The Questionable Ethics of r/HermanCainAward
The subreddit documenting COVID deaths, r/HermanCainAward, has recently garnered some criticism for celebrating the deaths and misfortune of COVID skeptics, instead of being a platform that documents the dangers of misinformation. Judging the subreddit through the lens of academical social media research ethics does highlights some major flaws. Although these flaws are expected, they make it difficult to honestly label the subreddit as simply documenting.
Even in the virtual space, the one place where communication without infection is possible, the effects of COVID are felt, with COVID skeptics taking up the role of amateur virologist on their social media pages. One of these skeptics was the former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who used his social media to marginalize the threat of the virus. Unfortunately, the virus proved to be deadly, as he passed away of COVID-19 complications in July 2020. His passing did not stop his team from using his social media to accuse mainstream media of exaggerating the threat of the virus, in a now deleted tweet (Gabbatt, 2020).
This instance of grim irony was not ignored by the internet, as it led social media users to create the r/HermanCainAward subreddit. On this subreddit, social media post of COVID-19 victims marginalizing the virus are highlighted and contrasted to the eulogies and prayers left on their pages by their relatives. Victims are nominated when they contract COVID and receive the titular award if they pass away. More positive content, such as COVID-19 skeptics opting to get vaccinated, is also shared. This type of content has proven to be popular, as the subreddit started in September 2020 has now grown to have over 340.000 members (Reddit, 2021).
According to the moderators, the goal of the subreddit argue is to document the fatal effects of COVID-19 misinformation and hopefully preventing people from making the same mistakes (Asarch, 2021). This goal of documenting and educating separates the subreddit from others, such as the less popular r/Moronavirus, which is simply focused on making fun of COVID skeptics.
However, recently the goal of the subreddit has been the subject of controversy, as critics argue that the posts are a cruel way to vent frustrations about COVID skeptics and celebrate their deaths (Loofbourow, 2021). Although a moderator agrees that the subreddit features some frustration, he insists it is based on documenting (Asarch, 2021). If the subreddit is based on documenting, one would it expect it follows certain ethical guidelines. To analyze this, the following question must be answered: How do the research and documenting practices of r/HermanCainAward hold up to the ethical standards of social media research?
At first glance, the posts made by users of r/HermanCainAward seem relatively harmless, although they are a bit morbid. Users take information posted on a public platform and share this on another public platform. However, as researchers boyd and Crawford (2012) point out, just because data is accessible does not make it ethical to use. The subjects did make these posts on a public platform, but not do so with the idea in mind that someone might use them to highlight the irony of their unfortunate passing. Just because these post are publicly available, does not mean that consent is given for further sharing, especially in such a different context. This seems particularly true for the eulogies and prayers by family members that are also shared, as their grief is used to highlight the COVID skeptic views of their relatives.
The issue of consent is especially important when dealing with a marginalized group, such as COVID skeptics (Clark-Parsons & Lingel, 2020). Obviously, obtaining consent from the COVID victims is impossible, as they have passed away, but their family members could be asked for their consent, both as a proxy for the consent of the deceased, as well as for the sharing of their posts. In some cases, users themselves are family of the subject of their post, thus providing some form of consent, but the vast majority of posts completely lack any form of subject consent. The users of the r/HermanCainAward do protect the privacy of subjects by anonymizing the posts they share, although this only serves as a “band-aid solution” (Clark-Parsons & Lingel, 2020, p. 5). Furthermore, researchers have questioned the effectivity of these forms of anonymization (boyd & Crawford, 2012).
Despite the aforementioned lack of consent, the controversy surrounding the subreddit mostly stems from the presentation of the COVID victims. Since the moderators argue it is a place for documenting, one would expect users to strive to be as neutral as possible. Indeed, the guidelines of the subreddit advocate for neutrality, albeit only in the title of the post, not in the comments. But the same guidelines also show “Shitpost Sunday”, one day in the week were memes are allowed. These memes are similar to those seen on r/Moronavirus, and feature COVID skeptics (and their deaths) as the butt of the joke. The subreddit thus does incorporate negative portrayals of COVID skeptics, albeit less frequent as other subreddits. This harms the apparent neutrality of the subreddit, as it shows a clearly negative opinion of COVID skeptics.
This lack of neutrality is made more problematic due to the already existing power imbalance between researcher (or reddit user) and the subject in social media research (Clark-Parsons & Lingel, 2020). By posting a story on r/HermanCainAward, the user has control over the portrayal of the subject, in this case particularly over the circumstances of their death. In order to handle this responsibility carefully, researchers should strive to avoid presenting subjects in a way that further marginalizes or harms their group (Danaher et al., 2013). On r/HermanCainAward, there is little done to avoid these negative effects of publishing on marginalized groups. While the posts themselves are sometimes neutral (most have a negative undertone), the weekly memes and the unmoderated comment section promote an atmosphere that contributes to the negative portrayal of COVID skeptics.
Based on the lack of consent and the way COVID skeptics are presented, it can be concluded that r/HermanCainAward does not meet the ethical standards of academic research. Obviously, since (most) reddit users are not academics, they cannot be expected to adhere to the same ethical standards. The lack of subject consent and the negative representation of COVID skeptics seem logical based on the users frustration and unawareness of ethical guidelines. Still, even when being more lenient with these guidelines, having a specific day of the week focused on making fun of COVID skeptics does not indicate that the main goal of the subreddit is to simply document. Users that truly want to document the effects of misinformation might be better of doing this on other platforms.
Asarch, S. (2021). On Reddit, users are mocking unvaccinated people who’ve died of COVID-19. An ethicist says it’s “cruel” but “not surprising.” Insider. https://www.insider.com/herman-cain-award-reddit-mocks-unvaccinated-people-die-covid-19-2021-9
boyd, danah, & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical Questions for Big Data. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662–679. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878
Clark-Parsons, R., & Lingel, J. (2020). Margins as Methods, Margins as Ethics: A Feminist Framework for Studying Online Alterity. Social Media + Society, 6(1), 2056305120913994. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305120913994
Danaher, M., Cook, J., Danaher, G., Coombes, P., & Danaher, P. A. (2013). Researching Ethically and Responsibly with Marginalized Communities. In M. Danaher, J. Cook, G. Danaher, P. Coombes, & P. A. Danaher (Eds.), Researching Education with Marginalized Communities (pp. 134–151). Palgrave Macmillan UK. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137012685_8
Gabbatt, A. (2020, August 13). Herman Cain “tweets” two weeks after his death to attack Democrats. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/13/herman-cain-twitter-democrats-joe-biden
Loofbourow, L. (2021, September 21). The Unbelievable Grimness of HermanCainAward, the Subreddit That Catalogs Anti-Vaxxer COVID Deaths. Slate. https://slate.com/technology/2021/09/hermancainaward-subreddit-antivaxxer-deaths-cataloged.html
Reddit. (2021). R/HermanCainAward. https://www.reddit.com/