My 6-Year-Old Son Died. Then the Anti-vaxxers Found Out.

Opponents of COVID vaccines terrorize grieving families on social media.

Illustration of a half-closed laptop with a flickering screen light
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

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My 6-year-old boy died in January. We lost him after a household accident, one likely brought on by a rare cerebral-swelling condition. Paramedics got his heart beating, but it was too late to save his brain. I could hold his hand, look at the small birthmark on it, comb his hair, and call out for him, but if he could hear me or feel me, he gave no sign. He had been a child in perpetual motion, but now we couldn’t get him to wiggle a finger.

My grief is profound, ragged, desperate. I cannot imagine how anything could feel worse.

But vaccine opponents on the internet, who somehow assumed that a COVID shot was responsible for my son’s death, thought my family’s pain was funny. “Lol. Yay for the jab. Right? Right?” wrote one person on Twitter. “Your decision to vaccinate your son resulted in his death,” wrote another. “This is all on YOU.” “Murder in the first.”

I’m a North Carolina–based journalist who specializes in countering misinformation on social media. I know that Twitter, Facebook, and other networks amplify bad information; that their algorithms feed on anger and division; that anonymity and distance bring out the worst in some people online. And yet I had never anticipated that anyone would mock and terrorize a grieving parent. I’ve now received thousands of harassing posts. Some people emailed me at work.

For the record, my son saw some of the finest pediatric-ICU doctors in the world. He was in fact vaccinated against COVID-19. None of his doctors deemed that relevant to his medical condition. They likened his death to a lightning strike.

Strangers online saw in our story a conspiracy—a cover-up of childhood fatalities caused by COVID vaccines, a ploy to protect Big Pharma.

To them, what happened to my son was not a tragedy. It was karma for suckered parents like me.

Although some abusive posts showed up on my public Facebook page, the problem started on Twitter—whose new CEO, Elon Musk, gutted the platform’s content-moderation team after taking over.

I posted my son’s obituary there because we’d started a fundraiser in his name for the arts program at his neighborhood school. Books didn’t hold his interest, but he loved drawing big, blocky Where the Wild Things Are–style creatures. The fundraiser gave us something, anything, to do. Most people were kind. Many donated. But within days, anti-vaxxers hijacked the conversation, overwhelming my feed. “Billy you killed your kid man,” one person wrote.

Accompanying the obituary was a picture of him showing off his new University of North Carolina basketball jersey—No. 1, Leaky Black—before a game. He’s all arms and legs. He will only ever always be that. Cheeks like an apple. His bangs flopped over his almond-shaped eyes. “Freckles like constellations,” his obit read. He looks unpretentious, shy, and bored. Like most children his age, anything that takes more than an hour, such as a college basketball game, is too long.

Strangers swiped the photo from Twitter and wrote vile things on it. They’d mined my tweets, especially ones where I had written about the public-health benefits of vaccination. Someone needed to make me pay for vaccinating my child, one person insinuated. Another said my other children would be next if they were vaccinated too.

I tried to push back. Please take the conspiracy theories elsewhere, I pleaded on Twitter. That made things worse, so I stopped engaging. A blogger mocked me for fleeing social media. Commenters joined in. My grief, their content. “Your one job as a parent was to protect your children,” wrote one person. “You failed miserably.”

Our family’s therapist distinguishes “clean grief” from “dirty grief.” Clean grief is pure sadness. Dirty grief is guilt and what-ifs.

I can’t fathom clean grief when you lose a healthy child so suddenly. But my doubts aren’t about vaccination. I am filled with other questions. Had we missed earlier signs of illness? But also: Did he like me? What would he have been like as a teenager? Did he ever have a crush?

At first, I kept the harassment to myself. I didn’t want my family to know. I worried that my sadness—the sadness that I owed my son—would be crowded out by anger. So I leaned into distractions: the people crammed into my living room, sitting on the floor and sifting through my records. Grubhub coupons. Friends washing our dishes. Cheesy baked spaghetti with cooking instructions taped to the foil. Better coffee than the swill I usually buy. Meg Ryan comedies. Lots of wine. Kids—mine, nephews, nieces, neighbors—everywhere. Brave bursts of laughter. Like a weird party for the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

I also remember the ping of my phone notifications. When our friends and relatives left at night, the pings kept coming from these strange ghouls on the internet. I wished that I believed in hell so I could imagine them going there. Losing a child is a brutal reminder that nothing is fair in this world. The harassment made me feel like there was nothing good in it either.

Some of the messages may have come from bots. Others appeared to be written by real people, including a guy whose email address identified the flooring company he owned in Alaska. “You killed your own son?” he wrote in the subject line. “You’re an idiot.” Do his family and friends know that he does this for kicks?

I’m not the only parent being harassed in this way. Some of the trolls posted photos of other children, insinuating that they had died because of COVID vaccines. I feel for the grieving mothers and fathers who receive those messages.

My friends and I reported some of the worst posts to Facebook and Twitter. A few users were booted from Twitter. But in most cases, we got no response; in a few, we received tepid form messages.

“Billy, we reviewed the comment you reported and found that it doesn’t go against our Community Standards,” Facebook told me after a stranger wormed their way onto an old post from my personal page to mock me. If I was offended, I could block them, the company said. Facebook might feel conflicted about whether to censor nipples, but tormenting a bereaved parent gets a pass.

Social-media companies will have to make a choice about the kind of space they want to create. Is it a space to connect, as Facebook solemnly promised in one 2020 commercial? Or is it a space where the worst behavior imaginable is not only tolerated but amplified?

In truth, although the cruelty of these strangers shocked me, they feel distant—like cats wailing in the alley. I can shut the window and ignore them. Nothing they say or do can fill the space he still takes up. I can smell him on his favorite blue blanket. I can feel him when I squeeze the bouncy balls that he hid, like treasure, in a wooden box by his bed. I can see him in the muddy Crocs that he left behind in one of the backyard nooks he liked to hide in. His absence feels impossible. I keep waiting for him to come back.

I can imagine my son asking, with characteristic bluntness, whether the people being mean to me on social media are good guys or bad guys, like in the movies. I probably would have reassured him that none of the messages I received was really about him. They were just a reflection of some people’s desire to spread lies, and of the callous way we treat one another online. The messages don’t affect how I choose to remember my boy.

In the last picture I have of him, taken five days before we lost him, he’s getting a bad haircut at a kids’ salon. The barber’s chair looks like a miniature Batmobile, and his legs are folded up inside. He was tall for his age, as I once was. He was already pretty like his mom. In the picture, he’s watching Paw Patrol on a little monitor placed strategically in front of the chair to keep the kids straight and still. He’s old for the show, but he’s too nice or shy to say so.

In the ICU, as we prepared to say goodbye to our son, my wife borrowed a pair of scissors from the nurse. And, being careful not to lay on any tubes going into and out of him, she crawled into his bed and straightened his bangs.