Social media shaming is spiking during the coronavirus pandemic, for better or worse

Big Brother is in your Facebook feed. And watching your Instagram account to see if you’re going anywhere besides the grocery store. And ready to troll you on Twitter for doing something selfish during the pandemic.

If you were part of the hordes that parked at Berthoud Pass last weekend to backcountry ski, we saw your car in the CDOT camera image that circulated online. Now the head of the state Department of Natural Resources, among others, is disappointed in you. “The pandemic is not a vacation,” agency executive director Dan Gibbs said, retweeting a photo of the snowy parking lot and paraphrasing the governor. “Selfish” was a popular response to the picture.

“PARENTS, WHERE ARE YOU?” shouted a Denver-area woman on Nextdoor, the ultimate neighbor-to-neighbor shaming platform even before the new coronavirus, complaining about a dozen high school-age kids playing volleyball. Another person threatened on Nextdoor to shoot pepper spray in the face of anyone who came too close on the trails.

Social media shaming obviously isn’t new, but it’s spiked during the outbreak of the new coronavirus. And while some of it is hurtful — and downright mean — it’s not all bad, say experts who have studied social media behaviors for years.

Gov. Jared Polis’ #DoingMyPartCO is essentially peer-pressuring Coloradans to stay inside, pick up takeout from local restaurants and get fresh air (close to home). If the fear of getting infected isn’t powerful enough, the possibility of having your photo taken and shared publicly is one more reason to stay home — or resist the urge to buy all the toilet paper and cans of soup.

Online shaming is spiriting a “reclamation of public responsibility,” said Lynn Schofield Clark, a professor at the University of Denver and chair of the Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies.

“I think everyone is worried right now about people being out for themselves,” she said. “We are used to thinking for ourselves, and we are a country that values individual liberties and freedoms.” But now, “we are supposed to be part of a larger public and care for each other.”

And doing anything but staying home right now (unless you’re an essential worker) is likely not contributing to the public good.

On Facebook, a Colorado woman posted spring break photos from a beach vacation taken just as the new coronavirus reached Colorado. “Enjoy your 14 days of quarantine,” responded a friend. And Littleton neighbors who sat outside in their cul de sac last weekend, more than 6 feet apart in their own chairs, wondered if their quarantine party would show up on Nextdoor or Facebook for judgment after an unfriendly passerby stopped to take pictures with his smartphone.

Creede resident Clint Johnson has both dished it and received it. Johnson had shared jokes about the pandemic on social media and thought the stay-at-home order was “overkill,” but then he got COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. He knew he was in for some shaming when he revealed his news on Facebook last Friday.

He put it all out there anyway. “The sad thing is that I didn’t take it seriously at first so I honestly have no idea where I could have contracted it at or who I could have spread it to and for that I am truly sorry,” he wrote. The vast majority of folks replied with encouraging words and prayers for his recovery, but not everyone.

“I am curious how many people you infected because you thought this was funny,” responded one. “Like they said when we were kids, it’s all fun and games until it happens to you.”

Clint Johnson, a Creede resident, was bracing for some social media shaming after revealing via Facebook that he was sick with COVID-19 and had no idea who he infected because he hadn’t taken social distancing guidelines seriously. Almost all of his Facebook friends were nice. (Photo from Johnson’s Facebook page)

Johnson, 46, woke up feeling sick March 16 but went to work that day and the next remodeling a house. By the third day, he was too sick to get up. He was airlifted to a hospital in Pueblo six days ago, and was sleeping with ice packs under his knees, kidneys and neck to try to bring down his fever.

Johnson, speaking via phone from his hospital bed Monday and coughing every minute or so, said he thought the worst of it was over — he had finally gotten a good night’s sleep and his breathing was improving.

“I wouldn’t wish this on anybody,” he said, recalling that he had friends over to hang out and throw horseshoes right up until he realized he was sick. “I thought it was a joke. I was making fun, and when it hit me, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I felt pretty stupid.”

Some of the most brutal shaming has been reserved for celebrities — particularly anyone living in a multimillion-dollar mansion who dares to complain about being stuck at home or tells anyone else to stay at home.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow was shamed into deleting a tone-deaf Instagram post touting a designer outfit and her “fresh sneaker guide.” The reaction to singer Jared Leto’s bizarre Twitter post about emerging from 12 days of “silent meditation in the desert” only to learn about the coronavirus was swift and brutal.

“The world awaits your wisdom and instructions for what we should do during this crisis Jared,” was one of many sarcastic replies.

Wow. 12 days ago I began a silent meditation in the desert. We were totally isolated. No phone, no communication etc. We had no idea what was happening outside the facility.

— JARED LETO (@JaredLeto) March 17, 2020

Schofield Clark, the professor, sees that as a positive development in the social media world. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to call out people who have privilege,” she said. “It’s a really hopeful sign to me, … for a society that tends to be very individualistic.”

Some people are lashing out on social media in part because that’s their only outlet during quarantine — it’s a way to do something to help. But something bigger is happening, too, a shift of ideological lines that were drawn in the past. It’s a new age of “protection of self and protection of others,” Schofield Clark said.

In New York, masses of people who gathered to watch the USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship, glide into port Monday had their photo shared on Twitter by Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi. “Honestly if you recognize people in these photos feel free to call them out because this is absolutely insane,” she said to her 632,000 folllowers.

Julie Tran, a student at the University of Denver, said that while she understands what’s at stake with the stay-at-home order, she has been surprised at the nasty tone directed toward young people who thought — at least in the beginning — that the virus could not hurt them. College and high school students who posted pictures of themselves out eating ice cream or hanging out at a friend’s house during the pandemic have learned their lesson and seem to have stopped doing those things — or at least stopped sharing them, she said.

“Instagram is mostly people staying inside, going insane,” Tran said.

And thanks to isolation and the need for information, social media use has reached obsession levels for some during the pandemic, said Lan Liang, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Colorado Denver who is studying how social media product design affects mental health.

“It is such an unsettling moment in the world, and some people, like myself, could be very anxious to know everything,” Liang said. “I remember there were a few days when I could not do anything but constantly checking the latest news online across various social media platforms. It was unhealthy.”

But social media also is helping people connect, in a time they most need it, she said.

Without it “you would not get to know how a grandma walks her dog during quarantine in Serbia,” said Liang, who has been studying social media during the pandemic. (The woman lowered the dog by its leash from her balcony.) In China, news of the outbreak first circulated on WeChat, a Chinese social network, among a group of Wuhan doctors who were sounding an alarm, she said.

Policymakers in various countries are paying attention to online responses from the public. In Denver, the mayor reversed course on closing liquor and marijuana stores after both were bombarded in what customers thought were their final hours to shop. Photos of long lines during the Great Denver Prohibition of 2020 were all over the internet.

Across the world, #CoronaVirusKindness has collected thoughts of gratitude for medical workers, and health care workers have shared photos on their Facebook pages with the text “Stay home for us.”

“No matter who we are and where we are, what we see on social media deliver the message that we are on the same boat together,” Liang said. But, “being understanding and sensitive is very important in any context, especially in this pandemic.”

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