“At this point, I’m confident in saying I’ve done as much research on COVID Anti-vaxxers as anyone in the world. There’s one attribute that every single one of them share. They are all idiots.”
That’s a tweet by the anonymous proprietor of Sorryantivaxxer.com, posted on Sept 15. The website is indeed likely the most comprehensive repository of one type of now-familiar COVID story: the one where someone who criticized the vaccine ends up dead or hospitalized due to the virus (it’s a story news outlets like The Daily Beast have published). And these stories appear to have plenty of readers: According to the site’s own counters, each post earns views numbering in the tens of thousands and comments in the hundreds—respectable traffic numbers for an independent site.
First and last names, and faces of the deceased, are prominent on the site, as is editorializing from the proprietor, who is especially hard on people with goatees, an established cultural signifier for working-class conservatism. “Unvaccinated with a goatee like that... he didn’t stand a chance,” reads a post about one person who appears to have died on Sept. 21 and won’t be named here.
There’s no link to a news article and the information is sourced from the individual’s old social-media posts, along with the posts of friends. It features the deceased’s dismissive jokes and antagonistic quips online about the safe and effective vaccine and its advocates, including a right-wing fever dream in which Anthony Fauci instructs obliging members of the public to wear dildos on their heads. Comments number in the hundreds and, of course, readers add dildo quips of their own.
Posts on the site are coming in at a furious rate. The average number of daily coronavirus deaths in America has spiked back above 2,000 and the vast majority involve people who are not vaccinated. On this particular unvaxxed death repository, the newest deaths added are usually very recent, with each case having occurred within the last 48 hours or so. The effect is a relentless parade of dead faces, usually shown in happier moments, arms around loved ones, smiling from beyond the grave.
But reveling in this apparently irresistible daily fact of vaccine-era life is not confined to one site. And even as cataloging the death of those without shots risks becoming a major pastime among the enthusiastically masked and vaxxed, health experts say it may be doing more harm than good.
“We believe that the images and stories that shock us will shock others as well, but they often don’t have the emotional impact we expect them to have,” said Peter Ditto, whose lab at the University of California Irvine studies “hot cognition,” or judgment about topics people are passionate about.
The HermanCainAward community on Reddit, which boasts 300,000 members, is a similar archive with a slightly more varied selection of stories. The name is a reference to businessman and prominent Republican Herman Cain, who died of COVID last year—when vaccines weren’t yet available—after not wearing a mask for at least part of a now-notorious Trump rally in Oklahoma. Herman Cain Award recipients can be anti-maskers, vaccine skeptics, or anyone generally dismissive of the seriousness of COVID, and are usually presented on Reddit by way of Facebook screen grabs.
Unlike at Sorryantivaxxer, most of their last names are obscured.
Another subreddit, COVIDAteMyFace, is a much more meme-brained and chaotic feed of similar stories—mostly snarkily worded links to news websites and screen grabs of questionable Facebook posts and tweets—with a respectable membership of 30,000. The community’s “About” section says the moderators welcome posts about “suicide by covid.”
Clearly there’s a lot of demand for this content right now. But is there a point to it?
"The goal is to scare the bejeezus out of people on the fence about getting vaccinated against COVID,” the proprietor of SorryAntivaxxer.com told The Daily Beast via an anonymized email service, citing the potential for threats from anti-vaxxers.
The site maven told us they’re in their fifties, based in California, and that they work in the software-as-a-service industry.
“The inspiration to do this came from the old FuckedCompany.com website which exposed Start-ups that were falling apart because of crappy business models but hiding their weaknesses. It really helped shake out the industry for a while and ultimately made the startup scene healthier,” they said.
The original name of the website was “FuckedAntivaxxer.com,” but they changed the name “to cool down the incendiary comments I’ve been getting,” one of their tweets noted.
The psychologist Noel Brewer researches health behavior at University of North Carolina, and his published body of research into how people make health decisions is formidable. For instance, he conducted a large clinical trial demonstrating that scary pictures on cigarette packs successfully encourage smoking cessation.
But according to Brewer, the tactic on display in these unvaxxed death encyclopedia communities “may not be as on target as they think it is.”
Just before the pandemic, back in 2018, a meta-analysis of 16 papers by researchers in the U.K. and Canada led by Joanne Parsons of the University of Manitoba found no good link between fear-based tactics and vaccine uptake and noted that the issue was in dire need of further study.
“The problem is, for vaccination, fear communication doesn’t seem to work,” Brewer told The Daily Beast.
There might also be some sort of block when it comes to scaring people about COVID in general.
“Shock persuasion” about the dangers of COVID isn’t very effective, noted an article in Scientific American co-written by Ditto, the UC Irvine psychologist. In an email, Ditto told The Daily Beast sites devoted to effectively cataloguing dead anti-vaxxers are “using a strategy that is deeply intuitive, but of questionable effectiveness.”
Among other things, he and his colleagues point to “empathy gaps” psychologists have identified over the years when people attempt to persuade others to make good health decisions.
While the proprietor of the SorryAntiVaxxer site has called all of these people “idiots,” who all must be prodded with fear—which experts say won’t work—they also point to nuances in their approach. In contrast to the scare tactics described in the Scientific American article, they’re not using “ghoulish” photos of patients near death, they said, and they’re also making an appeal to their bereaved families. They want fence-sitters to “see others who are saying and thinking the same things they are, but who have suffered horribly and left their families to pick up the pieces.”
If a member of said family reaches out to the site, the proprietor told The Daily Beast, “I will remove their family members if 1) They show me that they have been vaccinated [and] 2) Are willing to make a public statement encouraging others to get vaccinated.”
Only two such family members had reached out, they added, and one had apparently complied with the ultimatum, a claim The Daily Beast was unable to independently confirm.
Unlike fear appeals, such a public statement might actually be useful in the context of vaccine persuasion, according to Brewer. “Those people’s voices are more likely to be powerful,” he said. “When you’re hearing from one of your own, it can sway your opinion.”
But the site, and its subreddit cousins, might have a purpose unrelated to persuasion: the joy of simply reading these tragic stories.
“People probably do experience joy in what is called justice-based schadenfreude, so as it applies to COVID, people could be getting enjoyment from seeing anti-vaxxers have justice served against them,” Temple University psychologist Alison Baren, who studies schadenfreude, told The Daily Beast.
“A lack of empathy makes it easier to experience schadenfreude,” she added. “If you don’t empathize with someone because they’re getting what they deserve, that could bring on schadenfreude.”
“I suspect that mixed in with the genuine desire to persuade, there is a little smugness as well,” Ditto agreed. When vaccinated, pro-mask readers laugh at these stories, it’s because “it may be hard not to see [these deaths] as some kind of karmic justification for the sacrifices they have made to stay healthy.”
Gorging on the same story over and over may also, Ditto continued, be a way to feel reassured about the wisdom of one’s own past decisions. Each story consumed makes mask-wearing and vaccination seem more and more like good ideas. It is, as Ditto explained, “only human to want to believe you made the right choice in a difficult situation.”
But this has the potential to backfire, according to Fordham University philosophy professor Nathan Ballantyne, a scholar of decision-making amid uncertainty who has worked with Ditto. The philosopher proposed a thought experiment in which a website creator wishes to persuade someone to get vaccinated but readers come to think there’s something “a little mean-spirited, cruel, or creepy in posting these photos.”
These bad feelings could, Ballantyne said, feed into “distrust and suspicion toward the website itself.”
“You start to think: Are these cases even real? What if these photos and stories are fake? Why should I trust someone who’s not compassionate toward sick people?” Ballantyne said.
Along with improved vaccine availability, empathy and compassion seem to be the operative tools if the mission to persuade vaccine fence-sitters is ever going to succeed.
Plenty of people report being dead-set on refusing the vaccine, and often, their reasons aren’t exactly rooted in fact. For instance, an estimated 1.1 million vaccine-hesitant Americans, based on a government survey, are concerned about the cost of the vaccine, which costs $0.
But one poll found that 14 percent of the U.S. population was still unsure about the shot as of last month.
Vaccinated people should, it seems, regard people who haven’t gotten vaccinated as at least potentially normal, and perhaps genuinely worried about having a needle full of liquid injected into their body.
And maybe—maybe—in need of a message that simply strikes the right tone. The Redditors of HermanCainAward, for their part, shower users with digital badges if they post about “declining” their award, meaning getting vaccinated. These scattered examples show that users are at least interested in using a carrot approach, rather than the stick.
On that note, according to Brewer, we shouldn’t call most of them “anti-vaxxers” unless they’re activists, or they self-apply the term—though denying being an “anti-vaxxer” does seem to be a trademark of coronavirus conspiracy theorists.
“Americans who just aren’t sure about vaccination are common,” Brewer said, “and we should just call them that: ‘people who aren’t sure about vaccination.’”
In the meantime, the SorryAntivaxxer webmaster is defiant in the face of criticism.
“Is this site an outrage? You’re damn right it is,” they wrote, adding, “It should outrage every single person in America.”
“You want to shut down this site? Take away the supply of dead or dying anti-vaxxers. Until then, I’ll keep posting them everyday.”