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Social media takes COVID-19 shaming to new levels

Julian Siegel, owner of The Riverside Market
Julian Siegel, owner of Riverside Market and Cafe in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said his business fell 20% after someone posted a picture on Nextdoor of people waiting in his parking lot for food and said they weren’t practicing social distancing.
(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

In the spring, Rick Rose drew the wrath of strangers after he practically shouted on Facebook that he wasn’t buying a face mask. Two months later, he contracted COVID-19 — and, he posted, was struggling to breathe. Days later, on July 4, he was dead.

That post, among the 37-year-old Ohio man’s final public words on Facebook, prompted more than 3,100 “laughing” emoji and a torrent of criticism from strangers.

“If they would have known him, they would have loved him like everybody else did,” said Tina Heschel, Rose’s mother, who said she’s “tired of all the hate.”

“I just want him to rest,” she said.

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People were shaming those who got sick or flouted rules during public health crises long before the novel coronavirus appeared, researchers say. But the warp speed and reach of social media in this pandemic era have given the practice an aggressive new dimension.

“It’s like someone just turned up the volume on stigmas that were already there,” said University of Pennsylvania professor David S. Barnes, who has studied pandemics and stigmatization.

The Times conducted an informal survey to see how many people were following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to wear a mask in crowded outdoor spaces.

People shame or stigmatize when they feel threatened, he said. They need an explanation, and they find a scapegoat. It helps them reaffirm their thinking and make sense of what’s happening — an important notion during a pandemic, which can feel vague and invisible.

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“There’s never been a society that hasn’t moralized disease, ever,” Barnes said.

Social media platforms take this practice and scale it to mass proportions, making it effectively limitless.

“It’s changed the expectation of being able to speak up,” said Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist who studies the impact of social media as director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “Everyone has a voice now.”

And those voices are used.

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When a Florida sheriff said in August that his deputies wouldn’t be allowed to wear masks except in limited circumstances, Twitter users swiftly branded him a “#COVIDIOT.” When doctors diagnosed Ecuador’s first coronavirus case earlier this year, pictures circulated within hours on social media showing the retired school teacher unconscious and intubated in her hospital bed.

Rose’s death was reported by national media, and visitors from around the country have stopped at his Facebook page to post messages or memes shaming him. Many also left messages wishing him well or scolding those who criticized.

Shaming can help people feel reassured that they have done things correctly and that the other person must have made a mistake, said Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies social media. She called this “magical protection and fantasy.”

“It’s a way of putting a wall between ourselves and the people who are getting sick,” she said.

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To healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis, encountering people who indignantly refuse face coverings can feel like a slap in the face.

Social media also give people who are isolated during a pandemic a quick way to join communities that share their beliefs.

“You behave in ways that you would not behave individually,” Rutledge said.

People may not even realize that they are piling on as they click an emoji or leave a comment while scrolling through their feeds. Social media, Turkle said, can make shaming quite addictive.

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“They’re not even addicted to the particular content anymore. They’re just sort of addicted to the process of participating,” she said.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter give users a way to quickly pass judgment — one that can create “legal, economic and all kinds of ramifications that never would have happened before,” Rutledge said.

Julian Siegel said business dropped about 20% this spring at his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., restaurant after someone posted a picture on the Nextdoor app of people waiting in his parking lot for food. The person said the customers weren’t following social distancing guidelines at the Riverside Market and Cafe; Siegel insists that they were.

“It was crazy,” Siegel said. “People who have never been here were bashing us, saying how we were spreading COVID.”

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After that, he started seeing people drive slowly by his restaurant, apparently taking pictures or video with their phones.

“We call them social media warriors. There’s nothing you could do,” he said. “We would wave.”

Some recovered COVID-19 patients feel like social outcasts as misconceptions about the virus persist.

Siegel saw three or four posts on Nextdoor and Facebook that he said would lead to arguments about whether patrons were being safe. In the end, he figures, more people defended the restaurant than criticized it.

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Christy Broce used social media to fight stigmatization instead of fuel it. The Pocahontas County, W.Va., resident spent nearly a month in quarantine this summer after she and her two sons contracted COVID-19.

She said they kept to themselves, and family members brought them groceries. But they still felt scorned, especially after someone falsely reported to the local health department that she was shopping at a grocery store a couple of days after she tested positive. That prompted her to make a public plea for compassion on Facebook. Hundreds of people liked or loved that post, and several sent cards or messages of support.

“People have reached out and been a little more caring,” Broce said.

The response doesn’t surprise Rutledge. She said sharing empathy or support on social media makes both the giver and the recipient feel better. Like shaming or criticism, it can help reaffirm a person’s views or beliefs.

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And there’s this benefit, too, she said: “It’s also a way to sort of make the world seem like a kinder, gentler place.”


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