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Why you're seeing COVID-19 vaccine selfies all over Facebook and Twitter

Misinformation on vaccines has run rampant on the internet, but some people are hoping vaccine selfies could help open a dialogue with skeptics.

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Jon Chapman after his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Jon Chapman

Jon Chapman isn't turning into a mutant. The 38-year-old medical laboratory scientist from Iowa City got his first COVID-19 vaccination the Monday before Christmas, and aside from a sore arm, he felt fine. 

Since then, he hasn't grown a tail, he doesn't have scales and -- so far -- there's no sign of wings. He wanted his friends and family to know this.

So he took a photo posted it on Facebook.

"I really felt the message should be out there that people you know, people you trust, your friends, your family members are getting the vaccine" Chapman said. "It is safe. It is effective. It's a good thing for yourself, and it's a good thing for society in general."

Chapman is far from alone. Open Instagram, Twitter or Facebook these days and you're likely to see photos of people, in masks with their sleeves rolled up, getting stuck in the arm, or holding up small rectangles of paper with their vaccine info.

Some post the photos in hopes of opening a dialogue with followers who question the vaccine. Others just want to share a moment that's been long in coming, a symbol of hope that life could return to some semblance of normalcy one day.

The photos come from all over the world -- from the US to England, Morocco to Jordan. Famous faces are even getting in on the trend, including Patrick Stewart, Anthony Hopkins, Martha Stewart, Bill Gates, Joan Collins, and Sean Penn, as well as political leaders like President Joe Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Despite the fact that COVID-19 has killed more than 400,000 people in the US alone, according to Johns Hopkins, not everyone is clamoring to roll up their sleeves. 

In a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 71% said they would definitely get the vaccine. Remaining respondents said they either probably wouldn't or definitely wouldn't get vaccinated, citing reasons like side effects, and concerns that the vaccine is too new and the government can't ensure its safety. Getting folks vaccinated is important, though. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a 100-year-old medical center, responsible for breakthroughs like coronary artery bypass surgery, about 50% to 80% of the population needs to be vaccinated to reach the herd immunity threshold. Herd immunity is the idea that when a certain percentage of the population becomes immune, spreading the disease is less likely, even to those who haven't been vaccinated.

Meanwhile, misinformation about vaccines has been running rampant for years. But while false information can feel like a can't-get-the-toothpaste-back-in-the-tube situation, some people are hoping that doing something as simple as posting a vaccine photo could help counteract some of this.

Posting hope

Though it's nearly impossible to measure the impact a wave of vaccination selfies could have on public opinion, there's reason to believe it could help.

For one, there's the concept of social proof. Think about it like this: If you saw two restaurants and one was empty and the other packed, in pre-COVID times, at least, you might assume the busy business was the better bet. 

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Anna Hartman posted her vaccine record on Facebook.

Anna Hartman

"People say social comparison [is] bad, but it's actually an evolutionary device to make sure that we can navigate our social environments," said Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. "If we didn't pay attention to what other people were doing, we would die." 

Seeing a lot of people do something can signal it's socially acceptable. And people know this. 

"People who don't trust big organizations" like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Food and Drug Administration "may trust their friend down the road, or they may trust their doctor that they've seen for 30 years, and they might trust their best friend from elementary school," said 34-year-old Anna Hartman, a registered dietitian nutritionist from Louisville, Kentucky, who posted a photo of her vaccination card. 

The CDC seems to have some grasp on this too. The organization offers a communication toolkit on its website, which includes downloadable posters and stickers with things like tips on social distancing. There are also sample posts for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram about why the vaccine will be crucial in stopping the spread of the virus. 

This toolkit motivated 62-year-old nurse practitioner Sue DeNisco of Stamford, Connecticut, to post. The community health center where she works sent an email encouraging folks to take a photo by a poster after getting the vaccine and to post it.

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Sue DeNisco after getting vaccinated.

Sue DeNisco

"It's going to be a challenge to get people vaccinated ... and I think social media is a way to help spread the word, whether it's by health care workers or just the general population," DeNisco said. 

One of the big takeaways for Hartman: Whether online or off, some people just need a safe space to air their anxieties and questions. 

This can be particularly difficult at a time when even the simple act of wearing a mask can be seen as a political statement. 

Jeremy, a 34-year-old pharmacist from Nashville who asked to be identified only by his first name, decided to post his vaccination record but wanted to be sure his followers understood he wasn't making a political statement in doing so. His message encouraged friends and family to make a decision for themselves, informed by evidence and research.

"I think it's an opportunity to see ... health care professionals that are confident in the science that has been produced, and the efficacy and safety of the vaccine," he said, noting that regardless of politics, the science can speak for itself.

The limits of posting

All this isn't to say enough social media posts will change the minds of every skeptic.  

There are stumbling blocks to contend with, said Paul Booth, professor of media and cinema studies/digital communication and media arts at DePaul University in Chicago. Many social media users live in an echo chamber. 

"Groups of people that are not in favor of vaccinations, they may not see [the photos] because either they're in their own little bubble of people that all agree with them, or the algorithms that control what we see on [social media] won't show them that, because they're not interacting with people they disagree with," Booth said. And yet, he does think there's positive potential. 

THANK YOU🙏🏻 PublicHealth.LACounty.Gov CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, and my dear friend, Dr. Maria Teresa Ochoa. Light at the end of the tunnel (after one year of self imposed quarantine).

Posted by Anthony Hopkins on Thursday, January 28, 2021

Back in Iowa City, Chapman has had more than a few conversations with his sister-in-law about the vaccine. She grew up in a household that didn't believe in vaccines, and although she doesn't necessarily feel the same, the long-ingrained apprehension has been hard to shake.

So he stays patient and respectful and answers whatever questions she has. 

"You can tell her data all day, every day," he said, "but it's very different when it's your brother-in-law ... talking to you, and I have a picture on Facebook, and we had a conversation. And I said, 'Yes, I got it. Yes, I trust it. I'm not afraid of it.'"