
“There are doctors out there with 50,000, 100,000 followers,” Schwartz said. “That’s certainly not something I would have believed possible before the pandemic.”
A communication arts expert at the University of Waterloo isn’t surprised to see doctors and other medical specialists becoming household names.
Shana MacDonald says the general public wants “clear, digestible information.” And they’re turning to the platforms they already understand.
“When we have experts going to social media, that really rises them to the top for us,” MacDonald said.
Experts have found various ways of achieving success on social media since last March.
Some use Twitter to present COVID facts or comment on relevant topics of the day, while others, including palliative care physician and health justice activist Dr. Naheed Dosani, have chosen TikTok to bring pandemic messaging to a younger audience.
Dosani started his TikTok videos — one of which has 180,000 views — in January 2020. Once COVID-19 began circulating globally, he pivoted to videos explaining public health measures, complete with the background music and pops of text common to the app.
Dosani saw it as his duty as a medical professional to present public health guidance in a way that was more digestible than watching a lengthy press conference.
But as the pandemic continued, he started using his growing online presence to bring attention to social justice issues, calling out racism and advocating for housing and paid sick leave.
“It morphed into a tool for advocacy around policy and COVID-19 equity issues, and even rethinking how we’re approaching this pandemic as a society,” Dosani said. “Social media really offers people a chance to develop trusting relationships with people in their community.
“And TikTok has become such a powerful medium that allows a message to be amplified very quickly in creative ways.”
The social media experience hasn’t been entirely positive for health experts though.
Dosani has received death threats online and Schwartz noted he also gets menacing messages from Twitter users. But, he says, his female colleagues tend to get the brunt of the verbal abuse.
Dr. Jennifer Kwan, whose popularity rose early in the pandemic when she started posting daily graphs of COVID cases and other metrics, says she’s dealt with negative replies to her tweets “pretty much every day.”
The family physician in Burlington, Ont., was an early advocate for mask-wearing, which spurred tirades from angry Twitter users.
“The more you get out there, the more negativity you’ll get,” said Kwan, who has 50,000 Twitter followers. “But I think it’s important to focus on the facts and to know there are people who do genuinely want good information.”
Experts say they wade through false or misleading claims about COVID constantly, as Twitter allows those with large followings to attract the most attention.
University of Ottawa epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan, who uses Twitter primarily to see colleagues’ research and share memes and jokes, says interacting with non-experts online can be rewarding if it helps dispel misinformation.
While he’s received hate messages and abuse over Twitter, Deonandan says his experience with social media has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“It’s a brand new avenue for engaging with the public on an educational level,” Deonandan said. “Yes there’s spread of misinformation, but it also allows for rapid correction of misinformation.”
For some experts, however, the negativity on Twitter outweighs the platform’s positives.
Despite amassing 80,000 followers, infectious disease doctor Isaac Bogoch says he’d prefer to stay off social media most days. He predominantly uses Twitter to post data from studies and links to pertinent news, while sprinkling in his own commentary on trending topics.
Bogoch, an almost daily fixture on TV news networks across the country since the pandemic started, says he’s happy to answer COVID questions, even though the volume of requests can be difficult to manage.
His TV appearances have also led to him getting recognized in public from time to time.
“Someone once asked to take a selfie,” he said with a laugh.
“But this is going to settle down, and many of us will hopefully fade back into obscurity soon.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2021.