Pfizer Gang Is Pfinished

Was a fun internet culture around vaccines ever going to last?

Getty; The Atlantic

In April, Nicholas was stoked to have gotten Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, the “status vaccine,” which was also the vaccine for “hot people,” and the vaccine that got a person conditionless admission to the “Pfizer Gang.” He made a new forum on Reddit—r/pfizergang, obviously—where people like him could engage in celebration and memes and funny jokes about how Pfizer was better than Moderna, but not make jokes containing misinformation, because Moderna is actually very good also, and everyone should get vaccinated. There was to be no anti-vaccine discussion whatsoever, and why would there be?

At the time, I had just gotten the first Pfizer shot myself and then written that my trip to CVS had been “as thrilling as prom.” I liked the Pfizer jokes on TikTok and Twitter and in my group chats; on Reddit, as Nicholas intended, people did post memes and they did celebrate. It was an incredible spring: Uptake of the vaccine was on the rise, and the president was dropping hints about a perfect, normal summer. “It seemed like things were finally going to resolve,” Nicholas told me. “Not that we could treat COVID as a joke, but we could be more lighthearted about it.”

But actually: By July, hearts were getting heavy again. The Delta variant was ripping through an unvaccinated population still numbering in the tens of millions, much of which continued to refuse a shot that was readily available. Resentment had been building around the vaccine divide; there was frustration from the White House and widespread unease about the “hot vax summer” that now felt like something else.

As the mood turned nationwide, the fun of r/pfizergang, too, would crumble. Things got so bad among the vaxxed elite, in fact, that on July 26, Nicholas felt he had no choice but to shut his forum down. “I wanted to create a social pressure where it was like, These people in Pfizer Gang seem like they’re having a lot of fun,” he said, and then that fun would inspire other people to get vaccinated. “That was the goal. And when that failed, I failed.”

When I got in touch with Nicholas this week, he asked me to leave his last name out of this story to avoid having people associate his Reddit account with his professional life. But he also gave a second reason for the request: remorse. “I’m genuinely concerned that there may have been people who ended up not getting the vaccine because of this subreddit,” he said. “I already have to, like, come to terms with that.”

Although the r/pfizergang subreddit had been created for joking and festivity, it quickly became a place for people who got the Pfizer vaccine to discuss the side effects they experienced. At first, Nicholas said, this was fine. He was glad to see that people were finding the forum a useful place for commiseration and reassurance. But even just a month into the forum’s life, the posts were getting weirder. A lot of them were about side effects that supposedly didn’t show up until weeks after receiving the vaccine, or those that seemed like they could have been symptoms of other problems, like anxiety and overattentiveness. Some seemed entirely fake.

“I have 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 that I could read the posts myself.) “I got mine yesterday and then around midnight I started bringing up random concerns to my boyfriend that I couldn’t even make sense of myself,” another wrote a few days later. “I had tons of horrible nightmares.” One person said they started “burping so bad” five days after receiving the shot; another said they had no side effects until nine days later, when they woke up exhausted, but they couldn’t tell if that was from the vaccine or their period. “Anyone got a feeling of a hairball in their throat?” someone asked. “Anyone experiencing testicle pain?”

Nicholas tried to even out the tone of the forum by offering encouraging comments, but to no avail. “Ask yourself the following before you post here about potential symptoms,” he suggested on July 5. “Am I noticing this symptom only because I’m now hyper aware of my own body? Is what I’m noticing within the normal function of my body or perhaps a symptom of another common ailment? Are my symptoms wildly different from the symptoms found on the FDA’s website?” He admitted that he wasn’t a doctor—offline he’s a graduate student in astrophysics—but still he asked that people consider whether they might be connecting unrelated events and drawing inappropriate conclusions. “After I posted that, there were even more posts about really weird symptoms,” he said.

There were about 350 active users of his forum at this time, but Nicholas knew that most people on Reddit don’t even post. A popular folklore estimate says that more than 90 percent of the site’s users only lurk and read other people’s conversations—so Nicholas imagined that, for every one person writing in the forum to say they were getting nervous about the vaccine because of other people’s reports of bizarre side effects, nine more were feeling the same way but not saying so. On July 21, he made one more post insisting that people look at the list of common side effects and try to remember that a lot of people don’t experience side effects at all, and, also, please get vaccinated. Meanwhile, a newcomer had joined the subreddit and started linking to “terribly sourced and really questionable” articles about vaccine safety. Though Nicholas banned that person after only a few posts, it was too late. “At that point, the conversation started to get a little more conspiratorial,” he said. Another commenter started complaining about how Nicholas was suppressing earnest conversation, and then, when Nicholas removed that person’s comments, the same accusations came back worse.

Nicholas shut down the forum after giving a six-hour warning. If you visit the page now, it displays only a goodbye message: “get vaccinated we love you.”

“I’m never going to try any pro-vaccine online movement again, because I can see that that just doesn’t work,” Nicholas told me.

This may be a little histrionic, but it’s not beyond reason. The online anti-vaccine movement is known for being coordinated and persistent, and for derailing productive conversation with a single-mindedness that pro-vaccine social-media users can’t possibly share. And a series of events similar to those that derailed r/pfizergang seems to be playing out in the much larger Reddit forum r/CovidVaccinated: Scrolling through its early posts tagged with Pfizer, one finds reports from those who either experienced mild side effects or none at all, and who felt exuberant about being able to get the vaccine after months of waiting. Now there’s less of that, and more worry. “I want to get the vaccine on Friday, but some of you here are freaking me out with long term side effects and heart issues,” one commenter wrote last week, under the heading “Shouldn’t have started reading posts here.” That may have less to do with coordinated disinformation campaigns than the fundamental dynamics of vaccine demand: The people who were most enthusiastic about getting vaccinated, and thus most likely to be posting in these forums back in April and May, are also the ones who would be least inclined to fixate on the possibility of vaccine-induced burping fits or hairballs or testicle pain. When those people moved on with their lives, the boards were left to those who had more qualms.

It was hard to tell on r/pfizergang where, exactly, those with doubts were coming from. Emily Irish, an 18-year-old Reddit user who got their first Pfizer shot in late April, posted in the r/pfizergang forum a few days later to ask whether anyone else had lost their voice after receiving the vaccine. (Irish uses they/them pronouns.) To my eyes, this was one of the odder questions, and I wondered at first if it was sincere. But in an email, Irish told me that they were totally serious and that their voice hadn’t come back for a week. Irish had Googled their question first and hadn’t seen any useful results, so they went to Reddit as a last resort. “I really hope no one thought I was anti-vax, as I voluntarily got both doses of the vaccine,” Irish told me. “Although the side effects really sucked, I’m glad I got it.”

Do intentions matter if the end result is still a digital burn book of horror stories about a safe and necessary public-health intervention? In the end, r/pfizergang started looking less like a community than a litany of product reviews—as if the good-natured bickering about the best brand of vaccine had steered people to think of their Pfizer shots as things they’d purchased on Amazon.

Of course, most product reviews don’t have these kinds of stakes. As time went on, Nicholas realized that any newcomers to his subreddit would see only reviews of the oddest and least-common vaccine reactions, presented without context. “The science says that COVID is infinitely worse than these side effects,” he said, a little bitterly. “But no one who dies from COVID is going to give you a testimonial.”

To hold 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’s learned something from the experience. “I won’t say I was completely negligent, but I wasn’t checking every single post every day,” he told me. “I’ve come to realize that without extraordinarily careful and thorough moderation, any public conversation on the internet about vaccines is going to become anti-vaccine.”