The Social Media Shame Machine Is In Overdrive Right Now

Because we know so little — and have so little faith in our leaders — we are scrambling for some sense of order. That often means leveling judgment on others.

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About a month ago, Amelia, 25, started experiencing symptoms in line with COVID-19. She was able to get tested, the results came back positive, and she immediately went into self-isolation, where she weathered her relatively mild symptoms. She has since fully recovered, as determined by her health care providers; with their approval, she has been taking walks, going grocery shopping, and picking up takeout while observing social distancing measures.

“Still, my friends are giving me shit for going outside,” she told me, “and basically implying that I am infecting the world and killing people by going outdoors. They don’t especially care if my food is running out or about me much at all. They only care that I am clearly doing a bad thing by going outdoors — even though I’m not.”

Almost all of this criticism, Amelia said, is directed at her via social media — in comments and DMs on Instagram and Twitter. Which is part of why she asked me to use a pseudonym: Her real name is unique, and she doesn’t want people finding her and directing even more anger her way.

What’s happening to Amelia reminded me of what happened to my BuzzFeed colleague, who, earlier this month, wrote her own COVID-19 story — outlining how her roommate in her small Brooklyn apartment started having symptoms, how they did their best to isolate from one another, how my colleague herself started feeling sick but couldn’t get tested and could only be “presumed” positive. She made the best decisions she could with the information and resources available to her. She received a barrage of emails questioning every decision — horrible, accusatory emails. We closed the comment section on the piece.

Four days later, Reyhan Harmanci published the story of her family’s “fetid week of coronavirus,” under the headline “I Know the Day We Got It.” The piece included a harrowing description of asking friends if they would be able to take and care for their infected children if Harmanci and her partner were hospitalized. When I posted it in a Facebook group I’ve come to rely on for empathy and nuance, one of the first responses was “That’s not the day they got it. It’s the day they spread it to countless people.”

When we’re confronted with lived experiences of how the virus works, our first inclination is often to try to solve the puzzle of contamination: Where’d they go wrong? And how can I avoid it? It’s policing masquerading as detective work. I find myself doing something similar every time I open Instagram: This weekend I saw a picture of a gaggle of kids playing in a backyard on a gorgeous Pacific Northwest afternoon. My first thought: No playdates! It took me a moment to realize it was just the family of a friend — who happens to have six children.

Our first inclination is often to try to solve the puzzle of contamination: Where’d they go wrong? And how can I avoid it? It’s policing masquerading as detective work.

Someone on Twitter admitted they’d found themselves giving the side-eye to someone who was clearly under 60 and shopping at the grocery store during senior hours — before watching the person sheepishly apologizing to everyone she saw. She was caring for and living with her parents, both of whom were severely immunocompromised. A friend filled with COVID-related anxiety decided to drive around LA and look at famous houses from Nancy Meyers movies. She never got out of her car, never came in contact with other people. People in the comments chided her for putting others in danger. A coworker was on a bike ride, away from crowds, with his children in tow. A man in a car slowed down to a crawl beside him and yelled at him to put on a mask.

If you’ve spent time online or in public spaces lately, you’ve probably experienced, witnessed, or participated in a similar behavior. But here’s the thing: As most of the country reaches its fifth week of self-isolation and social distancing, the vast majority of people are doing their damn best. Of course, there are people holding church services and a small handful of others are meeting in secret at underground clubs. But these people are outliers, their behaviors far from the norm. Even the people who think the government is overreacting are still largely behaving in ways that would protect themselves and others from infection.

Those who still have to go to work are desperate to keep themselves and their communities safe, even when their employers don’t provide adequate protection. People who are able to work from home are, in the vast majority of cases, being incredibly careful. When we were told not to wear masks — and to save them for essential workers — we didn’t; when that advice changed and we were instructed to wear masks, we scavenged and scrounged for and jury-rigged our own. We’re donating to others if we’re able, we’re reading and sharing news stories of tremendous grief and sacrifice, we’re reaching out to elderly neighbors, and we’re checking in with friends from the far corners of our lives.

But some of us, amid all of that, are also being real and total assholes. We’re giving no one the benefit of the doubt. We’re skeptical and untrusting, quick to judge and slow to apologize. Some of these behaviors, especially implicitly and explicitly racist ones, are straight-up inexcusable. But some of them, maybe even most of them, are misguided manifestations of fear and confusion in the face of a very real vacuum of authority. Because we know so little — and have so little faith in so many of our leaders — we are scrambling to assemble some sense of order in our lives. And a lot of times, that means leveling judgment on others as we desperately try to convince ourselves that we’re doing the right thing, even as the “right” thing often remains unclear.

Is it okay to see your parents after two weeks of strict isolation? If you don’t have underlying health conditions, should you Instacart and tip heavily or just go to the store? Should you wash your dog thoroughly after going outside? If you were sick and have recovered, how many days or weeks should you remain in total isolation? Is it okay to order nonessential items that need to be delivered through the mail? To eat takeout? But only if it’s been reheated?? But what if you don’t have a microwave??? It’s okay to go running, right? Oh wait, there’s a Medium post that says it’s not! Oh wait, that post is actually junk science!

There are dozens of new advice columns attempting to address these questions. But as Katie Notopoulos, author of our own column, How to Plague, reminds us, most of the columnists are just doing their best to consolidate accepted wisdom from experts — and that accepted wisdom can and continues to change quickly. We’re confronted with new information every day about the virus and how it works, about the economy and how it’s tanking, about our government and how it’s failing to get help to those who need it most. There’s still so much we don’t know, from the actual number of infections to when and how we’ll be able to stop wide-scale social distancing. We can’t plan more than a few days in the future. It seems ill-advised to make any sort of decision larger than “what should I have for dinner?” We don’t know what’s going to happen with our jobs, our schools, or life as we know it, other than none of it will ever really be the same.

All of it is so much for any one person, let alone someone who’s also simultaneously scared for themselves and their loved ones, to process. And it’s unsurprising that the places where we’re confronted with that information, again and again, would also become the places where we become our worst selves.

We’re giving no one the benefit of the doubt. We’re skeptical and untrusting, quick to judge and slow to apologize. 

I started noticing this tendency about a week into self-isolation. At some point in the midafternoon, Twitter — never a generally empathetic or understanding site in the first place — began to feel edgy and combustive, like a wedding where there’s an open bar and no one’s had anything but hors d'oeuvres for three hours. Seemingly innocuous tweets incited disproportionate reactions, asking how someone could think about (insert anything, really, here) when people were dying. But of course people could think, and tweet, about other things; we’re all coping and compartmentalizing the best we know how.

But the afternoons are when our best-laid plans for the day, and our wells of generosity for others, begin to deplete. We’re frustrated with what we haven’t accomplished, getting cabin fever in our makeshift workspaces, and scared for our partner, parent, or child who’s been out in the world for hours. And then the national press briefing enters the feed, filled with exaggerations and misinformation. Sometimes the president attacks state and local leaders; sometimes he contradicts his own health experts. He makes promises for programs that never seem to materialize and consistently downplays the very real fear that millions of Americans are feeling. None of it feels good or reassuring. And while some people channel their anger and frustration toward the president, others, exhausted with that prospect, direct it toward others. It feels like shit, and I hate it, and everyone I know does, too. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make some sort of sense.

I’ve taken to logging off or attempting to ignore social media for most of the afternoon, well into the early evening. By then, people have largely mellowed (with substances, with the end of the traditional workday). In that logged-off time, I try to take a walk with my dogs out on the trails that wind through the hills where I live. I realize I’m lucky to have this space, lucky to have a job that allows me to work from home, so indescribably lucky to be healthy and out in the world, even as I’m stricken, each day, with all I don’t know, and all I can’t prepare for. I feel something akin to nausea, constantly trying to reconcile my good fortune with my deep pessimism and fear.

And then I realize that each person I’ve encountered on these trails — which are open and free to the public, the pride of the area — has gone out of their way to make ample room for each other. Masks haven’t yet been mandated in the big, open spaces here, and smiles are still visible. Consciously or not, we are acknowledging each other’s good faith, our small but best intentions. We are kind and gentle with one another in person, even at a distance. I know it’s not that way everywhere. But at least for the moment, we’ve managed to preserve it here.

That’s the feeling I want to keep close — even online, where everyone’s mad and no one seems to know anything. The internet’s always kinda felt that way, but somehow it feels even more so today: Trolls are trollier, influencers are falling for QAnon theories, celebrities are flailing around to find the right tone, charlatans are shilling snake oil, and everyone’s yelling about everyone else. I don’t think we can dramatically change it, really — not so long as this authority vacuum remains in place. But we don’t have to fuel it, either.

That doesn’t mean ignoring the class- and race-based stratifications that make this virus affect people differently. It doesn’t mean pretending the virus does not discriminate or suggesting that everyone’s struggle is even close to equal. But it does mean we can remember that the most effective way to diffuse collective action — and the sweeping, systemic changes it can spark — has always been to turn those who are suffering against one another.●

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