WashU Covidiots, an anonymous student-run Instagram account, emerged Sept. 5 in response to undergraduate students breaking Washington University COVID-19 guidelines.
Gaining more than 2,500 followers in less than three weeks, the account features images of students on or near campus in tightly-packed groups, sometimes not wearing masks. With coronavirus cases continuing to increase nationwide, the purpose of the Instagram account is to expose student gatherings that fail to comply with safety guidelines both on and off campus.
“We want to ensure we have a safe semester where students will abide by public health guidelines,” the account owners wrote in a statement to Student Life. “We’ve tried to raise awareness through our page.”
Most students featured on the account are not easily identifiable, with some faces intentionally blurred by the account owners.
“The goal is not to shame individuals, because most violations are benevolent and accidental,” the account owners explained.
Senior Caitlin Flynn said she thought that WashU Covidiots was a good way to “keep students in line.”
“Shaming is an effective and necessary method when it’s a matter of public safety that could quite literally mean death for many if the spread was worsened,” Flynn said.
Freshman Orli Hellerstein agreed with Flynn and said that the “University isn’t doing nearly enough to enforce the guidelines it put in place.”
“[WashU Covidiots] is the best we’ve got right now,” Hellerstein said.
Following COVID-19 guidelines such as universal mask-wearing and maintaining six feet of distance can be a challenge for college students. Psychiatrist and professor Jessica Gold explained that with adults across the country still throwing parties without masks, the expectation that college students will quickly adapt their behavior is flawed.
“You’re somehow supposed to quickly change, but you came from all over the country with different parents, different cultures, different expectations, different rules and regulations at home, and then probably were told ‘These are the rules, go,’” Gold said. “It’s not that simple.”
As students navigate this new and unprecedented college experience, they are forced to weigh numerous risks and benefits in the social situations they encounter, Gold explained. This is further complicated by conflicting mental health and physical health needs.
“If you look at the data, there are high rates of 18-34 year olds getting coronavirus but lower rates of them getting really sick from coronavirus… But if you look at mental illness rates, that particular population has among the highest rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation,” Gold said. “The risk of having [mental illness] is going to be higher than getting really sick from coronavirus.”
With mental health risks generally outweighing physical health risks, Gold said she understood why students who are depressed, lonely and anxious make the choice to go outside and see others. She also understood why some students believe they are doing the right thing by posting pictures of prohibited gatherings on social media. But Gold warned that social media accounts such as WashU Covidiots can have repercussions.
“Even if by not showing faces you’re not intending to shame people, I’m sure [the featured students] recognize themselves, and I’m sure their friends recognize them. That can lead to bullying,” Gold explained. “It could be dangerous, too, for mental health or safety.”
Freshman Talia Stein agreed that the Instagram account could have negative effects on mental health, adding that it “could make people really anxious.”
Stein said it creates a culture of “pointing fingers and shaming people.”
Both Stein and Gold agreed, however, that the Instagram account is based in good intentions.
“I think the purpose is just to make sure the campus is safe,” Stein said.
“There’s an underlying student desire for change and belief that there’s more that could be done,” Gold said. “But it doesn’t necessarily help to point out all the ways we’re doing it wrong and all the people who are doing it wrong as much as it is to say, ‘How do we do it right?’ and ‘How do we help people do it right?’”