American Internet users pin down dead Covid-19 antivaccines
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In July 2020, former U.S. Republican primary candidate Herman Cain died of Covid-19. What many Internet users have remembered, perhaps wrongly, is that Mr. Cain had shown up to Donald Trump’s meeting a few days earlier without a mask and that he had published several tweets in which he seemed to minimize their importance.
For a whole part of the country, his case has thus become an example not to be reproduced. So much so that the name of the former politician is now associated with a “prize” given on a “subreddit” (a thematic sub-part of the Reddit Internet forum) to anyone who has publicly expressed their opposition to being vaccinated, wear a mask or take Covid-19 seriously, before being admitted to hospital and dying after being infected with SARS-CoV-2. HermanCainAward (HCA) has brought together nearly 400,000 people since its inception in October 2020, and nearly a million unique visitors come there every day, according to its moderators.
In its early days, HCA was primarily fueled by articles found in the press. “The subreddit was a way to identify all these public figures who have made a choice and are suffering the consequences”, summarizes Jon, one of the moderators, who situates the forum in this part of the rather cynical Internet culture marked by the Darwin Awards, distinction attributed to the dead beasts, and which we also find in the Deathlist, a game which consists to draw up a list of fifty people who will die in the next year.
But in recent months, it is directly on a Facebook page of victims of Covid-19 that the examples have been drawn. Publication after publication, the pattern invariably repeats itself: one person (anonymized to respect Reddit rules) says all the bad things they think about vaccines, masks, or sometimes even doubts the existence of the pandemic. Often the memes (humorous diversions) used to illustrate mistrust of the vaccine are the same. The following screenshot tells us that the person has just fallen ill, and sometimes that the illness does not really give them a break. Calls to pray for help may follow, before a loved one finally announces the death.
“We don’t need to make more comments, explains Jon to World. When you see a series of seven or eight screenshots that show how these ideas make people not get vaccinated, before they get sick and die from it, that’s all on its own. “
“Our patience has limits”
Especially when these cases are repeated ad nauseam. According to statistics provided by the moderators of the subreddit, 2,393 people were nominated for a Herman Cain award (after their posts, they ended up in hospital) and 2,515 were “awarded the award” (they died from Covid- 19).
HCA is far from the only place to collect these stories. Another subreddit, CovidAteMyFace (35,000 subscribers), does the same. Several Twitter accounts – some of which have since been suspended – feed similar content. The SorryAntiVaxxer website is multiplying the articles in which the first names, surnames and ages of dozens of people hospitalized or who have succumbed to the consequences of the disease are relayed while they had campaigned against vaccination on social networks. Each entry is viewed tens of thousands of times.
“It’s repetitive. I thought it would slow down over time, but it’s still the same scenario, Jon remarks. Every day there are new unpublished contributions. Every twenty minutes, we have a new example. In the United States, it is a pandemic of unvaccinated people. “
“We have been patient, but our patience has limits”, warned Joe Biden
Joe Biden used the same formula in September. The American president said to himself “Frustrated”, like many, by the 80 million Americans who then still refused the vaccine, “Safe, efficient and free”. He had also mentioned the stories reported in the press of these unvaccinated people “On their deathbed”. “We have been patient, but our patience has limits”, he then warned, as if he felt a certain anger growing in a population that does not understand the distrust of the vaccine.
This is probably where the success of all these sites lies. “I think 90% of the people who come to my site do so for the S sidechadenfreude “, explains the person behind SorryAntiVaxxer, and who wishes to remain anonymous, with this German word expressing the pleasure found in the misfortune of others. “We are not only there for the Schadenfreude, but there is a satisfying side ”, Might_Aware, one of the moderators of HermanCainAward, confirmed in response to a comment a few weeks ago. “We’re all frustrated, and it’s a pretty common reaction to be cynical about their deaths”, she confirms to World, by qualifying that the intention “Is not to speak ill” of these people.
Psychologists, contacted by the American magazine Salon, explain that this Schadenfreude can be therapeutic, even cathartic, particularly in times of crisis, and that the emotions are often more complex than what the Internet can suggest: “We can both be happy that these people fall ill, while not wishing them no harm”, confirms one of these health professionals.
Beyond these instinctive reactions, some also use these platforms for political purposes. “My goal is for this site to become a weapon that someone can lean on, says the person behind SorryAntiVaxxer. It’s much more efficient than showing CDC numbers [le centre américain de contrôle des maladies]. “
However, it is not obvious that these techniques can convince many people. “These are not situations where anti-vaccines learn their lesson, get vaccinated and run away”, argued Slate a few weeks ago. Because as noted by a psychologist contacted by The Daily Beast, try to convince people to get vaccinated by playing on fear “May seem deeply intuitive, but the efficiency is not really there”. The American site is based on a meta-analysis of sixteen scientific articles. Published in 2018, it shows that there is no link between fear-based tactics and vaccine use. “For vaccination, the communication of terror does not seem to work”, summarizes the psychologist.
Despite these warnings, they continue to partly justify their long hours spent moderating speeches by ultimately rather anecdotal feedback. The person behind SorryAntiVaxxer claims to have received several emails and messages on Twitter where people credited his site for having convinced some of their relatives to get vaccinated.
On HermanCainAward, another award (the IPA) is now given to people who report having received their first dose. They are now 71 to wear it, and for Might_Aware, it is a sign of hope: “The subreddit was not created for this purpose, but over time it has become one of its main purposes. These messages come from all over the world. We recently received a vaccination certificate from a couple in Rio, Brazil ”, details the one that opened a subreddit devoted only to these messages. Unfortunately, the numbers are still far from reaching those of the Herman Cain trophies. In the last twenty-four hours, for 21 new deaths announced on the subreddit, only three people received a first dose.
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