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.