Last March, friends and neighbors began stopping Emily Smith in her town outside of Waco, Texas, with questions about the coronavirus. An epidemiologist at Baylor University, Smith knows all too well how viruses are transmitted. But as the wife of a pastor and as a woman of faith, she also holds a trusted position in her community, and she would speak to those who asked about why she personally thought social distancing was a moral choice.
As the weeks wore on, the questions kept coming: “What does flatten the curve mean?” “Is it safe for my child to kick a soccer ball outside with a friend?” So she started a Facebook page and called herself the Friendly Neighbor Epidemiologist. She adopted “Love thy neighbor” as the page’s credo.
Smith wrote from the perspective of a scientist but also a wife and mother. She recently explained, for example, why churches should still continue to refrain from holding in-person services even though Texas has lifted its COVID-19 restrictions. “I thought I was going to be talking to my mom and my aunt and my friends,” she says. “And my tone is still like I’m talking to my grandma. But it turned out to be a lot more people.” A year later, she has more than 76,000 followers on her Facebook page, and her blog gets 1 million to 3 million hits a week.
But as her digital footprint has grown—she now has followers all over the world, including a strong contingent among evangelical mothers living in the South—so has the amount of misinformation that pops up in the comments of her posts. That, too, she tries to approach with a “Love thy neighbor” ethos.
“They come in with this bunk science, and I still try to be neighborly instead of jumping all over them,” she says. It’s not always easy. When commenters suggest that wearing a mask “signals you don’t have faith in God” or that attending church in person is a must because “worshipping is worth dying for,” she will post studies showing how distancing and mask wearing can save lives. If they spread misinformation, like that European countries have banned the AstraZeneca vaccine, she explains that those countries have paused, not banned it. If they start making racist comments, she blocks them.
Smith, who has two children, draws fortitude from a text chain with about 30 women, mostly moms, all with M.D.s or Ph.D.s. Among them are Katelyn Jetelina, who operates a page called Your Local Epidemiologist (181,000 followers) and the all-female team of doctors and scientists who run the page Dear Pandemic (76,000 followers). She calls them her “gal pals.” They have spent the little spare time they have during the pandemic trying to provide their communities with information about a virus that, especially in the beginning, few people understood. Now with vaccines available to Americans who meet an expanding range of eligibility requirements, they are trying to both demystify the science and debunk conspiracy theories.
The gal pals are just one faction of a growing grassroots network of doctor and scientist moms who have emerged as key players in the online battle against vaccine misinformation. While some of them have larger followings than others, it’s clear that most of them are connected in some way—talk to a mom in one state and she’ll suggest someone doing similar work in another.
And that work is crucial. In a February poll by Pew, 30% of Americans said they wouldn’t get a COVID-19 vaccine. The reasons vary: Black Americans have historically been mistreated by the medical establishment, which has led some to mistrust the health care system. The vaccines were delivered so quickly that some people worry about their safety (despite the decades of research behind them and rigorous trials). And some, including parents who have long been the target of anti-vaccine rhetoric, have encountered enough misinformation that they believe things that just aren’t true. Unless those people change their minds, the country will struggle to reach herd immunity.
While experts throughout the U.S. are trying to tackle misinformation and persuade Americans to get their shots when they become eligible, these doctor-scientist moms believe they are uniquely positioned to make the case. Not only do they have the expertise to answer medical questions and clear up misperceptions, but they can relate to the people they encounter on social media as fellow parents who also want what’s best for their families and communities. They film video Q&As and explain how the safety standards were met in the development of currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines. They interview one another to reach a wider audience through Instagram and YouTube. They warn each other about strategies that trolls may use to drag them into arguments.
Many describe it as a second job, albeit one that, like the additional childcare responsibilities that also came with the pandemic, is unpaid. “If I’m tired, I will send a text to some of the gal pals and just say, ‘I need to be off social for a few days,’” Smith says. “It’s a lot of work. But the alternative is not doing anything. And people are getting sick, families are getting sick. That gives me motivation to just keep going.”
Shikha Jain, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, says she was the first mom to pull her daughter, now 6, out of school when news of the coronavirus spread. “I texted all her friends’ parents and said, ‘Hey, this is coming. We’re about to shelter in place, and you should prepare for the kids to be home,’” she says.
Jain, who also has twin 3-year-old sons, spent the next few weeks answering panicked texts from parents on when she thought kids might be able to return to school and whether it was safe for children to wear masks since untrue rumors had spread that masks could impact children’s lung development. Her doctor friends fielded similar questions. “We realized this information wasn’t getting to people outside the medical community,” she says.
Jain and five other physicians, primarily moms who belonged to the Physician Mommies Chicago Facebook group, formed IMPACT (Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team) in early March 2020. They made flyers to distribute at businesses and churches reminding people to wear masks. They posted easily digestible fact-vs.-myth infographics to suburban-mom Facebook pages. They booked interviews on local TV and radio stations.
“As a mom, I think there is this sense that you’re in it for more than just yourself,” says Vineet Arora, a hospitalist at the University of Chicago and the CEO of IMPACT. “You’re there to protect your kids. And as an extension, you’re there to protect your community.” She compares IMPACT’s efforts to those of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America or Mothers Against Drunk Driving: “Whenever there’s been a social-justice or public-health issue that affects children’s lives, moms band together.”
IMPACT established a partnership with Bump Club and Beyond, a popular Chicago-based parenting blog, to conduct Q&A sessions about the virus and vaccine. Nearly 1,800 people follow IMPACT on Facebook, and more than 117,000 follow Bump Club. “How do we repurpose these mom groups to spread good information?” asks Arora, who has a 6-year-old daughter and an infant son. “Because so many moms turn to these groups for trusted advice.”
Once vaccines became available, IMPACT was inundated with questions through Bump Club. The women created infographics about how the vaccines were developed and explained the efficacy of the three that have received emergency-use authorization from the U.S. FDA. They also launched a site to help Illinois residents find nearby vaccination sites.
Studies show trust in medical health professionals has eroded, but experts in misinformation say a personal touch can help. “The CDC or the World Health Organization speak to audiences in terms of statistics,” says Renée DiResta, who researches disinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “They’re saying, in aggregate, ‘This is the risk.’ It’s very hard for people to relate that back to their own life. And hearing from the [Biden] White House that you should go take the vaccine is not necessarily going to be something that President Trump’s most ardent supporters are going to be particularly receptive to. This is where I think the question of who is the messenger is acutely important in this rollout.”
And so moms like Smith, Jain and Arora don’t just throw out stats and studies; they share their own experiences. Some of Smith’s most popular posts center on her thought process in choosing not to attend church in person. She gets hundreds of comments from followers who either detail their own churches’ safety precautions, like holding services at a local stadium, or their disappointment at having to leave because of a lack of precautions. When Arora posted about getting the vaccine even though she was still nursing, other breast-feeding women reached out to thank her for assuaging their fear.
Five scientist bloggers who call themselves the SciMoms and who have nearly 13,000 Facebook followers have been battling anti-science conspiracy theories for years through blog posts and social media blitzes that lay out the science behind everything from GMOs to the chicken-pox vaccine. They even created their own comic in which the five moms fight villains like Sue Doe Syence.
“We try to write for the parent on the playground,” says Alison Bernstein, a neuroscientist at Michigan State University. They intersperse data-driven posts with what they call “SciMom Moments”—funny things their kids say. Recently, Bernstein posted that her then 7-year-old daughter observed that Groundhog Day “isn’t very scientific.”
Unlike governmental bodies, the moms who have taken to Facebook and Twitter can actually engage with vaccine skeptics. “The federal government can’t respond in real time on social media,” says Bernstein. “They can’t block trolls.” Neither can her local Michigan health department, which gets spammed with misinformation when it posts about the vaccines. “The amount of conspiracy theories shared in the comments of those posts is astonishing. I think the reason people like us step in is because we can take that information, distill it down into something that can be shared and respond in a way that they’re just not able to.”
Read More: TIME’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker
There’s no one type of vaccine skeptic nor a single reason someone might be hesitant to get inoculated. Misinformation has circulated for decades. Though it was found to be fraudulent and retracted years ago, many vaccine skeptics—particularly those in the “parental choice” movement—still cite a 1998 study that purported to link vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR vaccines) with autism. Now inconsistent monitoring of falsehoods by social media sites and a politically polarized atmosphere—in addition to genuine confusion about the COVID-19 virus—have created a perfect storm for vaccine hesitancy.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate found that the 147 biggest anti-vaccine accounts on social media gained 7.8 million followers in 2020, a report that helped prompt Facebook to take down anti-vaccine posts at the end of the year. Paranoid falsehoods that Bill Gates is using vaccines to inject microchips into people or that Democrats invented COVID-19 to oust Trump from office—neither of which is true—were among the most mentioned pieces of misinformation spread in 2020, according to media-analytics company Zignal Labs.
“A lot of the same networks that were active in spreading misinformation related to childhood vaccinations are now simply adding the word COVID to their content and pushing it out, with virtually the same tropes,” says DiResta.
People share anti-vaccine memes for different reasons. Some have good intentions, hoping to protect their community. Others are more malicious. DiResta says anti-vaccine organizations have coordinated campaigns to spread disinformation, like activating followers to give positive reviews to an anti-vaccine movie or to retweet the messages of prominent anti-vaccine activists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. At an October conference organized by the National Vaccine Information Center, a leader in the anti-vaccine movement, attendees discussed strategies to encourage skepticism of the COVID-19 vaccines, including focusing on the cases in which those who received the vaccine experienced side effects, according to the Washington Post.
Smith has observed that anti-vaccine sentiment transformed from what she thought was “a fringe belief” into common parlance over the summer. Forty-four percent of white evangelical Americans, who make up a significant portion of her following, say they will not get the vaccine, according to a January Washington Post–ABC News poll.
Marcella Nunez-Smith, the head of President Joe Biden’s health-equity task force, has also warned that anti-vaccine groups target Black Americans, exploiting pre-existing distrust of the system. In a February Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 34% of Black adults said they intended to “wait and see” how the vaccine affects others before deciding whether to get it, and half said they worried it had not been adequately tested for safety and effectiveness among people of their own race or ethnicity.
“Our Black and brown communities suffer from years of structural and systemic racism in our health care system,” says Jain. “Those are the communities that have been hardest hit by COVID, the ones least likely to trust medical professionals telling them to get the vaccine.”
Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, has been tracking the rise of agitators who defy public-health guidance around COVID-19 and says anti-vaccine campaigns target different groups with different messages: some people on the far right might see the appeal of a “Don’t tread on me” ethos, while mothers are vulnerable to “fearmongering.”
While a mother may be attracted to antivaccine arguments because of concerns about side effects, “she’s drawn further down a radicalization path,” he says. “It fills her with increasing levels of paranoia and moves her from vaccine-hesitant to wanting to engage in more confrontational activities.”
Not all anti-vaccine activity happens online—protesters briefly shut down Dodger Stadium, a major vaccine hub, in January—but social media tends to be where conspiracy theories flourish. Online parenting groups are frequent targets. One common myth claims that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, like the ones from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, may cause infertility. The Dear Pandemic group received so many queries on this topic that its co-founder Malia Jones, an associate scientist in health geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Applied Population Laboratory, posted a video explicitly calling out the theory as a “scare tactic”: “I just want to call it what it is: it’s a fabrication meant to play on our emotions,” she said.
In 2019, pre-COVID-19, 19.5% of children had a parent who reported being “hesitant” about childhood shots, according to a study published in Pediatrics. “If there is even a question in your mind that something you’re doing may actually hurt your child, you won’t do it,” says Jain. “I think that’s a big part of the reason why they go to those groups, and that’s a big part of the reason, as parents ourselves, we have been trying so hard to reach the parent communities with our outreach, to try to make sure that our voices are just as loud as the voices of those who are spreading this misinformation.”
Still, they’re up against a powerful force. When you’re constantly bombarded with conspiracy theories, it can be hard not to absorb the messaging. “Even myself as a scientist and physician and someone who advocates for these types of things, the first time I took my daughter to get her vaccines, when she was a newborn, I had a moment of hesitancy,” says Jain. “I read all of these things that I know are not true, but if you read something enough times, it seeps into your subconscious.” (She did vaccinate her kids.)
There was a point early in the pandemic when Smith took a break from her page and wondered if she should make it permanent. She had filmed a video with her kids using Hot Wheels cars to demonstrate upward slope, downward slope and what flattening the curve looks like.
“It was to help moms explain to kids this is why we’re not having playdates right now, because we love our neighbors and want to protect our grandmas,” she says. Soon she started getting death threats in the mail. “In the comments, I get pictures of guns and stuff,” she says. She took down the video of her kids and discussed with her family whether she should keep posting. They decided she should. “Lives are at stake,” she says.
All the women TIME spoke with said they had faced harassment. Jain was pilloried by a local radio personality for encouraging people to work from home and is regularly plagued by trolls on Twitter attacking everything from her looks to her credentials. This treatment is familiar to “most people who speak out about evidence-based things,” she says, so much so that IMPACT created a tool kit for people who are attacked on social media.
“If you had asked me nine months ago, I would have been like, ‘Everybody’s a great person,’” says Smith. “I have learned to have strict rules on my page. If you’re going to make threats or say anything racist or say anything about white supremacy, I will ban you.” There’s no question gender plays a role. “I’ve got some Ph.D. guy friends on Twitter, and they’ve received some. But they haven’t received threats in their front yards like me,” she says. “I get men a lot, but also 20- or 30-something moms in the South. The men are more like, ‘You need to be put in your place.’ The moms accuse me of being too preachy and not loving my children.”
Still, the women say they remain committed to the cause. While some dads have joined their ranks, mothers continue to lead the charge. “I think, naturally, a lot of us are helpers,” Smith says. “I think that a lot of us are really good under pressure.” She joked that if there were a list of the 100 most influential people of the pandemic, it would be made up of 99 women and Anthony Fauci.
Exactly how influential is tough to determine. Facebook’s privacy restrictions make it difficult for researchers like DiResta to trace people’s activity online, and it’s not easy to prove that someone read about a doctor in their community getting a vaccine and then signed up to get one themselves. The mothers largely watch for which posts get the most likes and which questions pop up repeatedly, and then pivot with their audience’s needs. They’re bolstered by the occasional report that a woman persuaded her elderly mother to get vaccinated.
Their goal seems to be simply to reach as many open-minded people as possible. When someone has dug in, there’s not much they can do but thank them for coming to their page. But Arora notes that there can be an important “bystander effect.” She’s had people reach out to thank her for correcting misinformation even if she wasn’t engaging with them directly. “Maybe they didn’t want to go public in this polarized time,” she says. “They chose to stay quiet on that, but they still are being influenced.”
On March 11, Biden directed states to make all adult Americans eligible for vaccination by May 1 and suggested that on July 4 the U.S. might begin to “mark our independence from this virus.” It was a hopeful moment in a year marked by despair, but even with an end to the pandemic in sight, the mothers doing this work know they’ll be at it for a while.
Fauci has said he expects vaccines to be available for teens in the fall, but kids under 12 are unlikely to be eligible until 2022. Experts have expressed concern that parents won’t be particularly motivated to vaccinate kids against COVID-19 since children, on average, are far less likely to get very ill or die from the virus. If the anti-vaccine movement pushes misinformation on hesitant parents, Smith says—and she thinks it will—“it will not only affect COVID, but it will affect measles and mumps and rubella.”
Biden announced a plan in February to mobilize local ambassadors to persuade the vaccine-hesitant to opt in, and his team has begun meeting with local leaders. Bernstein says she and her fellow moms, already fighting for science online, would be happy to help. “There’s already an informal network,” she says. “Just bring us all together in some sort of organized way. I’d volunteer.”
—With reporting by Simmone Shah
This appears in the March 29, 2021 issue of TIME.
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Contributor: Eliana Dockterman