In April, Nicholas was delighted to have received Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, the “status vaccine,” which was also the vaccine for “hot people” and the vaccine that allowed a person to be admitted without condition to the “Pfizer Gang”. He created a new forum on Reddit – r / pfizergang, obviously – where people like him could engage in celebrations, memes, and funny jokes about Pfizer being better than Moderna, but not for making jokes. containing misinformation, because Moderna is actually pretty good too, and everyone should get the shot. There was not to be any anti-vaccine talk, and why would there be?
At the time, I had just had my first photo taken of Pfizer, and then I wrote that my trip to CVS had been “as exciting as a prom.” I liked Pfizer’s jokes on TikTok and Twitter and in my group chats; on Reddit, as Nicholas wanted, people posted memes and they celebrated. It was an incredible spring: vaccine use was on the rise, and the president was suggesting that there was a perfect and normal summer. “It looked like things were finally going to work out,” Nicholas told me. âNot that we can treat COVID as a joke, but we could be lighter about it. “
But in fact: in July, hearts were getting heavy again. The Delta variant was tearing apart an unvaccinated population that still numbered in the tens of millions, many of whom continued to refuse a readily available vaccine. Resentment had built up around the vaccine fracture; there was frustration on the part of the White House and widespread unease about the “hot summer vax” which now looked like something else.
As the mood grew nationwide, the enjoyment of r / pfizergang, too, collapsed. Things got so badly among the Vaxxed elite, in fact, that on July 26, Nicholas felt he had no choice but to shut down his forum. “I wanted to create social pressure where it was like, These people from Pfizer Gang seem to be having a lot of fun“, he said, and then that pleasure would make other people get vaccinated.” That was the point. And when that failed, I failed.
When I contacted Nicholas this week, he asked me to leave his last name out of this story to prevent people from associating his Reddit account with his professional life. But he also gave a second reason for the request: remorse. âI’m really worried that there might have been people who ultimately didn’t get the vaccine because of this subreddit,â he said. “I already have to, like, accept this.”
Although the r / pfizergang subreddit was created to joke and party, it quickly became a place for people who received the Pfizer vaccine to discuss the side effects they experienced. At first, said Nicholas, it was good. He was happy to see that people found the forum a useful place for pity and comfort. But even just a month into the life of the forum, the posts were getting stranger and stranger. Many of these involved side effects that would not have manifested themselves until weeks after receiving the vaccine, or those that appeared to have been symptoms of other problems, such as anxiety and hyperattention. Some seemed entirely wrong.
âI had diarrhea for 2 MONTHS after my first dose! One person wrote at the end of May. (Nicholas gave me access to the private, archived version of the forum so I could read the posts myself.) On my own, âanother wrote a few days later. “I had tons of horrible nightmares.” One person said he started âburping so badlyâ five days after receiving the injection; another said they didn’t have any side effects until nine days later, when they woke up exhausted, but couldn’t tell if it was from the vaccine or from their period. “Does anyone have the sensation of having a hairball in their throat?” Someone asked. “Does anyone have testicular pain?” “
Nicholas has tried to level the tone of the forum by offering encouraging comments, but to no avail. âAsk yourself the following before posting about potential symptoms here,â he suggested on July 5. “Am I only noticing this symptom because I am now hyper aware of my own body?” Is this what I notice in the normal functioning of my body or perhaps a symptom of another common disease? Are my symptoms significantly different from the symptoms found on the FDA website? He admitted he wasn’t a doctor – offline he’s a graduate student in astrophysics – but he still asked people to ask if they could relate unrelated events and draw inappropriate conclusions. âAfter posting this, there was even Following messages about really weird symptoms, âhe said.
There were around 350 active users on his forum at that time, but Nicholas knew most people on Reddit don’t even post. A popular estimate from folklore states that over 90% of the site’s users are just prowling around and reading other people’s conversations. bizarre side effects, nine others felt the same but didn’t say so. On July 21, he published another article urging people to look at the list of common side effects and try to remember that a lot of people don’t experience any side effects and, also, please get vaccinated. Meanwhile, a newcomer had joined the subreddit and started linking to “terribly sourced and really questionable” articles on vaccine safety. Although Nicholas banned this person after just a few messages, it was too late. âAt this point the conversation started to get a little more conspiratorial,â he said. Another commentator started complaining about how Nicholas was suppressing a serious conversation, and then when Nicholas deleted that person’s comments, the same accusations got worse.
Nicholas closed the forum after giving a six hour warning. If you visit the page now, it only displays a farewell message: “get vaccinated, we love you”.
âI’m never going to try an online pro-vaccine movement again, because I can see it just doesn’t work,â Nicholas told me.
It might be a bit histrionic, but it’s not beyond reason. The online anti-vaccine movement is known to be coordinated and persistent, and for derailing a productive conversation with a determination that pro-vaccine social media users likely cannot share. And a series of events similar to those that derailed r / pfizergang appear to be unfolding in the much larger r / CovidVaccinated Reddit forum: scrolling through its first posts tagged with PfizerThere are reports of those who experienced mild or no side effects at all, and who felt exuberant about being able to get the vaccine after months of waiting. Now there is less of that and more hassle. “I want to get the shot on Friday, but some of you here are freaking me out with long term side effects and heart problems,” one commenter wrote last week, under the headline “I shouldn’t have started. read the articles here “. This may have less to do with coordinated disinformation campaigns than with the fundamental dynamics of vaccine demand: the people who were most excited to get the vaccine, and therefore the most likely to post on the vaccine. these forums in April and May, are the least likely to focus on the possibility of burping or hairball attacks or testicular pain induced by the vaccine. When these people went on with their lives, the boards were left to those who had more qualms.
It was difficult to tell on r / pfizergang where exactly those who had doubts came from. Emily Irish, an 18-year-old Reddit user who received her first injection of Pfizer in late April, posted on the r / pfizergang forum a few days later asking if anyone else had lost their voice after receiving the vaccine. (Irish uses they or they/them pronouns.) To me, that was one of the strangest questions, and at first I wondered if it was sincere. But in an email, Irish told me that they were totally serious and that their voice had not returned for a week. The Irish first Google their question and saw no useful results, so they went to Reddit as a last resort. “I really hope no one thought I was anti-vax because I was given both doses of the vaccine on purpose,” Irish told me. “Although the side effects really suck, I’m glad I got it.”
Do intentions matter if the end result is still a digital book of horror stories about a safe and necessary public health intervention? In the end, r / pfizergang started to look less like a community and more like a litany of product reviews, as if good-humored wrangling over the best brand of vaccine had caused people to consider their Pfizer injections. like things they bought from Amazon. .
Of course, most product reviews don’t have those kinds of issues. Over time, Nicholas realized that anyone new to his subreddit would only see reviews of the strangest and least common vaccine reactions, presented without context. âScience says COVID is infinitely worse than these side effects,â he said, a little bitterly. âBut no one who dies of COVID is going to give you a testimonial. “
Holding Nicholas personally responsible for anyone’s decision not to get the vaccine would be unfair. He was only trying to do something fun; he didn’t want to be the person behind another predictable internet mess. Still, he says he learned something from the experience. âI won’t say I was completely negligent, but I didn’t check every post every day,â he told me. âI realized that without extraordinarily careful and thorough moderation, any public conversation on the Internet about vaccines would become anti-vaccine. “