by Fionna Farrell
art by Eleanore Winchell
[originally published July 2021]
The CDC reports that, as of July 21st, only 42.6% of 18-24 year-olds across the U.S. have been fully vaccinated. This statistic exists in alarming contrast to vaccine rates across other age groups: 81.3% of adults between 65-74 have been fully vaccinated, along with 66.5% of those between 50-64. So, what’s up with us -- or rather, what’s up with 57.4% of us?
Maybe it has something to do with our laziness. Or our selfishness. Or all those negative traits that are so distinctly Gen-Z. As was recently pointed out in the Philadelphia Inquirer, public health messaging, throughout most of the pandemic, usually pointed towards older adults as those most vulnerable to the virus. So naturally, since Gen-Z doesn’t care about anyone but themselves, we had something of an excuse not to roll up our sleeves for a while.
In recent months, the government has launched myriad attempts to dissuade us from this sort of troubling mindset. The public health messaging strategy has thus seen various changes in both its content and form. Content-wise, the focus has now generally shifted to long-term COVID-19 effects across all age groups, as opposed to just those made immediately vulnerable to the virus. Regarding form, public health officials now seem to understand that it’s not just what they say, but where they say it, that leaves a lasting impression on us.
And where do Gen-Zers most frequently find themselves scrolling? The (older) adults seem to believe, perhaps not inaccurately, that it’s TikTok. A new wave of public health messaging has thus swept the platform, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Villanova Communications professor Allyson Levin cited that “Effective messaging for Gen-Zers on Tik Tok … looks a lot like effective health messaging elsewhere in so-called legacy media formats, such as newspaper or television.” This means that messages should be unbiased, scientifically accurate, and evidence-based.
Fortunately, a large part of them are. Believe it or not, there are actually more than a handful of competent individuals on TikTok一medically certified doctors or health professionals that have something of an idea of what they’re talking about. Their valid contributions, answering questions like what one should do before the vaccine, or what are the vaccine’s possible side effects, often garner views in the 100k to millions range. Their reassurances about the vaccine’s efficacy have served to push many skeptics in the right direction.
However, the one downside of the TikTok surge has been that it also serves as an equally excellent tool to deliver useless misinformation. While the app’s Community Guidelines explicitly warn against this, claiming posts that work to spread misinformation will be promptly taken down, the sheer reach of the app usually prevents this from being done in a very timely manner一before plenty of people have already seen it, saved it, and shared it with their friends. And, while misinformation can be easily deciphered in some contexts, like the spreading of blatantly false “facts” (whether for the sake of entertainment or out of sheer ignorance), in others the lines become a bit more blurred. It is no surprise, then, that rampant conspiracy theorists are able to find their moment in the limelight with relative ease.
The conjured non-truths that they spread vary by degree of both harmfulness and strangeness. One user likened the vaccine to a medicine given to pregnant women in the 1950s to treat nausea; little was known about the medicine, and it allegedly caused birth defects in some children. By this user’s logic, the same could be true of the COVID vaccine一even though overwhelming evidence points to the contrary, and we indeed no longer live in the ‘50s. She and others are still prone to claim that we “still don’t really know what’s in it.”
One doesn’t even have to be actively seeking vaccine (mis)information to be bombarded with it; try simply searching for #billgates, and you’ll soon find a popular video proposing that the COVID-19 pandemic is a front to adopt a cryptocurrency scheme patented by Microsoft to institute governmental mind control. Another user posted a similar video to the tune of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”一“Bill Gates wants to chip us, track us and vax us/can’t convince us he’s not an assassin/don’t vax.” In this day and age, it seems impossible for anything not to circle back to Bill Gates and mind control.
To counteract this madness, the government has really had to bring out the big guns. That is, people they know us Gen-Zers will trust, regardless of any preconceived animosity towards Bill Gates. That is, pop stars whose debut album is sitting comfortably at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. That is, 18-year-old superstar Olivia Rodrigo.
On July 14th, the pop star met and recorded several public service announcements with President Biden and Dr. Fauci. Appearing in the White House briefing room, she lauded the work that has been put into the vaccine thus far, while still urging unvaccinated fans to, you know, get it. Now. Please.
The jury’s still out on whether her message has had any real widespread effect. Perhaps this brings us back to the essential question at hand: that is, who does Gen-Z really entrust themselves to? Whose words are we going to take seriously一if anyone’s? Do we trust the pop star? The conspiracy theorists? The health experts? Our parents? The answers prove many and various. But we still must make a decision.
After all, many of us are on the verge of, if not well into, our early years of adulthood. From here, the consequences of our actions will only continue to matter more. To become less and less reversible. Until one day, believe it or not, people are going to start listening to us. It’s our choice whether that seals our doom or saves us from it.