I’ve been struggling to find the right way to highlight how relentlessly misinformation is killing us. I could say that another World War II would only be 60 percent as deadly for Americans as this misinformation-fueled pandemic. I could say that if the deceased victims of COVID-19 were their own state, they’d have a larger population than Wyoming, Vermont, or Alaska.
But these examples fall short in two important ways.
First, they fail to draw a clear line between misinformation and death. For this link to stand up to scrutiny, it must be unmistakable.
Second, they lack humanity. We humans have an uncanny ability to gloss over numerical figures, even when they represent our dying neighbors.
The roughly 300,000 members of a dark corner of Reddit called r/HermanCainAward may have solved both of these challenges. Members of the subreddit share posts that chronicle how misinformation leads to the untimely deaths of people who deny or downplay COVID-19 via social media. Their lives are remembered with the “Herman Cain Award,” a nod to the former presidential candidate who died from COVID-19 last summer after denying that it was dangerous.
The subreddit draws direct, unmistakable lines between belief in misinformation – which, in these examples, is shared almost exclusively by Facebook users – and untimely death. It has become a de facto memorial to the victims of pandemic-era misinformation that spreads like wildfire, often without check, on social media platforms.
We’ve reached the point in this pandemic where people who follow public health measures — masking, distancing, getting the vaccine — are held hostage by a minority who don’t. It’s gutting but unsurprising that people who make small sacrifices to end the pandemic are taking part in a collective exercise in schadenfreude at the expense of the minority who, driven by false beliefs, are prolonging the pandemic and killing themselves and their neighbors.
r/HermanCainAward is the somber, disillusioning product of a society where misinformation reigns. Shy of walking into a brimming intensive care unit and listening as the unvaccinated, tragically alone, rattle through their final few breaths, it is the most visceral display of the link between misinformation and poor public health that we have.
We can’t let that go to waste. I hope the HermanCainAward subreddit becomes a clarion call to everyone who thumbs their noses at evidence-based public health precautions and heroic feats of science like the COVID vaccines. I hope it serves as a reminder that the freedoms many of us so badly want to protect are not free. We must pay for them with small sacrifices like donning a mask and getting a vaccine — and if we don’t, the price could be our lives.
At first glance, it can feel like this dark corner of Reddit foreshadows a world where misinformation and truth are indistinguishable, the pandemic never ends, and the divisions between those who are willing to sacrifice for their neighbors and those who aren’t is too wide to bridge. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that many of the 300,000 or so members of this group wish it didn’t have to exist. They retain hope. They root for redemption, even as some members appear to celebrate preventable suffering.
Better known for chronicling the demise of COVID deniers and downplayers, the subreddit’s members also rally around those who see the error in their ways and do their part to end the pandemic, honoring them with the “Redemption Award” or the “IPA (Immunized to Prevent Award).” Sometimes it takes a brush with death before Redemption Award recipients embrace vaccines and encourage others to do the same. For many IPA recipients, the subreddit’s gut-wrenching carnage is persuasive enough.
Misinformation isn’t going anywhere any time soon. But we all have the power to ensure, like r/HermanCainAward does so effectively, that its horrors and consequences — and the benefits of trusting science — are put on full display for all to see.
Geeta Nayyar is a physician executive.
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