Whether it be on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, people have been using their social-media platforms to criticize other people’s behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic. Open Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter on any given day and you’re sure to see it. These posts often garner a lot of engagement and, occasionally, a headline or two. I mean, who can forget the infamous photo of Manhattan’s crowded Christopher Street Pier last summer that swept across the internet and showed (mostly) maskless revelers lounging about—to the indignation of everyone else shut in at home.
Lately, these posts have dominated the online discourse for the gay community, thanks in no small part to the now-infamous Instagram account GaysOverCOVID, which has been posting documentation of gay men who are “over” COVID since summer 2020. The account highlights men for flouting social-distancing guidelines, attending large events, or traveling frequently. Since its inception, GaysOverCOVID has garnered its fair share of attention and spurred more than a few hot takes.
Much of this conversation has revolved around the ethics of both those running the account (and others like it)—who are accused of public shaming—and those featured on it—who are accused of wild and selfish displays of privilege that put other people at risk. Others have opined on larger and stickier issues influencing the conversation, like race, class, and body image.
In that time, GaysOverCOVID has beefed up its brand, cross-posting and amplifying with other meme accounts with large followings, like The LA Basics and OverheardAtAGayBar—and at least one self-aggrandizing “life coach” with a penchant for slut-shaming. Together, these accounts have built their own little shame-fueled social media corner where they’ve anointed themselves both moral and public-health authorities.
In this corner, they’ve done what social media accounts, as least those based on going viral, do: work to grow their following. GaysOverCOVID now boasts over 130,000 followers, a remarkable feat for an account less than a year old.
In the only interview that he’s given, GaysOverCOVID’s administrator laid out his intentions for the account to reporter Taylor Lorenz. “I just want people to stay home, and if we can save one life, then I feel good, and we—the community that’s submitting content—have done a good deed.” A noble intention, no doubt. But questions around methodology and unintended outcomes remain.
What has felt absent from the conversation swirling around GaysOverCOVID in the past few months are the potential public-health implications of an anonymously run Instagram account with the ability to reach tens of thousands of people with each post that has taken a hardline stance on complex topics. While GaysOverCOVID and its affiliates are most definitely influencing the behavior of many people, particularly gay men, it’s important that we critically evaluate exactly what the impact might be.
Because of this, we should be wary of GaysOverCOVID, and accounts like it, for a couple of reasons. First, the shaming that they employ as a method of curbing dangerous behavior and reducing transmission, the account admin’s intent as stated to Lorenz, has been widely critiqued by public-health officials time and time again. Second, and perhaps more worrisome, is that these accounts have created a shame-fueled breeding ground for stigma, the long-term effects from which have the potential to chip away at years of public-health efforts.
While GaysOverCOVID has shrugged off accusations of public shaming, opting instead to justify their behavior in the name of accountability, much, much, much has been written over the past year in regard to the ineffectiveness of shaming as a tool to modify behavior. The general consensus is that it just doesn’t work the way the shamers hope it will.
“I think the instinct behind shaming is quite natural. It can reflect an expression of frustration or anger and a desire to change somebody else’s behavior that may be perceived to be risky,” says Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute. “But beyond being an expression of frustration, [shaming] does not tend to make people’s health behavior safer,” she says.
In fact, Marcus says that shaming can be counterproductive, with multiple unintended consequences. Shaming often makes people defensive, more likely to shut down and less likely to engage or cooperate with public-health officials. It also drives riskier behavior underground. Most worrisome is that shaming is frequently codified in actions like increased policing and criminalization.
Marcus points to an incident last summer when a gay man, Corey Hannon, traveled to Fire Island Pines not long after a COVID diagnosis, documenting the trip via his social media. Suddenly, COVID Corey, like Patient Zero before him, became the public face of a mismanaged societal health crisis and an easy lightning rod for the outrage of an exasperated public.
That same night, a group of men threw a large party on the island, which, upon its exposure, made national headlines, drawing widespread condemnation and unleashing a torrent of online shaming. The calls for increased policing on the island began almost immediately.
This can be a problem, according to Marcus. “When you start to turn shaming into criminalization, there is an inevitable consequence,” she says, “which is that the marginalized communities that we most want to protect end up being disproportionately impacted.”
We don’t have to hypothesize how laws created to address public-health matters might be inequitably enforced. There are clear examples. When the New York Police Department was called to enforce social-distancing and masking mandates in New York City in May of last year, almost all of those arrested were Black or Brown people, while predominantly white neighborhoods saw zero arrests. Similarly, HIV criminalization laws, which have been shown to have no impact on reducing HIV transmission rates and may actually dissuade people from getting tested, disproportionately affect Black Americans.
Steven Thrasher, Ph.D., a writer and professor whose work centers on marginalized populations, agrees. “Whatever we do in terms of surveillance, the blowback is going to be on the most marginalized. It’s not going to hurt the white party gays the most, it’s going to end up harming the people of color the most,” he tells TheBody.
We’ve already seen GaysOverCOVID celebrate the Los Angeles Police Department for shutting down a New Year’s Eve party earlier this year. This concerns public-health researcher and activist Caleb LoSchiavo, M.P.H., who worries that this behavior serves to normalize the idea of using the police to intervene in public-health matters.
“It plants the seed of this idea that calling the cops on a party is good, and that you’re doing it for the good of the community,” he says. “It crafts the actions as, ‘I’m a public-health warrior because I’m calling cops to break up this party.’” LoSchiavo also highlights that the communities disproportionately affected by over-policing are also those that have been hardest hit by COVID.
Thrasher does emphasize that not all difficult conversations about risky behavior are necessarily shaming. There are productive conversations to be had that can positively influence behavior. He likens these conversations to those he’s having with family members who are reticent to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. “I want to [have the conversation] in a way that’s effective. I think if they saw me making fun of them on the internet, it would drive them further away,” he says. “It’s a matter of figuring out how to have those conversations.”
The gay men gallivanting around Puerto Vallarta on New Year’s Eve are by no means victims. In the midst of a global health crisis, they exhibited wild displays of privilege, which some have posited border on colonial, that show a clear disregard for a local at-risk population in a country in the Global South.
Marcus points out that, to some, critiquing public shaming is tantamount to condoning bad behavior. But, she says, that’s not actually the alternative to shaming.
“The alternative is to try to understand why people are engaging in a certain kind of behavior,” she says. “Because there is often some explanation that points to a more productive way to address it.”
This is harm reduction—a term you’ve probably seen floated around a lot lately. The idea behind it is that by understanding someone’s core motivations, we can offer alternative solutions that, as the name suggests, reduce harm—to them and to others. Harm reduction requires understanding and compassion. It’s not an easy couple of clicks on a keyboard, and it doesn’t give you that smug satisfaction of dragging the muscle gay you’ve always kind of thought was a dick.
Unfortunately, Americans have historically been reluctant to adopt bold harm-reduction policies, instead often favoring an abstinence-only approach, which can have disastrous results.
When we opt to shame instead of try to practice harm reduction, there can be far-reaching consequences.
“Shame is not just saying the thing you’re doing is bad. It’s saying you’re a bad person,” LoSchiavo tells TheBody. “It’s specifically about making a person feel bad or feel inferior.” This moralizing of behavior is how shame grows into stigma.
Both Marcus and Thrasher agree that once shaming creates stigma, it’s impossible to control who that stigma affects, and, as with criminalization, it will end up disproportionately impacting marginalized communities.
So, in other words, while we all may find a little humor (and maybe some justice) in watching the party boat sink in Puerto Vallarta, stigma being assigned to the predominantly white, cisgender, affluent men in this situation will inevitably flow downstream and impact groups that hold less societal power.
As we enter the second year of the pandemic, it should be noted that the public-shaming techniques of GaysOverCOVID and their cohort doesn’t seem to have drastically curbed the number of people gathering maskless or traveling internationally. This then begs the question as to why the admins of these accounts refuse to listen to public-health experts and pivot their approach.
As Rich Juzwiak wrote in Jezebel, “What raises my hackles more than the vicious judgement is its pretensions. Mean for mean’s sake isn’t particularly noble, but at least it’s honest. Mean under the guise of nobility is morally askew. You cede the moral high ground when you go low. It’s just that simple.”
Juzwiak also zeroes in on the complete lack of nuance employed by those weighing in on the accounts. “There is, however, a large gray area between round-the-clock quarantine and hedonistic disregard for all social responsibility, and that’s where I suspect most people reside. Yet the GaysOverCOVID conversation so often promotes a binary: Rules are good, breaking them is bad,” he writes.
Herein lies the long-term danger in these accounts. Borne out of a desire to police, they’ve created an environment, backed by thousands of followers, that tolerates shame, celebrates stigma, and rejects nuance.
This black-and-white understanding of risk and individual behavior generates a lot of the outrage that spews from these accounts. Absent any clear federal leadership during much of this pandemic, responsibility has shifted to the individual to decide what activities feel safe and what activities are deemed risky. We’ve suddenly been made personally responsible for not just our own well-being but for the well-being of the collective.
All of this is complicated by the fact that throughout the pandemic, governments, at least here in the United States, have not provided people the support that they need to ensure that they can reduce their risk. The narratives around personal responsibility and the moralizing about individual behavior distract from this clear lack of leadership.
“We have been told by officials that the responsibility for containing the pandemic lies more with individuals than policymakers,” says Marcus. “There has also been a lot of moralizing about individual-level behavior. People have been hearing for months that if they take any risks, they are selfish or reckless, and that if they don’t, they are doing the right thing and being virtuous.”
GaysOverCOVID was founded with intent to shame. These accounts need it to survive; it’s their lifeblood. Because of this, it’s not surprising that the ire of these accounts has never been relegated to just COVID shaming. Spend some time scrolling through GaysOverCOVID or The LA Basics, and you’ll find comment after comment full of stigmatizing language about sexual health, HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Murray Penner, the U.S. executive director of Prevention Access Campaign, an organization dedicated to ending the epidemics of HIV and HIV-related stigma, worries that this language may turn back the clock on some of the work that has been done to destigmatize HIV in recent years.
“I felt like we were making good progress as a gay community about PrEP-shaming and HIV stigma, but it feels as though over the last year that this [stigma] has all resurfaced,” Penner says. “It’s almost like because of COVID, we now have the license to start that whole discussion again.”
“I even saw someone who said, ‘Larry Kramer would’ve loved GaysOverCOVID,’ and yes, he would have, but that’s not a good thing,” says Jason Rosenberg, a longtime member of ACT UP and HIV activist. “Larry Kramer was known to be an anti-PrEP advocate and used fear as a tool for HIV/AIDS prevention.”
To Rosenberg, the language these accounts have used when discussing HIV, PrEP, and other STIs feels eerily familiar. “A lot of these accounts are using the same talking points that anti-PrEP advocates have been using, implying that people who choose condomless sex while on PrEP are reckless and careless,” Rosenberg says.
The LA Basics has a documented history of sharing highly stigmatizing, sex-negative posts. Last year, the admin of the account posted a story, on World AIDS Day of all days, in which he said he’d been told by his doctor that many people living with HIV do not seek any treatment and still continue to have unprotected sex with multiple partners.
“This type of pushing of disease stigma, whether it’s newly formed COVID-19 stigma or older stigma, is harmful to public health,” Rosenberg continues. “When we see these [social media] accounts pushing shame narratives around health behavior, we’re seeing pathways to any type of disease stigma and how it can have detrimental long-term effects.”
As with COVID shaming and stigma, HIV and other STI stigma can drive people away from care. It can dissuade people from getting tested for fear of learning they’re positive or to avoid having to disclose a positive test result to a partner. Stigma is often also internalized, causing mental and emotional distress. The CDC recommends not testing for herpes antibodies during routine STI screens because, even though it’s extremely common, a positive test result can cause severe emotional distress simply because of the stigma associated with it.
The potential harm of these accounts is only amplified by the fact that these conversations are happening over social media. Social media can be a strong tool for public-health initiatives, helping to disseminate messages to large groups of people for a relatively low cost. However, whether it’s the hawking of flat-tummy teas, vaccine misinformation, or HIV/STI stigma, social media can also be an extremely easy pathway through which bad health information can spread. A recent study in the U.K. found that only one out of nine weight-management blogs studied shared sound medical information on their pages. The other eight shared opinions repackaged as facts.
While social-media companies have been cracking down on misinformation and disinformation more in recent months, the information being shared on GaysOverCOVID and The LA Basics isn’t necessarily false, it’s just highly, highly stigmatized. Given Instagram’s process for fact-checking reported posts, it’s unlikely any of these posts would be flagged.
There’s also the added foil that we, as human beings, are more likely to believe things we hear or read, especially online, if they’re substantiated by our peers. So, if all of your friends are sharing a post from The LA Basics that stigmatizes PrEP use, and you trust those friends, then that stigmatizing language and messaging starts to become normalized, which, in turn, may pose a risk to public-health efforts.