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Influencing Trust: The Role of Para-social Relationships and Misinformation

Opinion by Sahaana Ranganathan. This piece is part of The Global Vaccine Challenge, a series by Chanel Best on the inequalities in access and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

The pandemic has changed how we socialize with one another and, as a result, has also changed how information is consumed and disseminated. When physical distancing measures were enacted at the start of the pandemic, most daily social interactions were moved to the digital space. The prolonged restrictions eventually led to increased anxiety and depression among the general population [1]. And with loneliness and social isolation becoming more common under these conditions, most people met their socialization quota by interacting on social media sites. For instance, during the initial quarantine, there was widespread use of TikTok [2].

As one of the effects of physical isolation, more people were developing and relying on para-social relationships. Unlike traditional social relationships, which are based on some level of reciprocity, para-social relationships are characterized by one-sided interactions, where a user or actor is aware of the activities on a celebrity or prominent figure, but not vice versa [3][4]. Such relationships can be formed with a musician, character, Youtuber, Instagram influencer, Twitch streamer, or Tiktoker. Para-social relationships may develop and progress in a similar manner to real life relationships, as people interact with those who have features that they consider attractive [5]. However, the prolonged social isolation caused by the pandemic has blurred the lines regarding para-social relationships.  

This is especially important given the fact that both para-social relationships and the social media landscape can drastically influence the information and in some cases, misinformation a person receives regarding the pandemic. This is noticeable in the rise of influencers and their ability to use a para-social relationship to influence their audience.  Influencers—broadly defined as those who have built a knowledge or expertise on a certain topic and exhibit this through an online channel—can vary in popularity and the platform they use to share their content [6].  Influencers use digital platforms to create and publish their content, which they can curate to reach a certain audience. In many cases, influencers are encouraged to curate their content in order to achieve success. This is partly due to the fact that social media giants like Facebook, Instagram, and Google use algorithms to ensure that specific content is shown to specific audiences based on data regarding their pre-existing interests online [7]. This can create an echo chamber as well as an implicit power dynamic between an influencer and their audience. This echo chamber gives influencers the capacity to spread misinformation to an audience that is pre-disposed to believe their message.

Para-social relationships and the influencer sphere can contribute to both positive and negative outcomes during a pandemic. For example, many influencers have used their platform to encourage their viewers to get vaccinated and follow COVID-19 safety guidelines. Indeed, the Government of Canada has even considered mobilizing these actors through a new initiative that would enlist Canadians with social clout to spread messaging on behalf of Health Canada and Public Health Agency of Canada [8]. The effectiveness of such an initiative is yet to be measured but the goal would be to access a variety of audiences through influencers. For example, The Protect Our People MB Campaign—launched by the Southern Chiefs Organization, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc., Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin Inc., the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba—partners with local indigenous influencers in efforts to raise awareness on COVID-19 and clarify vaccine information [9]. By using indigenous influencers to help in their messaging, the organizations could tap into an audience that they might not have otherwise reached.

Some physicians have also used social media to reach and educate more people on vaccines [10]. Research has shown that direct conversations between patients and doctors is effective in combatting vaccine hesitancy; however, many people can’t get face to face meetings with their doctors [11]. So, having physicians with an online forum through which they can interact with people and make informative shareable videos can create a similar experience and combat misinformation.  

On the flip side, because a lot of digital content is unregulated and travels faster, many influencers also have the power to appeal to anti-vaccination sentiments and spread misinformation. For example, Joe Rogan, one of the most influential podcast hosts on the internet, recently made comments that he didn’t believe healthy young people needed the COVID-19 vaccine [12]. And in France, social media influencers have been approached by an advertising agency called Fazze offering to pay them to spread negative stories about the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines [13]. Facebook and Instagram have also had to remove 18 million pieces of COVID-19 related misinformation online since the start of the pandemic [14]. This is especially concerning given the fact that, during the pandemic, 90% Canadians used online resources to find information about COVID-19 [15]. The three main sources for getting that information were online news sites, social media posts from news organizations, and social media posts from other users or influencers [16]. Only one in five Canadians always checked the accuracy of the online information, so the spread of pandemic-related misinformation can certainly exacerbate vaccine hesitancy among the public, specifically among those who don’t critically think about the information they are consuming [17].

During a time where the lines between social media and reality are blurring, where we get our information becomes paramount. The issue of misinformation is extremely relevant in the context of vaccines, but it also extends to other topics as well. The effectiveness and consequences of influencers operating in these digital spaces is still uncertain, but the pandemic has evidently affected people’s reliance on para-social relationship and, as a result, how influencers choose to use their platforms. Ensuring that the information we consume and disseminate is accurate requires encouraging critical thinking through fact-checking what we see online and holding accountable those whom we get information from.

  1. Colley, Rachel C., Tracey Bushnik, and Kellie Langlois. “Exercise and Screen Time during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Statistics Canada. Government of Canada, July 15, 2020. 

  2. Jarzyna, Carol Laurent. “Parasocial Interaction, the COVID-19 Quarantine, and Digital Age Media.” Human Arenas, 2020. 

  3. Baek, Young Min, Young Bae, and Hyunmi Jang. “Social and Parasocial Relationships on Social Network Sites and Their Differential Relationships with Users’ Psychological Well-Being.” Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking 16, no. 7 (2013): 512–517. 

  4. Baek, Young Min, Young Bae, and Hyunmi Jang. “Social and Parasocial Relationships on Social Network Sites and Their Differential Relationships with Users’ Psychological Well-Being.” Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking 16, no. 7 (2013): 512–517. 

  5. Bond, Bradley J. “Social and Parasocial Relationships During COVID-19 Social Distancing.” Journal of social and personal relationships (2021): 26540752110191–.

  6. Geyser, Werner. “What Is an Influencer? - Social Media Influencers Defined [Updated 2021].” Influencer Marketing Hub. Influencer Marketing Hub, June 14, 2021. 

  7. Gould, Wendy Rose. “Are You in a Social Media Bubble? Here's How to Tell.” NBC News Better, October 21, 2019. 

  8. Ruskin, Brett. “Health Canada Wants Influencers to Help Spread Messaging.” CBC News, April 7, 2021. 

  9. Protect Our People MB. Accessed June 21, 2021. 

  10. “The Doc Is on TikTok: How Physicians Are Using Social Media to Build Vaccine Confidence.” Canadian Medical Association (blog), May 5, 2021. 

  11. DiResta, Renée. “The Anti-Vaccine Influencers Who Are Merely Asking Questions.” The Atlantic , April 24, 2021. 

  12. Lee, Bruce  Y. “Joe Rogan’s Not Sure Why Younger, Healthy People Should Get Covid-19 Vaccines, Here’s Why.” Forbes. Accessed June 21, 2021. 

  13. Alderman , Liz. “Influencers Say They Were Urged to Criticize Pfizer Vaccine.” The New York Times, May 26, 2021. 

  14. Gilmore, Rachel. “Fake News on Facebook: 18 Million Posts Containing COVID-19 Misinformation Removed.” Global News, May 19, 2021. 

  15. Garneau, Karine, and Clémence Zossou. “Misinformation during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Statistics Canada. Government of Canada , February 2, 2021. 

  16. Garneau, Karine, and Clémence Zossou. “Misinformation during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Statistics Canada. Government of Canada , February 2, 2021. 

  17. Garneau, Karine, and Clémence Zossou. “Misinformation during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Statistics Canada. Government of Canada , February 2, 2021. 

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