The Controversial Twitter Account Putting ASU Students on Blast for Pandemic Partying
ASUcovidTracker has raised awareness of questionable policies and worse social-distancing practices at a massive campus. It has also generated backlash.
Late last month, Arizona State University placed dozens of students and four Greek chapters on interim suspension, pending an investigation of their alleged violations of COVID-19 safety protocols. The photos displayed in a local news broadcast that night—dozens of students packed together, maskless, on a boat; sorority sisters packing together for rush week—were shocking. But even more surprising was the revelation that they hadn’t been unearthed by a school administrator or campus newspaper, but by an anonymous student Twitter account known as “ASUcovidTracker.”
The account, which has racked up more than 4,000 followers in the two months since it started, regularly publishes anonymized photos of students violating social distancing guidelines, in between updates on campus case counts and critiques of university policies. It posted some of the first photos of Greek recruitment in early September (“Recruitment week doesn’t seem to be following CDC guidelines,” the accompanying text noted dryly), and published the photos of the Lake Pleasant boat party (“more like Lake Un-Pleasant”) on Sept. 18—less than a week before the university announced its investigation.
The account is one of many watchdog-style projects to emerge during the pandemic due to public mistrust of the government and school administrations. The creator claims it has helped secure tangible policy victories at ASU, such as stricter punishments for pandemic rule violators and more accurate data reporting from the university. But it has also generated backlash on campus, including from some unlikely sources. Fearing a negative response from the administration, the creator has so far chosen to remain anonymous—appearing on local news stations with his face blurred and voice changed, and conducting operations through a bevy of secure messaging apps.
In an interview through the encrypted communication platform Signal, the creator told The Daily Beast his goal was not to shame individual students, but to hold ASU responsible for inviting thousands of young people to his native Tempe, Arizona, in the midst of a global pandemic. (The creator provided his full name and a photo of his ID card on the condition that his identity not be revealed.)
“I knew that for my community, there was going to be a huge impact to bringing all these students back… especially when a lot of these students don’t care about social distancing or really trying to stop the spread,” he told The Daily Beast. “I just wanted to hold the university accountable in a way that I didn’t see happening.”
ASU was one of the first major campuses to announce a return to in-person learning this year, declaring in April that classes would resume at 50 percent capacity in the fall. Despite promises from President Michael Crow that the school would implement “whatever safety measures and health protocols are necessary to keep students and employees safe,” in August, 500 staff and students signed a letter expressing their concerns over campus safety.
In an email to The Daily Beast, a university spokesperson said the school had invested “millions of dollars and thousands of hours” working on strategies to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, including providing tests, increasing campus cleaning, introducing some remote instruction, and placing Plexiglas and signage around campus.
But a major concern for many on campus has been how the school reports its positive case numbers. At first, the university did not release any case counts at all—then only the active cases counts, and then, only recently, a cumulative total. Like some other universities, ASU still does not publish the exact location of people who have tested positive. The stated purpose of this policy is to protect student privacy, but the effect is that students could have been living or learning near an active COVID case and had no idea. (A spokesperson said the university contacts anyone whom a positive student reports having been around for more than 10 minutes at a distance closer than 6 feet.)
The primary purpose of the ASUcovidTracker account, the creator said, was to fill that gap—to publish the location of positive cases on campus. One of the first links he tweeted was to a Google form where students could report their own positive test results, then have their location anonymously shared with the community. The idea, he tweeted, was to “create a community that is more informed and safer from this virus.”
But as time went on, and the account gained popularity, students and staff started reaching out about other issues. Some had questions about university policies, like how to switch rooms if their roommate wasn’t following social-distancing protocols. Others wanted to report large gatherings near them or complain about students not wearing masks. Still others had screenshots of party invites, or even better, photos from the parties themselves.
Reporting on Greek life was a natural evolution. Not only were fraternity and sorority members some of the most flagrant rule violators, but they also fit into what the creator had come to see as the mission of the account: holding campus institutions accountable. He has always refused to call out individual students, and blurs the faces of anyone whose picture he posts. But Greek life, with its national support structures and alumni backing, was an institution much like the university itself—and one that he felt should be called out for how its members behaved. (Representatives from the ASU Greek Council, Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic did not respond to emails seeking comment.)
The first weekend after classes started on Aug. 20, the account posted screenshots of a Greek life party invite (“Last minute party, feel free to bring whoever,” the social media invite read) as well as “unconfirmed” reports of numerous cases in Greek houses whose members were still partying. Then came the photos from rush week, which showed multiple sororities flouting the distancing guidelines, and then the boat party on Lake Pleasant. (A university spokesperson would not say whether or not the suspensions were spurred by these posts, but said the school gets information from “many sources, including social media posts and tips from students, faculty and staff, and members of the community.)
The account has also tweeted out videos of several non-Greek, off-campus parties, as well as footage of a slip-n-slide in front of an on-campus dorm.
Surprisingly, however, the response from Greek life members hasn’t been entirely negative. The account creator said he’s received a few comments and direct messages telling him to stop ruining everyone’s fun, but also gets messages from members telling him how ashamed they are of their fellow members, or even tipping him off to where the next party will be held.
That doesn’t mean the account is unimpeachable. One student labelled it “toxic”—the ultimate millennial sign of contempt—and another recently called it a “snitch account.” And one of the harshest critiques has come from an unexpected source: the student newspaper.
In an email sent to the ASUcovidTracker ProtonMail account in early September, the executive editor of the student-run State Press newspaper accused the account holder of spreading “rumors and speculations” about COVID cases and “causing panic within the ASU community.”
“I understand that your philosophy is to hold the administration accountable, that’s our job too,” she wrote. “But publishing emails from various Tempe apartment complexes and on-campus dorms, reporting misinterpreted data and information—which you openly admit you cannot verify—is not holding the university accountable.”
The State Press, the editor wrote, was “work[ing] tirelessly” to provide the campus with accurate information, and holding themselves to “the highest standards of accuracy and ethical journalism”—including meeting regularly with the administration to ask questions about their COVID response. She closed by asking the account creator to “please work to verify information before posting it.”
The editor declined to comment on the record, but previously tweeted that she stands behind “everything that I said in this email.”
The account creator said he was blindsided. He knew he had different editorial standards than the State Press, but he had never claimed to be anything approaching a newspaper. He didn’t understand why the two groups couldn’t exist simultaneously—after all, he had provided assistance to multiple other news outlets over the semester. And besides that, he wondered, if case counts were rapidly rising on campus, wasn’t a little bit of panic a good thing?
“I really do respect student journalists, I think it’s really crucial. I just don’t know why they sent it,” he said of the email. “It didn’t feel constructive.”
In the aftermath, however, the account creator said he has taken a hard look at his standards for posting unconfirmed reports. Reporting on parties or a lack of social distancing is easy, as people often send video and photographic evidence. And he has long required students who report test results on the Google form to provide some kind of proof.
But other tips—such as those about outbreaks in Greek houses, or asymptomatic students violating quarantine—are harder to confirm. He always checks the source of the information to make sure they’re an ASU community member, and often waits until he gets multiple similar reports. Sometimes, when he fears that publishing the information will get the tipster in trouble, he doesn’t publish it at all.
But ultimately, he conceded, “with something like this, you can never be 100 percent certain on the stuff you report.” And at the end of the day, that’s not really his primary goal.
“I wish the account didn’t have to exist,” he said. “I wish the university was taking this seriously.”