UK government officials somehow found themselves in the crosshairs of US rapper Nicki Minaj on Sept. 14, when they tried to push back on misleading comments she made on Twitter about Covid-19 vaccines.
The music star, who has more than 22 million followers on the platform, posted a day earlier about a cousin who had not yet gotten the vaccine due to fears that it would make him impotent. Earlier, Minaj had suggested she was not yet vaccinated, and would only do so when she had “done enough research.”
They want you to get vaccinated for the Met. if I get vaccinated it won’t for the Met. It’ll be once I feel I’ve done enough research. I’m working on that now. In the meantime my loves, be safe. Wear the mask with 2 strings that grips your head & face. Not that loose one
— Nicki Minaj (@NICKIMINAJ) September 13, 2021
Minaj’s tweets drew backlash from medical professionals online who pointed out there is no scientific evidence that Covid-19 vaccines cause impotence or testicular swelling. While the coronavirus itself may cause male infertility and sexual dysfunction, according to recent research by urologists at the University of Miami, the vaccines that protect against it do not.
Asked about Minaj’s tweets during a news conference, professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said that Minaj “should be ashamed” of spreading such misinformation. “There are a number of myths that fly around,” he said. “Some of which are just clearly ridiculous, and some of which are clearly designed just to scare.”
Prime minister Boris Johnson said that he wasn’t as familiar with Minaj’s work as he should be. “But I am familiar with Nikki Kanani,” Johnson continued, referring to the medical director of primary care for England’s National Health Service. Kanani, the prime minister said, “will tell you vaccines are wonderful and everyone should get them.”
There is ample evidence at this point in the pandemic that the risks of not getting vaccinated against Covid-19 far outweigh the potential side effects of the jab. But slightly hapless UK officials’ attempts to push back on Minaj highlight the challenges of countering potentially harmful misinformation while being trolled by an influential celebrity.
Within a few hours of the news conference Minaj had accused Whitty on Twitter of dissing her, and released a recording of herself mocking Johnson in a fake British accent.
send this to the prime minister & let him know they lied on me. I forgive him. No one else. Only him. pic.twitter.com/ZmJ2sST8Es
— Nicki Minaj (@NICKIMINAJ) September 14, 2021
The message to Johnson was retweeted more than 15,000 times, dwarfing the prime minister’s own message promoting vaccines that day, which received just 64 retweets.
2/ Vaccines remain the first line of our defence.
They have proved highly effective, preventing over 24 million infections and 112,300 deaths.
Booster jabs will be offered to those in priority groups 1-9 to increase immunity among the most vulnerable.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) September 14, 2021
The UK was not only up against a powerful celebrity in the Minaj spat, but also declining public trust overall. Confidence in national governments to effectively deal with the coronavirus declined across nations over the last year, according to IPSOS polling, with the US and UK seeing some of the steepest declines.
A number of celebrities in the US—such as Gen Z pop star Olivia Rodrigo, actor Eva Longoria, and film director Spike Lee—have been recruited to encourage Americans to get the vaccine in recent months. But a Morning Consult poll released in May found that a majority of US adults are unmoved by this outreach.
While the potential for celebrities to have a positive impact when it comes to coronavirus messaging is limited, New York Times reporter Sheera Frenkel pointed out that tweets like Minaj’s can quickly reverse efforts to educate the public.
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We can write a thousand articles about how vaccines are effective in stopping the severity of Covid, and crucial towards curbing the pandemic for us all, but one tweet like this will be held up by millions who are trying to put off getting vaccinated. https://t.co/QkWXTijUY7
— Sheera Frenkel (@sheeraf) September 13, 2021