With the recent approval of COVID-19 vaccines for nearly all age groups and many organizations now requiring vaccinations for employees, people have been vocal about their opinions on these issues. Interestingly, celebrities and public figures have used their platform to either support or contradict the information communicated about COVID-19 vaccines and mandatory vaccinations.
Some Hollywood actors have been very vocal about being vaccinated themselves and their belief about others being vaccinated through mandatory requirements. For example, Sean Penn refused to work on a film until everyone in the cast and crew were vaccinated, and he encouraged all moviegoers to be vaccinated before seeing his, or anyone else’s, movie. He is not alone. Several celebrities have been in the news for their support of COVID-19 vaccinations, including Matt Damon, Jennifer Aniston, Howard Stern, Dolly Parton, Tom Cruise, Samuel L Jackson, Shira Scott Astrof, and Steve Martin among others. Beyond personal statements, celebrities have also been hired to provide endorsements of the vaccine with the hopes of increasing vaccine uptake. However, it is unclear from the research whether celebrity endorsements affect health behaviors as ambiguous results have been shown in some studies, but they are most likely effective when trust in the government is low, which may affect perceptions of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Additionally, a recent study about celebrity disease disclosures determined that disclosures about being affected by a disease (e.g., Tom Hanks’ disclosing being diagnosed with COVID-19) predicted illness-related cognitions and emotions, which included perceptions of threat and efficacy. It also predicted greater willingness to seek information and to enact prevention behaviors if anxiety was low. In another recent study, which focused specifically on celebrities’ role in communicating about COVID-19, the researchers found that celebrities can increase public awareness and concern, especially among their followers on their social media accounts. They have been able to increase aid and personal service, foster awareness, and support medical staff. However, they also have the ability to create negative effects such as spreading false information about treatment, cures, and vaccines.
Unfortunately, it is the latter that seems to be dominating current media, or at least that is what is being presented by the media. Last week, actor Matthew McConaughey clarified that his comments and rationale for not vaccinating children for COVID-19 were taken out of context. He stated that he does not believe vaccines should be mandated for young children, but he also does not support any conspiracy theories about the vaccine. Even though he may not believe them, others do, which is affecting the public’s opinions and actions surrounding COVID-19 vaccination. The different kinds of COVID-19 misinformation has spread exponentially (the number of English-language fact checks increased 900% in a 3-month period) and usually involves various forms of reconfiguration (e.g., recontextualizing true information). According to a Reuters’ study, a vast range of claims are made from many different sources. Many celebrities and public figures who oppose COVID-19 vaccination have been found to be spreading misinformation, which can harm public health. Individuals such as Rob Schneider, Letitia Wright, and Aaron Rodgers are receiving some backlash not necessarily for their stance on vaccinations but for their communication of false and misleading information.
Rapper Nicki Minaj has been in the media for continuing to spread outlandish claims about the COVID-19 vaccine. Her tweets suggest that the vaccine is unsafe and not efficacious. She spreads unsubstantiated information suggesting that the vaccine is linked to unfounded health complications, thus, going beyond just criticizing the vaccine to also sharing wild conspiracy theories. In a CNN analysis titled, “As leaders struggle to dispel misinformation about vaccines, some celebrities create more,” public health officials argue that Minaj’s messages continue to “muddy the waters,” especially among Black Americans and Latinos who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Her fans have also expressed disappointment with her misinformation by stating that they were sad that she used her platform to encourage the community not to protect themselves.
It is not just Hollywood celebrities and entertainers who have an effect on public perceptions. Just last week, The New York Times ran an article titled, “Scientists Fight a New Source of Vaccine Misinformation: Aaron Rodgers,” which speaks to the power sports celebrities also have when communicating about health-related matters. Given his visibility as a high-profile NFL player, fans look to Rodgers as a source of inspiration, and when he used anti-vaccination rhetoric to rationalize his decision for not being vaccinate, he likely influenced many people. After contracting COVID, being quarantined, and incurring fines for violating COVID-19 protocols, he took “full responsibility” for his unfounded claims and admitted that he “misled some people about [his vaccination] status.” After becoming the center of controversy, Rodgers noted, “I’m an athlete, I’m not an activist;” however, this is just another example of how the communication from celebrities and public figures can be perceived as persuasive rhetoric.