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Business & Regulation Marketing, COVID-19


Twitter, where discussions go to die, is fraught with opposition, division, and toxicity – but it’s also a great place for businesses to communicate with their colleagues, collaborators, and customers. I love a bit of lighthearted corporate marketing on social media – the Ryanair team, for instance, is exceptionally good at it – but, for any organization, one ill-timed tweet can create enormous backlash. This is especially true in the pharma industry, which, despite the good it does for world health, does not currently enjoy the best reputation.

Earlier this week, the US FDA tweeted this as part of the #MemeMonday hashtag:

The message is, of course, well-meaning. COVID-19 vaccination has saved countless lives. Unfortunately, Twitter users did not respond kindly. Replies came from a range of vaccine skeptics, people wanting more or better access to COVID-19 vaccines, and hardcore Internet users criticizing the agency for its use of a now-vintage meme to jump on a hashtag for likes. Overall, more users criticized the tweet than approved of it.

Recently, Latin phrase-loving deus ex machina Elon Musk, himself a divisive figure, took over Twitter and vowed that “free speech” would reign. Don’t like it? Leave, he said. If one user, whether a private individual, business, or organization, is free to say things – stupid, profound, or funny things – then another user is equally free to respond, right? It’s true that Twitter is infuriating, confusing, and completely incapable of distinguishing free speech from stupidity, but collective responses help give us the big picture when it comes to gauging public sentiment.

In terms of responses to the FDA, there was the usual nonsense from conspiracy theory-driven COVID-19 deniers, as well as more sensible responses requesting better choices and access to vaccines. For example, @SocialFuzzer seemed impatient for the Novavax option, which was authorized for use in adults in Europe last year: “Approve Novavax with no restrictions so that we will get boosted. There’s no good reason for holding it back. Why are you holding it back?” (One common-sense response was, “So it doesn’t kill you.” Imagine what the US would be like if people had access to unlicensed vaccines. Others complained of the potential inclusion of moth DNA, but this article gives no space to fly-by-night conspiracies.)

Meanwhile, @AJKayWriter took the view that the tweet was more of a marketing campaign than a public service announcement. “At this point, you might as well just slap a ‘Brought to you by Pfizer’ (or Moderna – gotta be fair) on your unoriginal, tired memes.”

Sharing the concerns (and the burns), “Pharma Reg Affairs Expert” @RxRegA deemed it necessary to remind the agency of its primary responsibility by using its own meme against it in a tweet that reads, “No one likes FDA promoting products they regulate #GetBackToRegulatingNotPromoting,” and @BoydsArchitect took the community elder route with, “I am so old I remember when the public trusted the FDA to not act like Pfizer’s marketing department.”

Tweeters also noted the use of a toddler in the meme, which prompted some to suggest a lack of foresight from the agency due to the fact that, under the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), only the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are approved for children under five. It seems only fair, then, that parents who want their children to receive the Novavax vaccine should be given an answer as to why they cannot – especially given that those who prefer not to vaccinate their children at all are having their wishes fulfilled.

It’s bizarre, but fascinating, to read the comments of those united in their condemnation of the FDA. Love it or hate it, Twitter gives people and their online pseudonyms the opportunity to engage with authority and hold it to account. There has been, at the time of writing, no response from the agency to any of the questions or demands from those tweeting.

It takes a thick skin and some sincere resilience to disregard the growing noise from conspiracy theorists running amok on the internet. The ratio is embarrassing, yes – and the PR is negative, agreed – but this should remind us that the FDA is made up of people who are human, after all, and who are undertaking crucial, high-pressure responsibilities in a time of division and uncertainty. But is that enough to satisfy a generation or two of pharmaceutical consumers with new, but no less genuine, concerns? Perhaps not, and despite the organization’s good work, the odd tweet is bound to come face-to-face with the Free Speech Force for Stupidity. I say, stick to your guns, @US_FDA!

I’m on Twitter, you’ll be pleased to learn, as a voice of reason for the global pharma community. Feel free to tweet me with your thoughts at @Rob_TMM!

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About the Author
Rob Coker

Deputy Editor of The Medicine Maker

Following a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s in Creative Writing, I entered the world of publishing as a proofreader, working my way up to editor. The career so far has taken me to some amazing places, and I’m excited to see where I can go with Texere and The Medicine Maker.

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