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Vaccines are the latest battleground for doctors on social media

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Valerie Fitzhugh has watched the news a lot more over the past four years, certainly more than she remembers doing at any other point in her life. In the first months of the pandemic, she kept hearing one message, from news outlet to news outlet, that she couldn’t stop thinking about: there weren’t enough people of color, particularly Black people, participating in clinical trials for the wave of potentially life-saving vaccines for covid-19. So she signed up for one. 

Fitzhugh is a physician, and an Associate Professor of Pathology, Immunology, and Laboratory Medicine at Rutgers University. But participating in the trial felt like a different sort of calling. 

“I thought to myself, if I could shut in this moment, show people who look like me, that clinical trials are completely different things than the way my people were experimented on all those years ago,” she says. But as Fitzhugh watched all those news segments about the shortage of Black people in clinical trials, she understood why. Black Americans have been abused by the medical system for centuries. The Tuskegee study, a wildly unethical 40-year examination of the effects of untreated syphilis in Black men, only ended in 1972 after a leak to the media exposed the government-backed project. “For my dad, that’s in his lifetime,” she says. 

In mid-December, Fitzhugh tweeted about her experience in the trial, just as the first vaccines were rolling out to medical professionals across the country. Because she was participating in a double blind study, she does not yet know whether she received the vaccine or not. Her Twitter thread on her experience got thousands of retweets, and tens of thousands of likes. 

By the time she tweeted, Fitzhugh had received two injections, either of a placebo or a vaccine. The first shot was easy. After the second, she had a few side effects that are common for the vaccine. She talked about those too. 

“I posted it because I wanted to do the right thing,” Fitzhugh says. “I thought it was important. ‘Cause there was a lot out there about ‘it’s too fast, it’s rushed.’ And I just wanted people to understand that the process occurred as it normally would. Yes, it was faster because they threw $10 billion at it to get this vaccine going.” 

The idea of doctors who have influence on social media wasn’t created by the pandemic, but it certainly helped them find an audience. Doctor-influencers rose in prominence first as people scrambled to understand the scary new virus spreading across the world, then to combat the rampant misinformation about that virus. Now, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals across the internet are documenting and discussing their own experiences taking the vaccine. 

Creators in the medical profession have chronicled their experiences with the vaccine shots in real time across social media. Madeline Dann, an emergency room doctor in the UK known as @MaddyLucyDann on TikTok, talked about getting the vaccine in a series of videos that have gained hundreds of thousands of views, taking the platform’s young audience through her experience after the first shot. 

“I’m feeling fine. Arm’s a little bit achy, just feels like a bruise,” she said in one update, a day after getting the vaccine.  “It hurts when I poke it so I’ve stopped poking it.” 

“I’ve actually been very effective and efficient this morning — I’ve dropped my car off for MOT/Service and I made eggy bread!,” she said, joking, “Side effect of the vaccine is eggy bread.”

“Vaccine hesitancy is more of a spectrum”

Stories like this can be effective in helping people who are on the fence about a vaccine feel more confident that it is safe, say experts in online vaccine misinformation.

“I can’t even tell you how many I’ve seen in my feed, of physicians posting videos of their shots,” said Renee DiResta, a researcher with the Stanford Internet Observatory who studies health disinformation.

For a long time, anti-vaccine misinformation pushers have used anecdotes to back up false claims about vaccine harm and safety: YouTube videos of mothers discussing how they believe a vaccine had harmed their child, for instance, or personal stories of conversion by medical professionals who, having left science-based medicine behind, now make careers by selling information that, they claim, the medical industry doesn’t want you to know. 

But the narratives of medical professionals getting vaccinated work because they feel personal. Honesty about the experience, and potential side effects, can help set expectations and open up communication among those who might otherwise be prime targets for anti vaccine propaganda.  

“When we talk about vaccine hesitancy, it’s more of a spectrum,” says Kolina Koltai, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington.

Yes, there are anti-vaccine activists. But there are many others who, for one reason or another, aren’t so sure they want to take this vaccine, but generally think of themselves as pro-science. Maybe they heard that the process was rushed. Maybe their community has a good reason for not trusting doctors. Maybe they just don’t know a lot about how the vaccine was developed. This is the audience that both anti-vaccine activists and those attempting to end the pandemic are trying to reach. 

“Here you have medical professions putting out ‘Hey I got this shot, here’s what the side effects are, here’s how I think about the side effects versus getting covid,’” says DiResta. 

Those stories can matter, but sharing them is not without risk. Anti-vaccine activists online have a long history of inciting mob harassment against their targets, including medical professionals and others who promote the safety of vaccines. 

They span the moment into a false claim that the nurse had died, and suggested the hospital where she worked was covering it up

An even bigger risk, Koltai cautioned, is the decontextualization of authentic stories in order to promote a false narrative. One nurse at a Chattanooga hospital fainted on camera in mid-December after getting the vaccine—the result of an existing medical condition that can cause her to feel faint as a response to pain. That didn’t matter to anti-vaccine circles online, who took the dramatic image of her fainting and ran with it. They span the moment into a false claim that the nurse had died, and suggested the hospital where she worked was covering it up.

By the end of the weekend, Google searches for her name automatically prompted additional keywords like “death” and “obituary.” Results included a fake obituary circulating on Facebook, and YouTube videos where the top comments were filled with conspiracy theories. 

“It was Google results, it was Twitter results, someone went on Instagram and created a fake in memoriam,” DiResta says. “They stole all her old photos, and made a whole in memoriam thing.” 

“All this misinformation takes little effort to create,” Koltai says. Even if this particular nurse hadn’t fainted, these sorts of misinformation campaigns would have simply found another target.  “Hospitals, healthcare professionals, and the general public need to be conscious that misinformation about vaccines, and people using their own stories as misinformation, is not something that’s going to go away anytime soon,” she cautions.

“I don’t expect a miracle overnight”

For Fitzhugh, the response to her thread was overwhelmingly positive. There were still some hateful responses, and the hardest ones for her to see were those from other Black Americans. She spent days answering questions in the replies of her thread. The most common one? When will she know whether she got the vaccine or placebo (the answer is: soon! And if she didn’t get the vaccine in the trial, she will then sign up to get vaccinated). 

“I don’t expect a miracle overnight, you know,” she says. “ Hundreds of years of experimentation and mistrust… you don’t undo that in a week or a month or a year.”

Still, something in the responses to her thread gave her hope. 

“There were a lot of people who came out and said to me, ‘I was in a trial too,’ and started talking about their experience,” she says. As more and more of those stories build on each other, she hopes, “You’ve got something that goes beyond the anecdote. And that’s where it can become powerful.” 

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Facebook predicts ‘significant’ obstacles to ad targeting and revenue in 2021

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While Facebook’s fourth quarter earnings report included solid user and revenue numbers, the company sounded a note of caution for 2021.

In the “CFO outlook” section of the earnings release, Facebook said it anticipates facing “more significant advertising headwinds” this year.

“This includes the impact of platform changes, notably iOS 14, as well as the evolving regulatory landscape,” the company wrote. “While the timing of the iOS 14 changes remains uncertain, we would expect to see an impact beginning late in the first quarter.”

Facebook has already been waging a bit of a campaign against Apple’s upcoming privacy changes, which will require app developers to ask users for permission in order to use their IDFA identifiers for ad targeting — although the PR focus has been the impact on small businesses, not Facebook.

Facebook also highlighted two broad economic trends that it says has benefited from during the pandemic: The “ongoing shift towards online commerce” and “the shift in consumer demand towards products and away from services.” But again, it took a cautious stance, writing that “a moderation or reversal in one or both of these trends could serve as a headwind to our advertising revenue growth.”

As for those fourth quarter earnings earnings, Facebook reported $28.1 billion in revenue, of which $27.2 billion came from ads, with earnings per share of $3.88. Wall Street analysts had predicted EPS of $3.22 and revenue of $26.4 billon.

Facebook also reported an average of 1.84 billion daily active users and 2.80 billion monthly active users for the quarter, up 11% and 12% year-over-year, respectively.

“We had a strong end to the year as people and businesses continued to use our services during these challenging times,” said CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a statement. “I’m excited about our product roadmap for 2021 as we build new and meaningful ways to create economic opportunity, build community and help people just have fun.”

As of 4:45pm Eastern, Facebook shares were up 0.7% in after-hours trading.

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How trading apps are responding to the GameStop fustercluck

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The furor surrounding GameStop and its stock price has consumed social media, business television, and the hopes and dreams of many retail investors. It has even convinced some folks that causing short-term economic damage to a few hedge funds is similar to shaking up the global financial market.

It isn’t, but a lot of folks are doing some downright risky things with their personal capital all the same. And some of them are making those investments — bets, let’s be honest — on platforms that have lowered barriers to buying and selling stocks by cutting trading fees to zero. Apps and services like Robinhood, Public, M1 Finance and Freetrade.

After noting reports that some traditional brokers were limiting access to GameStop and other so-called meme stocks, TechCrunch was curious what the newer, app-based investing services were doing for their own users.

A spokesperson for M1 Finance, a Midwest-based consumer fintech player that offers a basket of banking and investing services — more on its growth here and here — told TechCrunch via email that it wasn’t taking “specific” steps regarding individual stocks.

But the company also provided a statement from its CEO, Brian Barnes. In his comment, Barnes drew a delineation between investing, and trading, which he likened to a casino, adding that his firm “question[s] whether short-term trading is predictable, sustainable or repeatable.”

It isn’t for nearly anyone, of course. Barnes went on to say that his company thinks that “ownership of great companies and assets at reasonable prices that compound for long periods of time is the most straightforward and repeatable way to build wealth,” and that they have focused their company more around that ethos, “forego[ing] the mania of the moment.”

Turning to the well-known Robinhood, an impressive 2020 growth story, TechCrunch asked the same question regarding warnings or other guardrails for users concerning certain equities.

In an email a Robinhood spokesperson directed TechCrunch to a comment that its CEO, Vlad Tenev, made on CNBC earlier today:

Like other brokerages do, we monitor volatility and we take steps as appropriate like raising the margin requirements. I do think it’s wrong to assume though that most of our activity is characterized by trading of volatile stocks. As I’ve said before, most of our customers are what’s called buy and hold. They deposit and buy over the long term.

Robinhood changed margin requirements for GameStop and AMC Entertainment to 100%, TechCrunch understands. And like M1, Robinhood doesn’t allow users to short equities. So, there’s that.

Something notable about the companies we are discussing is that not one of them wants to be labeled as the place where folks like to trade a lot. Which amuses me as cutting fees to zero, which they have largely done, is at once a great way to democratize investing, and, also, a great way to encourage folks to trade more frequently. And as the apps and services that offer free trading often make money when users trade (read this), their chatter about their users being focused on buying and holding always rings slightly thin.

Anyhoo, some apps are going as far as adding warnings. Public, a company that TechCrunch recently covered, said that the company has added “‘High Risk’ safety labels” to the meme stocks that are causing so much ruckus.

Public has long had a stated focus on building community over trading, which led to us having a question or two about when it is going to kickstart its monetization plans. The company did just hire a CFO, which makes this move appear in concert with its general ethos, so more to come there we presume.

And, finally, U.K.-based Freetrade. TechCrunch has covered the service before, making it a good company to rope into this group. Per the company, Freetrade restricts small-cap stocks to the subscription tier of its service, which should limit access amongst its user base to GameStop and other memetic equities.

The company also stressed that it does not offer options or “any other form of leveraged derivatives” and has made “huge investment in investor education and financial literacy.”

So there’s a general bent toward either building products that are not tuned for day trading in silly stocks or providing some protection against users’ worst instincts amongst the cohort of companies that have also made it inexpensive to trade. There’s tension there, akin to this.

But they can only do so much. People are dumb, and it’s not looking like that’s going to get much better anytime soon.

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SoftBank teams with home goods maker Iris Ohyama for new robotics venture

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You’d be forgiven for being underwhelmed by the output from SoftBank Robotics thus far. The firm’s best-known product to date is almost certainly Pepper, a humanoid robot designed for greeting and signage that grew out of it 2015 acquisition of French robotics company, Aldebaran.

There’s also the matter of the investment firm’s acquisition and eventual sale of Boston Dynamics. The deal certainly went a ways toward accelerating the company’s go-to-market approach, but Boston Dynamics changed hands fairly quickly, when it was sold to Hyundai late last year (SoftBank maintains 20%).

The latest wrinkle in SoftBank’s robotic ambitions is nothing if not interesting. The firm announced today that it is joining forces with Iris Ohyama. The Japanese brand, which will hold a 51% stake in the venture (with SoftBank controlling the remainder), is best known for its home goods. The company makes a broad range of products, that includes, as Reuters put it, “everything from rice to rice cookers.”

You’ll be able to add robotics to that list, soon enough. The newly formed Iris Robotics has set an extremely aggressive goal of $965 million in sales by 2025. In a joint press release, the company noted Covid-19-related concerns as a major catalyst in the launch of the division. Certainly that makes strategic sense. There’s little question that the past year has kickstarted serious interest in robotics and automation.

The first couple of products from the venture don’t appear especially ambitious out of the gate, however. To start, it seems they’ll be rolling out “Iris Editions” of a pair of existing devices: Bear Robotics’ restaurant robot Servi and cleaning robot, Whiz.

Here’s a quote from SoftBank Robotics CEO (forgive the Google translate),

With the urgent need to realize the new normal in the corona virus, various new expectations are being placed on robots. This strong partnership with Iris Ohyama is a huge step forward for the expansion and penetration of robot solutions. Taking full advantage of the strengths of both companies, we will respond quickly to the challenges facing society.

Certainly the technical ambitions seem more modest than what the folks at companies like Boston Dynamics are currently working on, but Iris Ohyama seems well positioned to make some headway in the home robotics category to start.

 

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