Show me the funny: FDA social media account gets spunky, adding wit and wordplay to combat misinformation

FDA Building
It's a boring-looking building, but inside the FDA, witty social media writers are grabbing consumer attention. (FDA)

The FDA gets more than a fair share of jabs on social media, but lately its Twitter account has been showing its own spunk.

Last week, the FDA Twitter account posted, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it.”  The post linked to an article discouraging use of ivermectin, commonly used to treat parasites in animals, to treat COVID-19.

Spurred by serious reports of people hospitalized after self-medicating with the veterinary drug, the cheeky tweet contained a serious message. 

And that’s the point, says the FDA.

“Historically, we’ve used our social media platforms to communicate about a lot of important public health issues in fairly straightforward ways, but as the platforms have evolved, we’ve embarked on an effort to find creative ways to deliver our messages,” Brad Kimberly, director of social media in the FDA’s Office of External Affairs, said in an email.

“These posts are designed to get peoples’ attention and, most importantly, combat dangerous viral misinformation," he said.

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He added that so far the efforts are “very effective, and I’m glad people are recognizing this shift.”

Effective may be an understatement. The not-a-horse post garnered more than 104,000 likes and 46,500 retweets. For comparison purposes, an FDA Twitter post the week before about the approval of a generic form of amoxicillin for dogs and cats got 70 likes and 28 retweets—and people really love their pets.

The ivermectin tweet in fact rivaled the FDA's Monday announcement that Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, Comirnaty, had been approved. The FDA breaking news post got 90,000 likes and 55,000 retweets.

Some naysayers didn’t appreciate the agency's attempts at wit—one responder called the “tone of voice” inappropriate and said it's better suited to Wendy’s than FDA.

Many others approved, though—one commenter promised to stop referring to the organization as the "Fun Destroying Agency"—and those in favor included some marketing experts.

It’s actually quite appropriate, Eileen O’Brien, Real Chemistry’s social media practice leader, said in an email.

“FDA social media channels can remain an important voice of authority while also having a personality. It’s essential to speak in a way that engages the general public,” she said.

Wendy Blackburn, executive VP at Intouch Solutions, called the FDA’s new tone “uncharacteristic,” but she also approves.

“Recently we have seen the FDA Twitter handle speak more in social media’s ‘native language.’ They’re using emojis. They retweeted Ellen DeGeneres. They’re showing their humanity with a dose of authenticity, and it’s a welcome change,” she said.

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Blackburn added, “It’s an effective and welcome trend in the way that FDA is battling misinformation—as long as they also continue to balance their tone with one of authority and a focus on the science.”

The FDA concurs on her science point.

As Kimberly said, “We hope that people will come for a little bit of snark, stay for the serious, and in the process learn something new about the FDA and an issue that could save their lives.”