What do all these stories of vaccine denial deaths do to our sense of empathy?
After Alexis Haug got the last raspy-voiced call from her unvaccinated, covid-stricken 51-year-old father, after he was intubated, after she had driven eight hours, alone, to Jasper, Ala., to say her final goodbye to him in the hospital, after she had him cremated and split his ashes between her stepmother and three distraught sisters - that was when she found out what people were saying about him on the internet.
"Anti-vax - STUPID hill to die on. He died for nothing," wrote one commenter.
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"They get what they deserve," wrote another.
Those were some of the milder ones.
A website called Sorry Antivaxxer, which catalogues the covid-19 deaths of people who had publicly posted their rejection of the vaccine, had found out about Haug's father, Ron Munoz. It posted his photo, along with images from his Facebook page where he had shared anti-vaccine, anti-government memes. Commenters from Sorry Antivaxxer then posted images from the Facebook profile of Munoz's widow and also left comments about vaccination on her page.
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Haug's sister had sent her the site while she was on her lunch break at work last week, and she began to scroll through the unsympathetic things that strangers on the internet were saying about her father, not yet three weeks gone.
"By the time I came back to do my job, I was bawling," she said. She had to leave work for the rest of the day. One of her younger sisters posted a comment: "This is my dad. He was a very intelligent individual and very well loved. We as a family should be able to grieve without adults harassing/bullying us during this time."
Another commenter's response took Haug's breath away. They wrote to her sister: "I can't wait to read about you on here."
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For the past two months, the internet has been a graveyard of stories about unvaccinated deaths, which make up the majority of the pandemic's current victims. News outlets, The Washington Post included, track down cautionary tales - the new mother who got to hold her baby only once, the husband and wife who died two weeks apart, the young and healthy athlete struck down in his prime, the autistic 28-year-old - and record their family's sorrow. The narrative is even more potent when the victim expresses a dying wish for others to get vaccinated, and regrets their decision not to.
"One thing that psychologists know about persuasion is that it doesn't operate through statistics and evidence. It operates through emotion. When you give people an identifiable victim, as opposed to kind of abstract aggregate statistics about harm, then that's compelling," says Piercarlo Valdesolo, a visiting associate professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., who studies moral judgment. He recalls the adage: "One death is a tragedy and a million are a statistic."
The problem is that there are now, well, not a million, but tens of thousands of deaths just like these, from the last two months alone. Because of a toxic stew of political hostility and distrust, many of the unvaccinated die unrepentant. And the vaccinated are fed up.
Compassion fatigue, one of the pandemic's buzzwords from earlier this summer, is passive: It's an exhaustion, especially among health care workers, with the level of death and hostility, resulting in complete apathy. But a subset of the fatigued have lapsed into schadenfreude, that apt German psychological term, which is active: It's invested in another person's pain or loss as an outcome. It's the pleasure in another person's misfortune. It's sites like Sorry Antivaxxer, or the Twitter account Covidiot Deaths, or the Reddit forum called the Herman Cain Award, named for the former Republican presidential candidate who died of covid in July 2020.
These feelings were predictable and inevitable. Our political and epidemiological circumstances have created the "perfect cocktail for schadenfreude," says Valdesolo. It pops up in the presence of three conditions.
First, "it's associated with in-group/out-group psychology," he says. "When it comes to vaccination, that's a political identity. So this issue has been associated with this already vitriolic and hostile intergroup conflict."
Second, "it needs to feel like the sufferer has done something harmful and that they deserve it," Valdesolo says. "People who are vaccinated interpret the vaccine as something you do not only for yourself but to protect others, and not taking it actively harms other people. And when you've got an out-group member who is harming other people, perhaps people in your own group, now you're prone to think, 'Okay, this person deserves it.'"
And finally, "the third is the ability to have behaved otherwise or perceived the agency here. And it seems like the person who hasn't taken the vaccine could have easily done so. They had the ability to choose otherwise. And any time we think someone's got that, then we feel like they're more responsible for their bad choice."
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You won't find stories of vaccine regret on the Herman Cain Awards. The subreddit has standards for what makes a "winner": The victim must have made public declarations against vaccination or masking (private Facebook posts do not count). The victim must have been admitted to a hospital and received a covid diagnosis. "Suffering the consequences of believing covid misinformation is not sufficient to merit a nomination / award. Propagation of covid misinformation, or public declaration of being anti-vaxx / anti mask is necessary," according to the rules. "Award is granted upon the nominee's release from their Earthly shackles." (Asked for comment, Cain's daughter, Melanie Cain Gallo, replied in an email: "I had not heard about this and it has no effect on our family because that group is insignificant and irrelevant.")
The founder and two moderators of the Herman Cain Awards spoke to The Post on the condition that only their first names be used because they have received threats from Reddit users.
When he first discovered the subreddit, moderator Jon "felt bad that I didn't feel bad," says the 45-year-old computer programmer from San Diego. "It's like, wow, you're suffering the consequences of your actions."
But as he's spent more time on the site, scrolling through death after death, he has come to view more of the awardees as victims of misinformation. "It's hard. It hasn't jaded me. I'm more compassionate."
They do this because "we really care," says Michelle, 43, a health care worker from Philadelphia who also serves as moderator. "We're not just dancing on graves."
The subreddit was founded last year by Bob, 53, an academic researcher who lives near Los Angeles, but it didn't attract much attention until this summer. Since then, it has grown rapidly: There are more than 350,000 members, and approximately 150 posts, most of them awardees, go up every day.
Initially, Bob says, the posts were about public figures for whom there has been no shortage of schadenfreude, including former president Donald Trump's family, which was stricken with the virus last fall. Public figures have generally been considered fair game for criticism, from Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's diagnosis last week to "The Daily Show's" segment on the satirical "Pandemmy" awards, complete with an "In Ironic Memoriam" montage of several conservative radio hosts who died of covid this summer.
But the subreddit is more often turning its attention to the deaths of regular people on Facebook who weren't in any position of power, which has given Bob mixed feelings about his creation.
"I feel like we're punching down," he says. "I found it distasteful. But I also, at the same time, thought, 'Who am I to say what should or shouldn't be posted on this subreddit?' "
The moderators often say they look forward to the day the Herman Cain Awards no longer exist, which could happen in two ways: One is that more people get vaccinated and the country achieves herd immunity. The other is that the virus burns through the candidate pool and kills all the remaining nominees.
He has considered leaving the subreddit.
"It is a toxic environment in a lot of ways," he says. He had recently instituted some new rules - among them, banning screen images that are purely political and not related to covid - and had been shouted down by the subreddit's own subscribers, some of whom wanted the freedom to post whatever they wanted. "I spent three hours on it last night, and by the end of it, I had become toxic, and kind of a jerk in my replies to jerks, which is not typically something I would do."
The site has its share of bad apples. But many of the people who are drawn to it are hurting, too. Greg, a 54-year-old call-center worker from Indianapolis, found himself attracted to the Herman Cain Awards a year after his mother died of covid. Because she caught the virus last summer, she never had a chance to get vaccinated. Greg, who only agreed to share his first name because he fears being doxed on Reddit, has been dismayed to see people squander the chance his mother never got. He said that looking at the site felt like "therapy, in a way."
"It's a little bit dark," he says, but "it has helped me cope, in that there's still a lot of anger."
Does stewing in schadenfreude make that anger go away or does it just exacerbate it?
"That's probably a great question for a therapist," he says.
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Two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. The sites can be ghastly places for trolls to act their cruelest, and they can also do a little bit of good by motivating a subset of their audience to get the jab.
Last month, HCA moderator Michelle began noticing people posting pictures of their freshly minted vaccination cards, in what the subreddit's lingo has deemed "IPAs" - "Immunized to Prevent Award." People who posted them often told stories about how they were hesitant to get vaccinated but didn't want to end up as another face on the site.
"I knew as soon as I saw them, I wanted to foster and herald them and help them grow and spread vaccine awareness," she says. "It was like a silver lining on what they've been posting." As of last week, more than 64 people have attributed their vaccination to the Herman Cain Awards.
Stories about unvaccinated deaths have served a similar purpose, perhaps with even greater reach. After Danielle Peterson's husband, Chris, died of covid in late August, she and her daughters appeared in a segment on the local news in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where they live. Danielle was vaccinated because she works in health care, but Chris was not - "He's a very proud, hardheaded conservative," Danielle says.
The healthy 35-year-old had been a sports nut who never missed one of his daughters' cheer competitions. Originally from the D.C. area, he was a die-hard Capitals fan.
In the TV segment, Peterson pleaded with viewers to get vaccinated. It worked. She says hundreds of people have messaged her on Instagram to tell her they've gotten their shots.
"They'll send me their vax card and say, I'm vaccinated because of Chris. I was against the vaccine and it's made me go get vaccinated," she says.
But those uplifting messages were interspersed with nasty ones.
"I've had people private message me on Instagram and say I'm using his story for fame," she said. After she posted a GoFundMe to request help for funeral expenses, "They were like, you wouldn't even need to be collecting money if your husband took the free vaccine, and now you're asking other people to pay for his irresponsibility."
But Chris Peterson didn't share anti-covid memes on his Facebook page. Instead, it's filled with tributes to his wife and daughters. Some photos even show him wearing a mask. Nevertheless, six weeks after his death, he appeared on the Twitter account Covidiot Deaths, which announced that it had learned via Facebook that Chris's parents, too, had succumbed to covid. Danielle Peterson confirmed their deaths, but had not been aware of the tweet until a reporter brought it to her attention. Knowing that a stranger had been monitoring her family's Facebook pages compounded her grief.
"This isn't a soap opera, this is real life," she says. "These people need to realize that some of these families' kids are affected, they have social media accounts."
Alexis Haug believes that one of her stepmother's "so-called friends" had made screen images of her father's posts and sent them to Sorry Antivaxxer. Unlike the Herman Cain Awards, the site doesn't blur out victims' names. When her sister began commenting on Sorry Antivaxxer, the site took the comments down, but later put them back online. (A man who says he is Sorry Antivaxxer's founder was willing to speak to The Post, but because he has received the same kind of threats as the Herman Cain Award moderators, he wouldn't reveal his full name to a reporter, which doesn't meet standards for quoting him anonymously.)
"I respect that these people have opinions," Haug says. "But at the same time, we literally just lost him, like not even three weeks ago. We are going through the stages right now, and some of us have small children and we're terrified to even leave the house." Because strangers have been bombarding the family's Facebook pages, Haug fears that people will look up their addresses. Sorry Antivaxxer commenters have also posted about attempts to get the family's GoFundMe taken down.
Despite her father's death, Haug says she is still undecided about getting vaccinated: "For now, I just want to grieve and be in this moment." She wants to remember Munoz as the handsome dad who coached her childhood basketball team and hosted big bonfires for all the neighborhood kids. She doesn't want to feel the way the website has made her feel.
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