Who would have thought demographic statistics would go viral? Certainly not self-confessed ‘Nerdy Girl’, Oxford Professor Jennifer Dowd, who was stunned when her social media post on excess mortality reached a global audience, as it was reposted and shared around the world.
Twelve women PhDs and clinicians – all experts in public health and related disciplines - were dubbed the ‘Nerdy Girls’ by a follower. Their mission is to curate reliable, accurate and trusted information about the pandemic – and they have gathered tens of thousands of followers across social media
The thing is, the Facebook post in question concerned COVID-19 deaths – and as Professor Dowd and her colleagues have discovered - there is an international appetite for trusted information about the pandemic, amid a torrent of misinformation.
Professor Dowd, the Deputy Director of Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, is working with 11 other women PhDs and clinicians – all experts in public health and related disciplines - dubbed the ‘Nerdy Girls’ by a follower. Their mission is to curate reliable, accurate and trusted information about the pandemic – and they have gathered tens of thousands of followers across social media.
Collectively, they are ‘Dear Pandemic’ and have become an online phenomenon, answering questions, providing information and engaging with some of the most common tropes, such as that vaccines alter your DNA (they don’t, insists Professor Dowd).
Dear Pandemic started as a Facebook page last March and quickly added Twitter and Instagram. Now, there is even a Dear Pandemic website which contains a searchable archive of over 600 posts. Aside from Professor Dowd, the women academics are based in her home country of the US, where the concept originated – and where much of the ‘lively’ online debate is taking place around the pandemic.
COVID-19 has become an intensely political subject. Dear Pandemic, however, has cultivated followers across the political spectrum and keeps the focus on data rather than politics. In the beginning, says Professor Dowd, we saw ourselves as ‘a go-to source for friends and family’. But the need for helping people navigate the onslaught of COVID-19 information meant that the group’s reach grew very quickly to many thousands of followers.
‘We wanted to be a relatable and trusted source, the nerdy mom-next-door, who just happens to have a PhD.’
We wanted to be a relatable and trusted source, the nerdy mom-next-door, who just happens to have a PhD
By using the same platforms as the purveyors of misinformation, the nerdy mom’s fact-based insights were being shared far beyond next door. And they did not want just to post science.
According to Professor Dowd, they wanted to ‘help people learn how to vet and interpret information for themselves’. It is something the Nerdy Girls call ‘information hygiene’. An example of this came on Friday, with a Facebook post about detecting misinformation.
The group posts new material on Facebook twice a day, often helping to distil recent news, such as vaccine trial results or debates about herd immunity. Post topics range from practical COVID-19 prevention (Has my COVID bubble gotten out of control?), scientific controversy, and mental health. Professor Dowd says, ‘We try to answer specific follower questions as well as anticipate the hot science topics of the day. It is a constant dialogue with our followers to understand what information people need to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.’
Right now, all eyes are on the vaccines – and with very large numbers of people in the US saying they will not be inoculated, it is not without controversy. The Nerdy Girls include experts in vaccine hesitancy and the team intends to work tirelessly to break down the myths and address concerns to help people feel better about the safety of vaccines.
The Nerdy Girls include experts in vaccine hesitancy and the team intends to work tirelessly to break down the myths and address concerns to help people feel better about the safety of vaccines
With some 50,000 Facebook followers, the group has considerable reach – and some posts, particularly those tackling misinformation can end up with 250k views. Professor Dowd’s posts on excess mortality- normally hard-core demographic interest only – have been among the most widely viewed and shared. The posts help debunk the myth that most COVID-19 deaths are of people who were going to die soon anyway.
‘Having access to reliable information empowers people, she says. ‘The average person can’t devote the time to navigating this overwhelming amount of information themselves and don’t know how to refute friends and relatives who might be sharing misinformation.
‘We see it as our core mission to educate and arm people with the knowledge to make informed decisions and have discussions with their loved ones.
‘Because we are using social media, our posts can be easily shared—a way to turn the weapons of misinformation against themselves.’
The Nerdy Girls have undertaken more than 200 media appearances so far with the goal of helping journalists interpret the science and ensure accurate information is in circulation. Family celebrations have been a recent focus, with the Nerdy Girls strongly urging households to ‘invest in future holidays’ and hold off on gatherings, especially with the promise of vaccines on the horizon.
But why is the group female only?
‘Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been evidence that women academics were suffering more than men as a result of the pandemic, including family responsibilities and remote schooling....we wanted to amplify the voices of female expertise during the pandemic.’
We’ve all had to find our purpose during this pandemic, and it turns out public communication of demography and epidemiology is having a moment...it keeps me going to believe that we are helping people to make evidence-based decisions about risk and how to best protect their families
Professor Jennifer Dowd
They also hope to inspire and train up the next generation of Nerdy Girls.
A year ago, Professor Dowd - who serves as Dear Pandemic’s chief scientific officer- would never have imagined herself writing for thousands of readers on Facebook, rather than the handful who read a typical academic article. But the urgency of robust science communication during the pandemic has made this a calling she is happy to embrace.
‘We’ve all had to find our purpose during this pandemic, and it turns out public communication of demography and epidemiology is having a moment. While public health efforts are hard, because one never sees the infections that you prevent, it keeps me going to believe that we are helping people to make evidence-based decisions about risk and how to best protect their families.’