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As COVID-19 Pandemic Unfolds, Harvard Professors Find a New Audience Online

Harvard academics have shares their expertise regarding the coronavirus online to a growing audience.
Harvard academics have shares their expertise regarding the coronavirus online to a growing audience. By Megan M. Ross
By Ethan Lee and Virginia L. Ma, Crimson Staff Writers

As many Americans seek out expert knowledge on the novel coronavirus in the midst of the pandemic, some Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School professors have taken to social media to inform the public about the virus.

Previously confined to the lab and the classroom, many such professors are experiencing an unprecedented level of public exposure, gaining mass followings by posting more frequently online and speaking to the media.

Epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch, who frequently shares his expertise with the media, has gained more than forty thousand followers on Twitter in the last month alone.

Jerome E. Groopman, a professor of medicine at the Medical School and staff writer for the New Yorker, said in an interview that experts’ use of social media can have a positive effect on informing the public, as long as the information they spread is accurate and significant.

“There’s a difference between clickbait, which takes a non-scientific, non-evidence-based, non-expert, inflammatory declaration, or out of context, versus someone who feels that his or her voice is important particularly in countering either misinformation or an argument that’s being made strictly from a political expediency point of view,” Groopman said.

He added that the public should still be wary of the types of information about COVID-19 they accept due to the rushed nature of research and media about the virus.

“It’s a very challenging time with regard to the general public for several reasons,” Groopman said. “First of all, the usual filters for quality information have been removed. So, that peer review, scientific assessment which typically filters out for quality data, have been lagging behind so that certain groups will post their results before they’re published or even peer-reviewed.”

With more than 173,000 Twitter followers, Lipsitch has used his platform to offer clarifications on news reports he believes are misinformed — namely, misrepresentations of his own quotes.

For instance, in a Thursday tweet, Lipsitch wrote that his quote in a Bloomberg News article about the management of the COVID-19 pandemic in India was “wildly unrepresentative” of what he had said during the interview.

“It misrepresents my views worse than almost any article I have ever been quoted in,” Lipsitch wrote in the tweet.

Lipsitch also recently shared a blog post by SciLine, a service connecting journalists and scientists, which offered scientists tips on communicating with the media during a “much needed” time.

“While this sudden increase in appetite for scientific expertise is in some respects refreshing, it has also resulted in a number of scientists being flooded with media requests, including those with little or no training in best practices for speaking to reporters,” the SciLine blog post reads.

Other Harvard professors, meanwhile, have used the impact of social media to dispel non-scientists’ unfounded claims about the virus.

Michael J. Mina, a School of Public Health epidemiology professor with more than 27,000 Twitter followers, offered a straightforward position on President Donald J. Trump’s suggestion that injecting people with disinfectants could help prevent COVID-19.

“Our president is such an idiot,” Mina wrote on Twitter.

—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at ethan.lee@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Virginia L. Ma can be reached at virginia.ma@thecrimson.com.

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Harvard Medical SchoolSchool of Public HealthUniversityUniversity NewsCoronavirusCoronavirus Feature