Nicki Minaj’s display of ignorance on Twitter last week would have been the funniest thing that’s happened in months, if it weren’t for the near statistical certainty that it will actually get someone killed.
For the handful of you that do not spend their entire day obsessively following social media, Minaj said she had serious doubts about COVID vaccines because,
My cousin in Trinidad won’t get the vaccine cuz his friend got it & became impotent. His testicles became swollen. His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding. So just pray on it & make sure you’re comfortable with ur decision, not bullied
— Nicki Minaj (@NICKIMINAJ) September 13, 2021
This is, of course, nonsense. Apart from having the classic urban myth “friend of a friend” structure, there is not a single case of impotence—much less grapefruit-sized cajones—linked to COVID-19 vaccines. Not even the dodgy Russian one.
The aftermath of the tweet was even funnier. Minaj found herself roundly mocked on Twitter and in the media. Joy Reid exhorted Minaj to use her 22-million-follower platform to encourage fans to get vaccinated rather than to spread misinformation. Minaj took Reid’s criticism to heart and responded with some thoughtful introspection on the responsibilities that go with having a prominent voice in American society.
Reid’s comments sent Minaj on an epic Twitter rampage that culminated with this,
A lying homophobic coon
I guess I can join in the reindeer games too right? Ppl can go on tv & lie on me, I can report on them, too right? ☺️. Doesn’t have to be truths. It can be half truths.
— Nicki Minaj (@NICKIMINAJ) September 14, 2021
Things went downhill from there.
Soon, a handful of Minaj’s fans were protesting at CDC headquarters in Atlanta chanting “Down with the CDC!” By Wednesday, the government of Trinidad made a formal denial that any such thing had ever happened to Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend—or anyone else in Trinidad. Even Boris Johnson got into the beef about the imaginary man’s testicles.
Yes. This is a thing that happened.
There is no question that Nicki Minaj is one of the world’s greatest living musical talents. But winning six American Music Awards and being nominated for ten Grammys does not qualify you as an expert on public health. Nor does having a gazillion Twitter followers. This seldom stops anyone with a gazillion Twitter followers from pontificating on public health issues or anything else that strikes their fancy.
Conventional wisdom holds that General Relativity is the world’s most tested theory. It is not. That honor goes to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, part of which holds that people who know almost nothing about a topic tend to believe they are experts. General Relativity has been validated thousands of times since Einstein published his theory in 1915. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is validated a million times a day on the internet.
So there is no reason to single out Nicki Minaj for particular ridicule. Her tweet is just another example of what Tom Nichols calls “the death of expertise.” But its immediate and widespread impact makes it an outstanding example of another problem.
Let’s call it, “the death of responsibility.”
Every generation has its share of narcissistic celebrities. But in the past, that sense of entitlement was leavened with what might be called noblesse oblige. It wasn’t that long ago that baseball players were expected to be role models. I’m sure that earlier celebrities had just as many odd and occasionally dangerous ideas as some modern ones, but whether through a sense of responsibility to their fans or fear of them, they usually kept them to themselves. You can’t imagine, say, Lawrence Tureaud, casually passing along anti-vaccination rumors.
That’s no longer true. Today’s celebrities feel justified, even obligated, to pass along their every stray thought without considering the impact on the wider world. Because they live largely in bubbles of adoring fans, they are often convinced they can do no wrong. It’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect on steroids.
And needless to say, these celebrities seldom take well to criticism.
This is a real problem and it’s obviously not limited to the issue of vaccine hesitancy. Social media is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and misinformation that are too often amplified by people who ought to know better. Social media gives modern celebrities unprecedented direct connections with people who already like and trust them. Out of the top 150 Twitter accounts, 109 of them belong to entertainment and sports figures. It’s one thing when your Uncle Jim starts babbling about vaccine conspiracy theories and the “agenda of the CDC.” It’s another thing entirely if your Uncle Jim is Jim Carrey and has 14 million twitter followers.
Some people seem to believe that Joy Reid was wrong for publicly castigating Minaj and that it should have been viewed as a teachable moment. But Nikki Minaj should not need to be “taught.” She’s a world figure with more Twitter followers than Fox News—or Pope Francis—not an errant 14-year-old. The suggestion that someone in her position should be granted a pass for spreading misinformation about something as basic and important as COVID vaccines is both patronizing and dangerous.
The truth is that Minaj’s worst offense wasn’t tweeting about exploding testicles. It was a tweet that was far more damaging and far less clickbaity. Worse, it’s the kind of casual and deadly misinformation that is spread on social media thousands of times a day. In response to one of her fans pointing out that the vaccine “prevents you getting serious symptoms” and that “non vaccinated people are 11x more likely to pass away from covid than vaccinated.” Minaj responded. “Babe. That’s not true. I had the exact same symptoms as ppl with the damn vaccine.” This little nugget of death got almost 23,000 likes and over 17,000 retweets.
Again, Minaj is completely wrong. Vaccines do dramatically reduce the seriousness of COVID infections, even if you do catch the disease after being vaccinated. This basic fact has been shouted from the rooftops for months now. Someone who speaks directly to 22 million people, has a responsibility to know this kind of thing.
The government can’t do it and there’s an understandable reluctance to leave responsibility for policing social media—Minaj claimed, apparently without foundation, that she had been locked out of her Twitter account—to tech companies.
But somebody has to. The current model, “With great social media influence comes great irresponsibility,” is unsustainable.