8 big thinkers to follow on social media in 2021

Journalists, doctors, and others you should know.

8 big thinkers to follow on social media in 2021

Danielle Belardo, Dan Wilson, and Anna Merlan

Photo composite by Derek Beres, from Instagram and YouTube
  • While social media is often a source of disinformation, some thought leaders are using their platforms as a force for good.
  • Social networks offer an opportunity for readers to learn science-backed advice from top professionals in their fields.
  • From journalists covering disinformation to a doctor giving the best physical therapy advice around, these influential voices deserve wide audiences.

In her 2017 book, "What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear," NYU associate professor of medicine Danielle Offri offers startling data on communication problems between doctors and patients. For example, the total amount of time that patients get to discuss their problems? Ninety-two seconds. Patients often get interrupted within seconds of speaking, which results in non-compliance rates of up to 75 percent. Doctors shake their head in disbelief that their patients don't follow directions, yet patients rarely feel heard—an essential component of healing, as Offri writes.

One positive trend over recent years—especially since the pandemic began—is the increasing number of medical professionals using social media as an educational tool. Some take time to regularly reply to questions; others offer videos, livestreams, and studies. While nothing beats in-person conversations, watching fruitful interactions with doctors and researchers during a time when so much negativity has been pushed forward on social networks has proven valuable.

The list below is not entirely comprised of health professionals, though every person listed uses their platform as a force for good, be it by calling out abuses of power or offering science-backed tips on remaining healthy during lockdowns. The Internet isn't always the right place to source information, yet that also depends on who's providing it. These eight individuals are doing their best to make social media a place for growth, both for individuals and as a society. While platforms can often feel like a one-way bullhorn, they invite you to join a bigger conversation.

Imran Ahmed

When the Washington Post recently revealed that over $850,000 in PPP loans were doled out to anti-vax groups by the Trump Administration, the paper had the U.K.'s Center for Countering Digital Hate to thank. The organization's founder, Imran Ahmed, was appointed to the Steering Committee of the U.K. Government's Commission on Countering Extremism Pilot Task Force in 2020. Early last summer, Ahmed released a report that found social media platforms earned nearly $1 billion from anti-vax groups in a year's time—and he thinks they were lowballing that sum, as he told Big Think. In an era of disinformation gone wild, Ahmed believes the most powerful tool we currently have at our disposal is deplatforming. His organization is working hard at exposing players worthy of such attention.

Danielle Belardo

There's a wave of doctors using social media to both educate the public and demystify the scientific process. Cardiologist Danielle Belardo is one of the best, using her popular Instagram feed to present science-based evidence for nutrition, vaccines, and more. The director of cardiology and co-director of research and education at IOPBM in Newport Beach, Belardo's social media presence focuses both on combating pseudoscience as well as providing excellent nutrition advice, recipes, and tips for good heart health—and, on occasion, epic California sunsets.

Aaron Horschig

Dr. Aaron Horschig's runs one of Instagram's best fitness handles, Squat University. A former Olympic athlete and coach, Horschig discusses technique, form, and recovery in the wide world of weightlifting, from novice to elite levels. Though you might catch a strongman squatting 600+ pounds on his feed, one of the most refreshing aspects of Horschig's messages is the simplicity of his advice: work on form, not personal records; don't fall for marketing hype, but stick to the basics: hydration, sleep, and good nutrition; and you're never too young or old to lift weights. His new book, "Rebuilding Milo," further cements his role as one of the nation's top physical therapists and performance coaches. Bonus: his excellent blog offers deeper insights and science-backed research, such as why the popular RICE protocol should be abandoned.

Anna Merlan

Vice senior staff reporter Anna Merlan has been covering the conspiracy theory beat for years, culminating in some of the best QAnon-related coverage around. Her 2019 book, "Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power," tracked the proliferation of conspiracy theories during the Trump era well before QAnon became the juggernaut that it is. She's deftly exposed contradictions in thought processes by the ex-president's most loyal devotees. Given the continued doubling down by key players, media pundits, and a handful of congresspeople since Biden's inauguration, Merlan is going to have plenty of stories to cover for the foreseeable future.

Heather Cox Richardson

Boston College's history professor Heather Cox Richardson's daily Substack posts are one of the best additions to your inbox imaginable. The author of a number of books, most recently "How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America," Richardson gives you a rundown of the top stories in the news alongside insights into the historical processes that created the conditions for our current predicament. If you want to grapple with our present moment in a holistic fashion, subscribe to "Letters from an American." You won't be disappointed.

Kevin Roose

One of the most enlightening Twitter feeds of 2020 was Facebook's Top 10, which tracks the 10 highest-performing links on the social network. Spearhead by NY Times tech columnist Kevin Roose, the feed makes you reconsider the term "mainstream media." If information is judged by eyeballs—and many eyeballs continue to source news on Facebook—then Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, and various Trump groups are the most mainstream outlets around, as they regularly outperform the NY Times, NPR, CNN, and MSNBC. Roose's work covering QAnon and disinformation has also been invaluable, offering a framework for understanding the dangers of cult indoctrination.

Conspirituality 17: Interview with Jared Yates Sexton

Jared Yates Sexton

Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" offered an honest look at America's shameful historical record. It took 40 years for another book to penetrate a nation's conscience. When political analyst and associate professor Jared Yates Sexton published "American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People," we finally had another opportunity to reflect—and, hopefully, progress. Sexton wants to dismantle the romanticized myth of American exceptionalism and replace it with something more valuable, as he told Big Think last year: "Once we disabuse ourselves of the myth of American exceptionalism, and we start looking at American history and say it's really problematic and inspirational at other times, it allows us to build something new."

Dan Wilson

Molecular biologist Dan Wilson makes visiting YouTube a necessity. His channel, Debunk the Funk with Dr. Wilson, takes on quack medicine and conspiracy theorists, breaking down disinformation in digestible segments while providing you with plenty of ammunition to combat the COVID denialists in your life. While his area of expertise is how cells build ribosomes, Wilson recently offered a three-part takedown of hydroxychloroquine peddler Simone Gold, an insightful look into Christiane Northrup's COVID vaccine misinformation, and Joe Rogan's failure to fact check Alex Jones.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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