Thursday, December 2News That Matters

When Vaccines Become an Internet Personality Test

There are plenty of earnestly respectful vaccine selfies, where the inoculated person bares a shoulder and thanks science for their shot. But the array of vaccine brands, each with their own protocols and typical symptoms, has made room for them to be interpreted as an internet-wide personality test, with all the irrational identification of an astrological sign or a BuzzFeed quiz.

When a young TikToker called @idrinkurmilkshake winkingly identified herself as a member of the “Pfizer Gang,” she kicked off a joking rivalry that tore ebulliently through the internet. “Umm, only hot people get the Pfizer vaccine,” she said, smugly tucking a gleaming curl behind an ear. “If you got Moderna, then I don’t know what to tell you, queen.” In another popular video, @ellynmariemarsh appears on both ends of a phone conversation, playing Pfizer as a preening celebrity sipping bubbly from a flute while gabbing at her underrecognized frenemy Moderna.

It feels very American to convert our biggest brush with socialized medicine into a personal branding exercise rooted in the worship of pharmaceutical companies. The internet stanning of the Pfizer vaccine — “it sounds rich, decadent, luxury!” as one TikToker put it — has inspired concern over whether this elitist discourse could discourage acceptance of other brands, as Heather Schwedel detailed in Slate.

But that’s the joke — these vaccine performances are tinged with an edge of uber-capitalist sociopathy. Part of the commentary is how deeply our experience of the pandemic has been warped by the internet. When @idrinkurmilkshake uploaded her audio to the app so other users could lip-sync to her voice, she clarified her stance by titling the track “imjusykiddingyouareallhot.” In a follow-up video, she used a filter that gave her face the bloated look of extensive aesthetic dermatology, and played out an alternate reality where vaccines are distributed like wellness products. “Hey beauties, I just had to show this beautiful package from Pfizer, they sent me a beautiful set,” she purred. “Very effective against coronavirus,” she added. “Use my code, you can get 15 percent off.”

Vaccine content provides the inoculated with a sense of closure, even as infections continue to spread and herd immunity is out of reach. The vaccine rollout has also supplied content for an upside-down social media world, in which Covid skeptics, conspiracy theorists and antivax influencers run the show, and they are envisioning a very different kind of twist. In one TikTok video, a conservative influencer acts out dramatically refusing a vaccine, getting beaten to death for her insolence and ascending to heaven. The writers behind the vaccine show may be busy drafting their finale, but not everyone is tuning in.