For most of the pandemic, Sarah Ostrowski went to her full-time gas station job in Indiana, accepting the risk of being unvaccinated. Many times a day she interacted with customers and even cleaned up the public bathroom with no protection beyond her mask.
Ostrowski doesn’t believe Covid-19 is a hoax. She takes it seriously. But she had reasons for not getting the shot.
She was concerned about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine causing blood clots, as had been reported in a few recipients. She was hesitant about the mRNA technology used to develop the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. She also worried about potential side effects forcing her to take time off work.
And then there were her parents, who were constantly spouting anti-vaccine rhetoric, warning her that she would die if she got the shot.
“You care about what your parents think of you and whether or not they think that you’re making a good decision or the right decision,” Ostrowski said. “It’s almost like a groupthink kind of thing. Even though you know the answer is wrong you’re still going to say it just to fit in or conform.”
That all changed last month. Ostrowski, who regularly scrolls through her feed on social media site Reddit, stumbled upon the forum r/HermanCainAward. It’s a grim section of the app dedicated to showing visitors the real-life consequences of being unvaccinated and catching the coronavirus.
Reddit users upload screenshots multiple times a day of people who previously posted anti-vaccine comments and content on Facebook only to end up getting sick with Covid-19 before dying. The name of the subreddit refers to former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who died from Covid-19 in July 2020, after refusing to wear a mask and attending a Donald Trump re-election campaign event.
“Nominees have made public declaration of their anti-mask, anti-vax, or Covid-hoax views, followed by admission to hospital for Covid,” the page description reads. “The Award is granted upon the nominee’s release from their Earthly shackles.”
Since the subreddit’s creation in September 2020, it’s expanded to more than 375,000 members, with the top posts garnering thousands of user interactions. The forum has been the 10th fastest-growing subreddit over the past 30 days, according to FrontPageMetrics.com, which tracks Reddit usage.
An entry this week included a screenshot of an Aug. 12 post from a man who put a meme out to his followers: “I heard the government is putting chips inside of people. I hope I get Doritos.”
A friend of the man later wrote on his feed that he was asking for prayers because the man and his wife had both been hospitalized with Covid-19. The wife had to have an emergency C-section to deliver their baby over 10 weeks early.
A following post came from the man’s wife: “The world lost an amazing daddy, husband, brother, son, and friend today. My heart is in a million pieces.”
‘I was done playing’
Ostrowki said she’d eventually seen enough. On Sept. 12, she got her first shot.
“If dad thinks I’m an idiot because I fell for the government and I’m a sheep, so be it,” Ostrowski said. “I clean a public restroom for Christ’s sake. I deal with some really gross stuff. So no, I was done playing.”
During the pandemic, social media sites turned into a haven for misinformation and conspiracy theories, whether related to masks, the vaccines or advice from public health experts. Facebook, in particular, has struggled to weed out false content, with users sharing misinformation even in the comments section of posts from authoritative sources, according to internal company documents reviewed last month by the Wall Street Journal.
With multiple vaccines having been available for months for anyone 12 or older, vaccine resistance has become the central challenge to ending Covid-19. President Joe Biden said as recently as last month, “This is a continuing pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Only 57% of the country has been vaccinated, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 22% of Americans self-identify as anti-vaxxers, according to an academic study published in May. Experts, including White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, have said the U.S. will need as much as 90% of the population to get vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity.
Since hitting the U.S. in March 2020, over 722,000 American have died from Covid-19. Ostrowski said the harrowing stories of death among the unvaccinated have had a major impact on her.
“It really hits home when you literally see yourself in these people,” she said.
Reddit still has plenty of anti-vaccine content across its site, which reaches over 50 million daily active users. As it gears up to go public, Reddit recently took steps to remove several subreddits that were being used to share misinformation. But numerous subreddits are still surfacing such content with names like r/Conservative, r/Ivermectin and r/FauciForPrison.
A Reddit spokesperson said the company has policies in place to remove inaccurate posts on Covid-19 vaccines.
“Our Content Policy prohibits many kinds of harmful content, including health-related disinformation and other forms of manipulated content,” the Reddit spokesperson said in a statement. “We have experienced teams dedicated to detecting and actioning content that violates our policies. As a result of these teams’ efforts, we remove 99% of violating content before a user sees it.”
Chana Joly visits r/HermanCainAward with regularity. She said she does it for her dad.
Despite losing her brother to Covid-19 in January, Joly’s dad has refused to get vaccinated. She said he’s been radicalized in the past few years by misinformation and anti-vaccine conspiracies.
“I think it’s especially sad with my dad because he is an educated person,” Joly said. “He’s not unintelligent. He just believes people he shouldn’t.”
Joly scrolls through the Reddit forum to gather stories that she can send her dad. When he gets defensive and disputes the posts she shares, she tells him to prove her wrong.
“You find me these stories on social media,” Joly said, describing what she tells her dad. “These people dying in their own words from the vaccine. Find me these stories and you show me as many of those as I’m showing you of these. Or even a tenth of them.”
Reddit user Rockets9495 of Houston is a medical doctor who works in an emergency room. He uses r/HermanCainAward for anecdotes that he can share with nurses, technicians and patients who may be on the fence.
He agreed to speak with CNBC but didn’t want to disclose his name publicly to maintain his privacy. He showed CNBC his hospital badge.
“Misinformation is so goddamn dangerous, especially after this last president,” the doctor said. “This is not a game. This is not a joke. You don’t live in a Tom Clancy novel. This is real.”
He said that scientific evidence hasn’t been effective for him in trying to convince people about the safety of the vaccines.
“But this seemingly weaker evidence — word of mouth, anecdotal ‘All these people are dying’ — seems to hit people way harder,” the doctor said.
A different kind of award
The subreddit also includes some stories with happy endings. Those posts get labeled IPAs, or Immunized to Prevent Awards, and are given to users who show pictures of their vaccine immunization cards on the channel as proof that they got their shots.
A Reddit user with the handle lovelylady227 achieved the label.
“This subreddit was what fully convinced me, after waffling back and forth,” she wrote on Sept. 22, adding that she’s “officially out of the running” for the award that gave the channel its name.
Her post got tagged with the IPA label and received more than 7,000 upvotes and 380 comments. She posted her immunization card on Reddit after getting her second dose.
Lovelylady227 is a woman named Hannah. She asked to have only her first name published because she hasn’t told her anti-vaccine family members about her decision.
Hannah received her first dose of Moderna’s vaccine in August, but became fearful of getting the second shot after hearing her parents and her sister, who works in health care, discuss their concerns about the vaccines. Her family members would show anti-vaccine content on their phones to one another, and they believe that people who are vaccinated are shedding the virus.
Hannah went to Reddit in search of information. She started at r/CovidVaccine. There she found numerous posts from people complaining about the side effects they’d experienced after getting their second shots. Some described trembling, and others said they’d suffered heart attacks.
“It just really freaked me out,” she said.
Hannah’s continued browsing on Reddit eventually brought her to r/HermanCainAward. What she found struck a nerve.
She read stories that start with people mocking the vaccine and end with their spouse asking friends to contribute to a GoFundMe page because of the hospital bills or the funeral expenses.
“You don’t really realize how bad it is to be in the hospital with Covid until you see these people who are somehow giving you a play-by-play,” Hannah said. “When you get those first-hand experiences from a Facebook profile, and you see the people experiencing regret, it’s just like, ‘Oh man, I really need to take this seriously. I can’t put it off anymore.'”
Hannah said she’s hoping to wait until three months after her vaccine before casually bringing it up with her family. At that point, she can show them that no harm has been done.
“The fact that they won’t have noticed anything different is one of my main hopes,” she said.
In the meantime, she’s grateful for the positive reaction she received on Reddit after posting her vaccination card.
“I know you don’t need other people to tell you you did the right thing, but it sure helps when there’s a bunch of people saying, ‘Hey, good job,'” she said. “Because it’s not coming from my family, that’s for sure.”
Ostrowski, the gas station manager, also received an Immunized to Prevent Award for posting her vaccine card.
“Late to the party but finally fully vaxxed,” she wrote on Oct. 4. The post received more than 2,000 upvotes and more than 100 comments.
She said she’s hoping to encourage more people to acknowledge they were wrong and that they can still change directions.
“I finally came around and made the right decision,” she said.