“How y’all doing? ? I don’t know how y’all been vaccinating, but I’m gonna show y’all how I have been,” says the man in the video. He pulls out a small needle and a syringe, followed by a box with a horse on it. He puts one cc of the medication into the syringe, then puts it into a bottle of orange juice, which he proceeds to chug. “I been vaccinated,” he says. “So y’all go out there and get y’all’s vaccine.”
The medication the man is chugging in the video is ivermectin, a drug that has gained traction in recent months as a “cure” for Covid-19. Best known as a deworming medication for animals such as horses, cows, and dogs (though it has been approved by the FDA for human use as a treatment for parasitic worms, or topically to treat conditions like head lice), ivermectin has, in recent months, been promoted by far-right pundits such as Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson as a Covid-19 cure. Feed stores around the country have reported that it’s selling quickly.
There’s no evidence that ivermectin is safe or effective to treat Covid-19, and its manufacturer, Merck, has even come forward discouraging people from using it as a treatment for the novel coronavirus; the FDA has also issued a statement based on “multiple reports” of people being admitted to the hospital after taking large doses of ivermectin, saying the drug can be “highly toxic” to humans. Yet such statements have only served to fuel the narrative that large regulatory agencies are suppressing evidence of ivermectin’s efficacy in treating Covid-19 and the Delta variant, largely because they cannot directly profit off its use as they can with vaccines. Pundits like Joe Rogan, who has more than 11 million viewers per show on Spotify, have only served to fuel such conspiracy theories, providing platforms to physicians like Dr. Bret Weinstein who have stoked controversy by peddling ivermectin.
On TikTok in particular, misinformation about ivermectin is rampant, with the hashtags #ivermectin4covid and #ivermectinworks garnering over 997,000 views and 13,000 views respectively. (TikTok removed those hashtags after receiving a request for comment from Rolling Stone.) Many creators are making videos advocating for its use or even — as is the case in the above video — posting tutorials for how to use it, racking up hundreds of thousands of views in the process.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again in my videos — online, human consumption, 12 mg. Just take a lot of water with it. It worked great for my husband,” says one woman in a video using the hashtag #ivermectinforhumans, brandishing a box of ivermectin tablets. The video that’s dated from August 13th has racked up more than one million views. In another video, which has more than 200,000 views, a man administers ivermectin to his horse before saying: “This stuff keeps the doctor away, but don’t let Facebook catch you saying that. They’ll kick you off like they did me.” (Rolling Stone has decided not to link to these videos so as not further promote the misinformation. TikTok has removed the videos after receiving an inquiry from Rolling Stone.)
“If you don’t know ivermectin has been talked about all over TikTok, so I decided to go out and get some,” says one woman before pulling out some apple-flavored ivermectin out of a feed store supply bag. “It’s approved by the FDA, so in my mind, it’s probably better than a vaccine,” says the woman in the video. That clip has almost 132,000 views.
Abbie Richards, a misinformation and disinformation researcher who focuses specifically on TikTok, says that conspiracy theories about ivermectin and the media’s suppression of data supporting its use have been circulating on TikTok as early as last winter. But she says she started to see content about ivermectin ramp up after late June, following Rogan’s podcast episode featuring Weinstein, who has been booted from YouTube for advocating for ivermectin; and Dr. Pierre Kory, a physician with a history of prescribing drugs for off-label use and cofounder of Frontline COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, an organization that advocates for the use of ivermectin to treat Covid-19. Many of the videos circulating on TikTok are clips from the podcast, one of which was posted by a TikTok verified creator and has 2.6 million views. “Joe Rogan really did us dirty,” says Richards.
TikTok’s policy guidelines ostensibly prohibit the promotion of ivermectin as a medical treatment for Covid-19. In its policy guidelines, the platform expressly prohibits “medical misinformation that can cause harm to an individual’s physical health.” Nonetheless, TikTok has a serious medical misinformation problem, says Dr. Michael Mrozinski, a family physician based in Australia who has devoted the past year to debunking Covid-related conspiracy theories on TikTok. He has previously prescribed ivermectin to human patients, he says, but only to treat conditions like digestive parasites or scabies.
“I think it’s the worst [platform] by far, actually, at curbing misinformation,” Dr. Mrozinski says of TikTok. “Because of the way the algorithm works, and the For You page, which is primarily what people flip through as they go. And it’s short-form, so the videos that do quite well are 10 to 15 seconds and have a really punchy hook and get to the point quite quickly. And it’s easily shared as well, and gets pushed out to more and more people.”
In response to a request for comment from Rolling Stone, TikTok confirmed the above videos violate community guidelines and said that it would block hashtags suggesting ivermectin is a cure for COVID-19, including #ivermectin4covid and #ivermectinworks. Yet a quick search of the #ivermectin hashtag surfaced videos continuing to promote its use as a treatment for COVID-19.
Dr. Mrozinski says he has reported many of the videos he’s come across promoting ivermectin, only to find that they are still actively being shared on the platform. Though he devotes his channel to debunking misinformation, he says it’s often an uphill battle, as the videos promoting harmful or inaccurate information tend to get more engagement than those debunking the content. The nature of the For You page, which suggests content to users based on their watch history and engagement time, also makes it difficult for those susceptible to medical misinformation to see content refuting it. “Some of these videos that I’m debunking have 5 million views, 6 million views, by the time it gets to us,” he says. “And the genie’s out of the bottle at that point. It’s really hard to debunk them.”
Update 9:40 p.m. This story has been updated with comment from TikTok.