Savannah Sparks made it her mission to hold health care workers she believes are behaving badly accountable on TikTok. When trolls started threatening her life, she stepped away from the platform.
By Kalhan Rosenblatt
The video posted to TikTok showed a woman in a blue cardigan and brown medical scrubs dancing to a remix of Wale’s “Lotus Flower Bomb.”
On screen, sandwiched between two sparkle emojis, the woman, who said she was a pharmacy technician, had written, “Most common meds I’ve filled that cause cancer.” She then went on to claim medications like hormonal birth control, cholesterol medications and chemotherapy were cancer causing.
So, Savannah Sparks, another TikTok user who goes by “Rx0rcist,” made her own video, part of what would become an ongoing series debunking medical misinformation on the app.
“My name’s Savannah. I’m a doctor at a pharmacy, and I’m about to absolutely wreck your s—,” Sparks says in the video before launching into a fact-check of the pharmacy technician’s claims.
But Sparks didn’t stop there. She then contacted the woman’s supervisor.
“Her scope of practice doesn’t allow her … to counsel on medications so, especially coming from the realm of pharmacy, which is my wheelhouse, I really went in on that individual and I was like, ‘You really should not be talking about this,'” Sparks said.
Sparks, 31, a Mississippi-based lactation consultant and doctor of pharmacy who is also a mother of a 2-year-old daughter, has become a prolific watchdog on TikTok for those she says are trying to spread misinformation — especially health care workers spreading bogus information about Covid-19.
“In the past, I have been a little more reserved with how aggressive I have gone after these people, but the longer this pandemic went on, and the more and more misinformation we started seeing as health care workers on social media, the less I started caring about my tone and coming across a certain way,” Sparks said.
This has earned her a massive following on TikTok. Her account has more than 467,000 followers and her videos rack in hundreds of thousands — and sometimes millions — of views.
Sparks said she is not only looking for the removal of health care misinformation on the platform, but she also wants accountability.
“Anything that forces somebody to change their way of thinking … it makes them angry,” Sparks said. “So, keeping that in mind, the fact that I’m doing this to so many people, I accept I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing, and I’m exactly where I need to be.”
This approach to calling alleged offenders out has made her the target of online harassment. Her address has been posted on extremist websites, and her inboxes have been flooded with threats of rape and death against both her and her daughter, which, at one point, became so relentless it nearly drove her off the internet.
Misinformation and callouts
Sparks’ most exhaustive callouts are part of a series on her TikTok that she calls “Petty Journal Club with Sav.” She said the videos began as a way to thwart general health care misinformation from spreading on the app, but soon morphed to be more specific as she said she realized some health care workers were not only propagating misinformation about the pandemic, but also teaching their followers how they could get around Covid restrictions.
Using public information and social media, Sparks said she would identify the TikTokers making dubious claims or bragging about skirting rules and contact their employers or, in the most egregious cases, their respective field’s licensing board in an attempt to hold them accountable.
And with TikTok’s algorithm frequently elevating Sparks’ videos to the “For You” page, the platform’s infinite scroll homepage, she continued to draw in even more viewers and followers.
Sparks decides how to handle bad actors on a case-by-case basis, she said, contacting a person privately if she feels their intent is not malicious. If a person makes what she thinks is a major misstep — like a health care worker saying they don’t wear masks outside of work, spreading misinformation about medications or stealing vaccination cards — Sparks said she will share that person’s offending TikTok with her followers, explaining why the person is wrong.
“It’s different for each case depending on how much information I can get on an individual and how egregious their error was online, because some aren’t as bad as others,” Sparks said.
Sparks says one of her first “Petty Journal Club with Sav” videos was the pharmacy technician, who claimed certain medications cause cancer.
When Sparks contacted the woman’s supervisor on Facebook, the supervisor was shocked, she said.
“She was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I’m ashamed. I can’t believe she’s posting that kind of information,’” Sparks recalled.
Karen North, a professor of digital social media at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said one reason viewers are drawn to this type of content is because it’s like a catharsis for their real-life frustration around rule breakers.
“We all know people who have done things that step over the lines in terms of what we think is right during a pandemic, whether it’s not wearing a mask or being anti-vaxxers or jumping the line to get a vaccine … to the extent we’re frustrated by people we know in our own social circles who are breaking our rules. We can now go online and not only watch someone break a rule but watch someone attack someone for breaking a rule,” North said.
After a public callout on her page, Sparks said, the subject will sometimes go private or delete their various social media accounts.
Sparks says she is meticulous about her work and knows she has a responsibility to do her due diligence first because her callouts could have hundreds of thousands of eyes on them and serious ramifications for the poster.