Anti-vax Grief Trolls

Over the last few class sessions, we have discussed how technology and media are used as tools and vehicles for the grieving process. Many of the bereaved turn social media in search of support, comfort, or “thoughts and prayers.” Unfortunately, while there are many out there who genuinely do offer condolences and their own grief for the deceased, there is a population of media-users who capitalize on the digital expression of grief. We have spoken about “grief trolls,” who make jokes or seek personal gain at the expense of someone’s public grief. I did not fully understand this concept until having read a CNN article which popped-up on my feed earlier today, entitled “Her son died. And then anti-vaxers attacked her.” This short article tells the story of a young mother who’s 2-year-old son tragically dies of the flu, and her choice to reactively vaccinate her two other young children to avoid similar fates. As many of members of this generation do, she sought out the comfort from friends through her expression of grief via facebook. Yet instead of receiving messages of sympathy, kind comments, and sad face emojis, she opened her facebook to find alarming and condemning messages from those referred to as “anti-vaxers.” These messages ranged from blaming her for the death of her child and attacking the young mother’s personhood, to claims that the mother has made up this story to champion vaccinations.

This is a perfect, yet upsetting example of the grief trolls who transform another person’s public grief into a much uglier entity either for their own personal gain or just because they have nothing better to do. To claim that this young mother’s grief is unfounded, that she is to blame for the death of her child, or that the very existence of her child is fabricated completely invalidates the grief experience. These anti-vaxer grief trolls both inflict emotional harm on the bereaved and politicize another’s experience of grief to advance their own political agenda: that vaccines are bad.

While people have been using tragedy for political gain for years, this widespread grief trolling with specific political goals would not be possible without the role of social media in today’s grieving. The popular expression of grief through media platforms has rendered the grieving process notably more public than before, especially given the taboo nature of death in our society. Unlike the previously private dying and grieving process, this unboundedly public grief not only expands the audience which is witness to grief, but also creates a new platform through which strangers can appropriate and exploit the experiences of others.

https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/19/health/anti-vax-harassment-eprise/index.html

 

Posthumous Publications

Our class has explored how our legacy can continue after our deaths through digital technologies. Another example of this that goes beyond the historical time period of the digital age is works of literature that have been published posthumously. Many famous works, such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov were apparently unfinished or part of a longer series that was never written before the author passed. Usually, works that are published posthumously are done so without altering them, but sometimes others will step in to try and finish what the author started.

An author who feels that they may meet an untimely end before they have the chance to put all of their ideas down on paper can name a literary executor in their will, who is responsible for managing a deceased author’s intellectual property, and therefore their lasting legacy.

Waterstones gives six examples of books posthumously finished by other authors. Some authors will leave detailed notes about how they want the books to be published, while other literary executors are left to guess about their intentions. This reminded me of our reading, “Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a Site for the Expansion of Death and Mourning” by Jed Brubaker, Gillian Hayes, and Paul Dourish. In that reading, they talked about the discomfort that some people feel about the “‘interactive digital tombstones” where the “deceased’s inability to moderate content presents a number of issues around representation.” Much like Facebook users who have died cannot control their digital legacy, authors are often in the same situation when their work is published posthumously.

Joseph Mitchell, photographed on Water Street, near the old Fulton Fish Market.
Photograph by Therese Mitchell / Courtesy Estate of Joseph Mitchell / The New Yorker

Recently, in an English class, we read an essay by Joseph Mitchel titled “A Place of Pasts” that was published by The New Yorker after he passed. The editors explained that the essay was an unfinished chapter from a memoir he began writing but never finished. In class, we grappled with how to read this essay. Usually, we critique what we read in order to learn from it, but we all expressed discomfort about offering criticism on a piece that was unfinished. Not only did it feel like that would be speaking ill of the dead, but it also felt unfair because the piece wasn’t the final product that the author had intended to produce.

Posthumous publishing offers many parallels between the ways that we grapple with the digital identities of the dead. Literary works, like social media profiles, can leave a lasting legacy of a person that may evolve and grow beyond their death. How we talk about these things unavoidably forces us to confront with our own attitudes about death.

Haunted Apple Watch

We’ve been discussing the idea of haunted media for a few classes now and after Kate Pullinger’s story Breathe began thinking about how ghosts can use technology as a medium to connect to humans. This reminded me of a minisode from the podcast My Favorite Murder where someone wrote into the hosts telling a story of a time a ghost communicated through the person’s Apple Watch (MFM Minisode 103).

For nine years the person who wrote in has celebrated New Years with another family, but a few years ago the hosts husband, Jerry, took his own life. The family has still continued hosting without him and this was the second year he was absent. When the person who wrote in got home, she checked the weather on her Apple Watch. Her weather app tells the weather using snarky language, such as “You’re gonna take these clouds and you’re gonna like them,” instead of saying cloudy. But instead of telling the weather it showed this message:

20 minutes later the app was back to giving its normal weather updates. She finishes this story by saying, “Jerry loved tech. Those that knew him decided that if he was going to send a message, a snarky weather app would totally be the platform.” She hasn’t seen a message like this since.

Messages from ghosts on modern technology such as smart watches and phones feels more invasive and eerie in a new way than we are used to. I think our culture associates the eerie and ghosts to spaces of absence such as graveyards and abandoned buildings (see Mark Fisher). But our phones and watches are extensions of ourselves and something we keep on our person at all times. Smart technology is very present in our lives, so when that safe space is invaded by the unknown, it is even more terrifying and disrupting than we are expecting. The invasion feels personal and uncanny, an experience even felt in Pullinger’s story as it uses your personal data to make it feel as if the ghost knows who and where you are.

Contagious Zombie Deers

On February 14th, I checked my phone to find the following notification: “Experts say a fatal disease causing ‘zombie’ symptoms in deer may be transmittable to humans. Here’s what to look out for.”

We had recently finished watching Dead Set for class which immediately came to mind. I remember thinking, maybe this is how the characters first contracted their zombie like disease in the show. This led me to wonder if that then meant we had the possibility of contracting something similar. The part of that notification that really struck me was the last sentence: “Here’s what to look out for”. This sentence evoked a sense of urgency and danger as I found myself wondering if there was something I needed to be on the look out for so I could avoid becoming a zombie like the characters on Dead Set.

As my curiosity continued I opened and read the Huffington Post article in its entirety. The author, Nina Golgowski, warned about the dangers of Chronic wasting disease (CWD) and also admitted that there has been no recorded transmissions from animals to humans. I also discovered that “‘To date, there is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD in people, and it is not known if people can get infected with CWD prions,’ the CDC’s website states.” After reading the article in it’s entirety I realized that there is not real threat on contracting this zombie disease especially because I never come in direct contact with deer and I do not eat deer meat.

This realization lead me to question zombie rhetoric and what it is used for. In the case of this article, I noticed that Golgowski used the word zombie to catch the reader’s attention so they would actually read the article. Just like the creators of Dead Set, Golgowski noticed that people are scared and terrified of not only zombies themselves but also becoming a zombie. Therefore, Zombie rhetoric can be used not only in TV shows like Dead Set, but also in the media and in scientific articles to spark interest and awareness of a phenomena.

People Are Immortalizing Their Loved Ones…..in Teddy Bears?

For the last two to three weeks, we have been discussing “haunted” media, as well as attempts to immortalize ourselves through technology. Since the creation of the phonograph and telephone, human beings have been consistently trying to communicate with the dead or preserve themselves after they die through the use of technology. We have thus far covered Edison’s spirit phone, voice recordings, photographs, and even modern and science fiction attempts to recreate ourselves through AI and robots on Black Mirror. However, there is a more innocuous and heartwarming yet still slightly creepy way in which people today are preserving and “communicating” with their loved ones: stuffed animals.

 

Yes, stuffed animals. Every now and then, I’ll happen across an article on my feed or timeline that shows a heartwarming video of someone listening to a loved one’s voice that has been installed in a Build-a-Bear. Usually, the people take a voice recording of a lost grandparent, parent, or child from a video or voicemail, and Build-a-Bear is able to install that recording on one of the voiceboxes for its stuffed animals.

While the results are usually quite touching, I do find the preservation of some of these deceased people using stuffed animals to fall into the realm of the eerie. Of course, everyone has their own mechanisms for coping with grief and loss, and surely a stuffed animal is one way for people to hold on to some cherished part of the person they lost.

 

Nevertheless, I wonder if the reliance on these stuffed animals may actually be preventing people from dealing with their grief and moving past it. Just as we recommend people stop following their ex-boyfriends or girlfriends for a while on social media after a rough breakup so as not to ruminate, so too might we advise someone who has lost a loved one not to rely too heavily on their Build-a-Bear replacement lest it becomes an emotional crutch and prevent them from dealing with their grief in a healthy manner.

 

I always think of the scenes from Breaking Bad where Jesse continues to call and listen to the voicemail of his deceased girlfriend as an example of how technology, while preserving the memories or voices of those we lost, can keep us from dealing with our sorrow in a healthy way.

Again, while we may continually try to immortalize ourselves or speak to those we have lost through various forms of media, we would do well to not let those efforts distract us from coping with our grief or living in the present.

Tech as a Mediator Between Monstrosity and Race

Oftentimes in our discourses and media we act as if technology is objective, and it is only how it is used that makes it “good” or “bad.” This mentality falls apart very quickly when considering algorithms, such as the ones used on reddit, or camera technology, as the article I found discusses. In many cases (despite the important contributions of women and people of color) technology has been created by and for white men. This article from the Daily Beast investigates the consequences of facial recognition not being designed to recognize people with dark skin, and what that means in a society which criminalizes black people at a higher rate than any other race or population. In the past, activists have argued for a higher visibility for black people by technology and those who create it, but Zoe Samudzi believes that increasing visibility for black people in regards to facial recognition will only end in further surveillance and marginalization of an already discriminated against population.

Of the media and scholarship we’ve looked at in our class, only Dead Set explicitly includes race, through their inclusion of non-white characters. The way the cameras look at Angel, the only black woman in the house, is explicitly different than how other characters are viewed. Patrick, the producer, who is in charge of what parts of the house the public gets to see, throws several racially charged insults at Angel’s image on the screen, marking her mediated image as fundamentally different than the other characters. The cameras, both used by ‘Big Brother,’ and those used by the actual crew of Dead Set were created to be used on white skin, because the creators never thought to consider that black people might be on film someday. While the film industry now has methods to adjust the camera for darker skin, the default continues to be white skin.

In our discussion of tech vs human, I think it is important to racialize in what ways people have not been considered ‘fully human’ and how that has consequences. The Monster Theses which we read acknowledges the relationship between the monster and the human ‘other.’ One way in which we might explain this phenomenon is that monsters are created to enforce ideology which marginalizes groups of people, based on the principles of white supremacy. Studying monsters without considering race would be severely lacking—much like Marjorie and Regan’s danger comes from the fear of young women’s sexuality, so too does the fear of the monstrous eventually uncover racism which is embedded in our culture.

2019 Doomsday Clock Update

I noticed that the Doomsday Clock has been set for 2019 the same as in 2018, two minutes to midnight. This NBC report first explained the Clock’s background, as we went over in class, then talks about its function in the contemporary world. It struck me that the Clock no longer corresponds to just nuclear threats, but also to environmental degradation, terrorism, and so on. This shift showcases the challenges that may or may not face us at any given time, as well as what we do or do not prioritize. The decline of the Cold War has decreased how much we worry seriously (as a public; the government may obviously pay greater attention to such concerns) about nuclear threats. However, these still exist, somewhat from Russia but also most publically from North Korea. While not approaching the level of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear threat is less than when the Clock was made. Yet the Clock stands five minutes closer to midnight/apocalypse than it did during the Cold War. Adding emphasis is the fact that Clock has been changing more often and more dangerously:

A history of the past few decades’ Clock changes

The news video lists “bioterrorism”, specifically, as a modern concern– Americans are more familiar with physical terrorism, like bombs or murders. Is bioterrorism a more major threat than we generally treat it as? That phenomenon could make sense with advances of science, especially since some bioweaponry has been developed, used, or attempted for use (like the 2001 anthrax scare). However, the proximity to Doomsday most likely stems most from the third category mentioned, human-caused environmental decay. We often hear about humans’ detrimental effects on the world. That it might present more danger, though, than the nuclear threats of the 1950s-80s did places the peril of the environment in alarming perspective. We like to think that the effects of deforestation, drilling too often for oil, and other practices will not occur for a long time.

Yet the narrator of this report cautions that the clock represents only our perceived closeness to the end of the world. That premise prompts wondering who (which scientists with what credentials, who were selected how?) assesses how the Doomsday Clock should be set each year. They certainly seem respectable, but, all in all, the Clock encourages further investigation of its related elements, still achieving its goal.

 

“Doomsday Clock.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jan. 2019, thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/.

News, NBC. “The Doomsday Clock Has Us At Two Minutes To Midnight | Mach | NBC News.” YouTube, National Broadcasting Company, 24 Jan. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMhRPlgL1-U.