Social media influencers enlisted to talk up shots

DENVER — Colorado is part of a growing movement in states and cities that’s paying social media influencers to try to reach the most vaccine-hesitant people at a neighborhood level.

The state’s #PowertheComeback is especially tailored to Latino, Black, Native American, Asian and other local communities of color who’ve historically been underserved when it comes to health care and are the focus of health authorities trying to raise vaccination rates.

As a police sergeant in a rural town, Carlos Cornejo isn’t the typical social media influencer. But his Spanish-language Facebook page with 650,000 followers was exactly what Colorado leaders were looking for as they recruited residents to try to persuade the most vaccine-hesitant.

Cornejo, 32, is one of dozens of influencers, ranging from busy moms and fashion bloggers to African refugee advocates and religious leaders, getting paid by the state to post vaccine information on a local level in hopes of stunting a troubling summer surge of covid-19.

Health authorities in Chicago; Oklahoma City; San Jose, Calif.; New Jersey and elsewhere are running similar campaigns.

Colorado and other states have already tried lotteries, college scholarships and other incentives to boost slumping vaccination rates as the highly contagious delta variant sweeps the nation.

In Colorado, the state pays citizen influencers up to $1,000 a month for their work on Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook and other platforms. The influencers post about their own vaccine experiences, dispel myths and misinformation, alert followers to pop-up vaccine clinics and direct them to information provided by state health authorities.

Cornejo’s Facebook page has become a widely trusted source of information about what the police do — and cannot do — for Hispanics in the Colorado River Valley.

“It started last year when I saw misinformation that directly affected our department, rumors like police were arresting people without a mask,” said Cornejo, a 10-year veteran with the Rifle Police Department. “Or that people get magnetized when they’re vaccinated. Sometimes people are just plain scared. I give them fact-based information, nothing political about it, so they can make an informed decision.”

Whether the social media push will move the needle with America’s unvaccinated remains to be seen.

The country last week reached the milestone of having at least one dose in 70% of adults. It came a month after President Joe Biden’s target date, even though most can easily get the shots in the U.S. unlike other countries where they’re in short supply.

“I’m highly skeptical you can get enough appeal to the remaining 30% of adults who after all this time have not gotten the vaccine — it’s a lot to ask of an influencer,” said Jeff Niederdeppe, director of Cornell University’s Health Communication Research Initiative and co-director of The Cornell Center for Health Equity.

More likely to tip the scales is an increase in private companies and organizations requiring vaccinations of employees and patrons, he said.

Abena Antwiwaa, a 29-year-old fashion blogger in Aurora, wrote about her nerve-wracking decision to get vaccinated on Instagram. Born with sickle cell anemia, Antwiwaa needs monthly blood transfusions. She worried about her low immunity and potential side effects.

“I was so nervous about getting vaccinated, and I shared that experience,” said Antwiwaa, who suffered nothing more than a temporarily sore arm. “It resonated with a lot of people.”

Save one: a vaccine skeptic who engaged Antwiwaa on safety concerns. Eventually, after a bit of back-and-forth, he got the shot.

“That made all the difference to me,” Antwiwaa said of agreeing to do the campaign.

MARKETING VACCINES

This is what marketing firms like The Idea Marketing in Denver, Xomad in California and Res Publica Group in Chicago want to see. They’re hired by health agencies to identify local influencers and coordinate messaging.

Xomad has developed a platform where influencers, content creators and health officials can rapidly fine-tune or change messaging to respond to events such as last spring’s pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson vaccines, new online misinformation or an expansion of age groups eligible for shots.

Rob Perry, Xomad’s CEO and founder, notes that a July study by the Knight Foundation and the city of San Jose found a direct correlation between a flurry of local influencer posts on Instagram and higher daily vaccination rates.

“Even in Silicon Valley they needed help reaching the migrant, Black, Latino and Vietnamese communities,” Perry said. “No one’s bashing anti-vaxxers over the head. The last thing these trusted messengers want to do is polarize their followers. It’s their followers’ choice.”

Health officials say so-called “nano” and “micro” influencers, with fewer than 10,000 and 100,000 followers, respectively, are well-positioned to reach Generation Z and Millennials who get their news from social media.

Back in Rifle, Sgt. Cornejo built his Facebook following — way above the town’s roughly 9,700 residents — with videos largely centering on police work. He’ll strum his guitar and sing the occasional ballad, all of it endearing him to what he considers an extended family.

“I got covid last year and shared that experience,” the 32-year-old said. “Is the vaccine going to protect you 100% of the time? No. But I compare it to wearing a seat belt — it doesn’t ensure nothing bad will happen, but your chances of saving your life are a lot higher.”

MISINFORMATION SPREAD

Even as American influencers are working to boost state vaccination rates, Facebook said Tuesday that it has removed hundreds of accounts linked to a mysterious advertising agency operating out of Russia that sought to pay social media influencers to smear covid-19 vaccines made by Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

A network of 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts was traced back to Fazze, an advertising and marketing firm working in Russia on behalf of an unknown client.

The network used fake accounts to spread misleading claims that disparaged the safety of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. One claimed AstraZeneca’s shot would turn a person into a chimpanzee. The fake accounts targeted audiences in India, Latin America and, to a lesser extent, the U.S., using several social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram.

Russia has been actively marketing its covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, abroad in what some analysts see as an effort to score geopolitical points. But Facebook representatives did not speculate on the possible motivation behind the smear campaign.

The Fazze network also contacted social media influencers in several countries with offers to pay them for reposting the misleading content. That ploy backfired when influencers in Germany and France exposed the network’s offer.

Along with removing the network’s accounts, Facebook also banned Fazze from its platforms. Messages seeking comment from the company were not immediately returned Tuesday.

Information for this article was contributed by David Klepper of The Associated Press.

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