It’s hard to know what was going through Nancy Parrott’s head when the former ER technician from Oregon allegedly recorded the sounds made by a patient and decided to post a video to Twitter with the caption: “When a patient has poor coping skills.” But the backlash that followed was swift.
Within a month Salem Health, Parrott’s employer, put out a statement that it had completed an investigation launched “in response to the viral video and inappropriate behavior” and that “the individual at the center of this incident no longer works for Salem Health.”
While the original video has been removed, the “viral video” the statement referred to is likely a TikTok made by Savannah Sparks that has been viewed more than 8 million times. “Hey boo,” Sparks says before revealing that she had identified Parrott through her public Facebook profile and reached out to her employer about the video. And its conclusion: “You’re about to lose your job, Nancy.”
Sparks, 32, believes that if you’re bold enough to put it on the internet, she should be allowed to boldly respond.
Her online handle @rx0rcist is a play on the movie “The Exorcist” and the medical prescription abbreviation “Rx.”—alluding to her formal training and experience as a pharmacist. These days, however, she works as a board-certified lactation consultant-cum-internet sleuth, with over a million TikTok followers along for the ride. “Part-time activist, part-time science communicator” is how she described her online persona in a recent interview with The Daily Beast.
Among those who fight scientific misinformation online, Sparks’ approach is somewhat atypical. Sure, she’ll debunk claims about vaccines and refute shoddy science with peer-reviewed literature. But more often than not, she is digging up an adversary’s online history—or oftentimes a criminal record—and telling the masses why a so-called “expert” is not to be trusted.
It’s the combination of her scientific background and knack for sleuthing that have made her a formidable force on and off social media. Her investigations have exposed fake COVID-19 vaccine card businesses, booted a vaccine skeptic from Team USA Paintball, and revealed that a U.N.-sponsored initiative had been duped by a TikTok user misrepresenting his credentials and experience online. And along the way, she has used her platform to shine a light on the unsavory online behavior of users like Parrott.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many stars on social media rose up to combat scientific and medical misinformation, or reveal the skeletons that bad actors had in their closets. But Sparks has become a particular lightning rod for critics, some of whom disagree with her tactics and attitude, while others have animus for her that seems more personal. Though she publicly responds to some of the hate sassily, Sparks said she receives mountains of death threats, has had Child Protective Services called on her, and has been “swatted.”
Insider recently included her in an article about creators who “rage-bait” for views and followers, though Sparks denied engaging in the practice. Detractors say her tone is too combative toward her subjects and too gleeful when she achieves her desired outcome; her manner of investigation is too much like “doxxing”; her conservative upbringing should arouse suspicion; and her OnlyFans account shows that’s she’s sensationalizing content to make money.
Sparks countered that many of these concerns, especially comments about her tone and mannerisms, smack of sexism. To those who say she’s motivated to call others out in order to build up her own platform, she’ll argue that there are many ways to grow an audience that don’t engender death threats from strangers on the internet.
And what of those who call her an internet vigilante?
“I think people who don’t like accountability and don’t like change are quick to be dismissive of the type of work that I do by calling me one,” Sparks said. “But there has to be a solution for people who want justice.”
The Investigator’s Toolkit
Sparks spoke to The Daily Beast over a video call from her home in Mississippi, where she moved during the pandemic. Born and raised in South Carolina, she’s a warm, conversational mom who often sports a pair of metallic-framed glasses and a deep v-neck (this time in burgundy). Her eyebrows, which are always done, arch dramatically in a way that makes her resting face look naturally skeptical. It’s an expression that fits her exposé videos well.
The third in her family to become a pharmacist (following her mother, now retired, and sister), Sparks was brought up in a science-minded family and “hadn’t really considered any other profession.” She started pharmacy school when she was 20, graduated at 24, and began working as a retail pharmacist. She found parts of the job to be a rude awakening: Older male patients didn’t respect her authority, and she heard stories of some pharmacists—including her mother—being robbed at gunpoint for opiates or stimulants.
“My immediate reaction without even thinking about it was to stand up to the people who were spreading misinformation and answering questions from on-the-fence people with data.”
— Savannah Sparks
In 2018, when she was six months pregnant, Sparks was physically assaulted at her workplace by a colleague. Afterwards, with her blood pressure skyrocketing, she was told that there was not enough coverage for her to go home and that she had to continue working.
Even though she filed a complaint through her company’s human resources department, “it got swept under the rug,” Sparks said. The experience compounded the burnout she felt from the realities of working in retail pharmacy. She went on maternity leave and put in her resignation the day before she was scheduled to return.
She spent the next year caring for her daughter full-time and, like many, downloaded TikTok at the beginning of lockdown out of boredom. She played around with creating different kinds of content—hopping onto a couple of dance trends, and sharing videos about the meals she cooked for her toddler. Sparks experienced her first brush with virality when she posted a video using a trendy format to act out ending friendships with other moms after finding out they don’t support vaccinating their children.
“It was my first run and with both overwhelming support, and overwhelming backlash from the anti-vaxxers,” she said. “My immediate reaction without even thinking about it was to stand up to the people who were spreading misinformation and answering questions from on-the-fence people with data.”
From there, Sparks carved out a niche in medical mythbusting, particularly by combating promoters of misinformation during the initial vaccine rollout. Creators like James Koncar advertised businesses for purchasing forged vaccination cards; according to Axios, Sparks called him out in March 2021, revealing social media posts where he used misogynistic and racist language. Six hours after her post went live, Koncar’s employer announced that he had been fired.
Emily Dreyfuss, the senior managing editor at the Harvard Shorenstein Center, told The Daily Beast that Sparks’ shift in fighting medical misinformation mirrors how conflict on the internet has evolved.
“‘Someone is wrong on the internet’ has morphed into, ‘Someone is wrong on the internet, let’s call their boss and get them fired.’ It’s a much more personal, retaliatory, and pointed way of being on the internet,” Dreyfuss said.
Figuring out the identities of people who peddled and posted about fake vaccine cards wasn’t rocket science, Sparks said. For one thing, the cards often displayed holders’ full names and birthdates. She’d watch other videos by these creators, which occasionally showed clues like medical scrubs and hospital name tags.
Over time, Sparks has expanded her digital toolkit, learning how to file Freedom of Information Act requests for government records and parsing through court documents for information on some of her subjects. (“I never filed a FOIA prior to being on social media,” she said. I didn’t even know what that was until somebody did it to me to try and get my address from my pharmacy license.”)
“Creators like her might be doing a service. I think that they’re a reflection of the shape of the media ecosystem right now.”
— Emily Dreyfuss, Harvard Shorenstein Center
She’s also sharpened her ability to notice the finer details. In the case of the creator who misrepresented himself as a esteemed field epidemiologist, Sparks noticed tassels in the background of a video but no diploma, and outdoor shots that seemed to locate him in a different state than where he purported to live.
Dreyfuss, a longtime journalist who’s worked as a writer and editor for outlets like CNET and WIRED, said that she’s seeing a growing awareness of these kinds of journalistic research techniques.
“Journalistic reporting techniques are and always have been available to anyone,” she said. “Now with social media, there’s this sense that people can become their own [open-source intelligence] investigators.”
Dreyfuss added that one of the things that may draw people to Sparks is transparency. Journalists present revelations, but often omit how they got there. But viewers can trace exactly how Sparks came to her conclusions, because they’re there for the ride.
“Creators like her might be doing a service,” she said. “I think that they’re a reflection of the shape of the media ecosystem right now, and a recognition that readers and the public don’t necessarily draw the line between the individual creator versus a news organization anymore.”
Sparks isn’t exactly beloved for her no-holds-barred, brash persona. Her videos are often stitched by her critics, and she even has an entire subreddit dedicated to “snark” for her.
Jonathan Torres-Herera, a TikTok creator who hosts an online social commentary show, derisively calls Sparks and other creators members of a TikTok “Justice League.” He toldThe Daily Beast he thinks these creators use their platforms recklessly to publicly shame people who are not public figures.
“It’s a dog whistle.”
— Jonathan Torres-Herera
More perniciously, he added, the public details of these “Justice League” investigations encourage followers to start harassing the subjects and threaten them with violence.
“It’s a dog whistle,” said Torres-Herera.
After posting a video criticizing Sparks and two other popular creators, Torres-Herera said he’s experienced some of this same harassment. “The point of my videos is to hold them accountable, to make sure that they’re also judged by the same set of rules that they judge others,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve gotten death threats, but I’ve gotten pretty close to that.”
Sparks said that she has never condoned acts of violence or sending death threats. Accusations of hypocrisy do not phase her: “I am held to an impossible standard,” she said. Others, who dig up her past, point to the fact that she voted for Donald Trump in 2016. She admitted it’s true, though said that’s not where her values stand today.
“For me, there has to be a solution for all of the victims in these instances, especially because our government’s not really doing anything about it, and the police sure as hell aren’t doing anything positive about it.”
— Savannah Sparks
“If that is what people want to use to negate the work that I’ve done, they are free to do that,” Sparks said. “I am going to focus on more important things, like putting shitty people in jail.” Some subjects of her investigations are already awaiting trial for crimes like impersonating a medical provider and domestic violence.
That’s a pretty bold statement—and a sign of where Sparks sees her activities moving into. And it aligns with her experiences online thus far: Forming friendships, she said, wasn’t the point, while making enemies was practically guaranteed.
“For me, there has to be a solution for all of the victims in these instances, especially because our government’s not really doing anything about it, and the police sure as hell aren’t doing anything positive about it,” Sparks said. “I think that’s why a lot of people gravitate towards content like mine. How do we get justice for these people when nobody else seems to care?”