An anonymous Twitter account is helping Arizona State University officials crack down on students flouting coronavirus safety guidelines by posting photos and videos of crowded, maskless parties taking place around campus.
The account, ‘ASUcovidTracker’, was set up in August when the university in Tempe resumed in-person classes for the fall semester by a junior who became concerned about the administration’s efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 on campus.
Over the past two months the account has racked up more than 4,000 followers as it regularly posting blurred images of students violating the school’s safety protocols, along with updates about campus case counts and new policies.
The man behind the account, who is from Tempe and has gone to great lengths to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the administration or his peers, explained to the Daily Beast this week that his goal was not to shame rule breakers, but to hold ASU accountable for inviting thousands of students and staff back on campus during a pandemic.
‘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 via the encrypted messaging app Signal.
‘I just wanted to hold the university accountable in a way that I didn’t see happening.’
As of Monday, 1,996 coronavirus cases have been confirmed by ASU, and 121 remain active, according to the latest figures on the school’s website.
ASU officials say they are aware of the anonymous Twitter watchdog, and it appears they’re paying attention to it. Late last month, dozens of students and four Greek chapters were suspended in connection with events that were brought to light in photos posted to the account.
An anonymous Twitter account called ‘ASUcovidTracker’ is helping Arizona State University officials crack down on students flouting coronavirus safety guidelines by posting photos and videos of crowded, maskless parties taking place around campus
Dozens of ASU students and four Greek chapters were suspended less than a week after ASUcovidTracker posted this photo of students partying on a boat at Lake Pleasant
ASUcovidTracker also called out sororities for breaking social distancing rules during recruitment with photos like the one shown above
ASUcovidTracker had shared several images from two separate events, showing throngs of maskless students partying on a boat and sorority sisters ignoring social distancing protocols during recruitment.
‘Recruitment week doesn’t seem to be following CDC guidelines,’ the account wrote alongside the recruitment photos on September 10.
The photos from the boat party at Lake Pleasant came a couple weeks later on September 18, accompanied by the caption: ‘more like Lake Un-Pleasant.’
ASU announced its investigation into the events less than a week after the latter tweet. The school said 65 students and 13 student groups had been placed on interim suspension pending the results of that investigation
A university spokesman declined to say whether the tweets prompted the investigation, 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’.
ASU was one of the first major US universities to commit to in-person classes this fall. President Michael Crow announced the plan back in April and promised that the school would do whatever was necessary to keep students and staff safe.
In the days before the semester kicked off in August, 500 students and staff signed a letter expressing concerns over campus safety, but the university went forward anyway.
Images on the ASUcovidTracker page are blurred to conceal students’ identities. The account holder insisted that he does not want to shame individual students
The account holder said the goal of ASUcovidTracker was to hold university officials accountable for allowing in-person classes to resume during a pandemic and to highlight how they are failing to crack down on students flouting safety guidelines
The posts on ASUcovidTracker come primarily from student tips, the account holder said
As with many other schools that decided to hold classes in-person, ASU officials have faced intense criticism over how they report positive cases.
When the semester started, ASU chose not to release case data at all. Under pressure from the community, it started sharing active case numbers in early September and finally began releasing cumulative case numbers a few days later.
The university has declined to share the exact location of students testing positive, saying that doing so would violate their privacy and insisting that anyone who was in close contact with an infected individual will be contacted directly.
But the student behind ASUcovidTracker felt that geographic details needed to be widely accessible, and thus created a Google doc where users can report their own positive test results anonymously, along with their location.
The student said he believes his efforts have led to positive policy changes at ASU, including more accurate reporting data and stricter punishments for rule violators.
He said he’s received a range of responses from members of the community.
Many are angry that the account is exposing rule-breakers so publicly, even though photos and videos are edited to protect the identities of people in them.
Among the critics is the executive editor of ASU’s student newspaper, The State Press, who accused ASUcovidTracker of ‘causing panic within the ASU community’ by spreading ‘rumors and speculations’ about coronavirus cases.
‘I understand that your philosophy is to hold the administration accountable, that’s our job too,’ the editor wrote in an email to ASUcovidTracker’s ProtonMail account in early September, according to the Daily Beast.
‘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 editor said the anonymous Twitter account was undermining ‘tireless’ efforts by The State Press to keep track of real outbreaks, urging: ‘Please work to verify information before posting it.’
ASU was one of the first major US universities to commit to in-person classes this fall. Pictured: A student walks by a sign reminding people to wear masks on campus last month
The account holder said he was shocked by the editor’s harsh words, calling them ‘unconstructive’.
But in the wake of that email he did start taking a closer look at tips he receives, aiming to avoid publishing images that could turn out to be fake, he said.
He acknowledged that he can ‘never be 100 percent certain’ about how accurate the tips he receives are, but he still feels its important to publish them.
‘I wish the account didn’t have to exist,’ he said. ‘I wish the university was taking this seriously.’
On the other side of the spectrum, the account holder said he’s received positive reactions from many who feel his ‘watchdog’ project could help discourage students from engaging in reckless behavior.
Even though Greek life has been a prime target of ASUcovidTracker, the account creator said the reaction from fraternity and sorority members hasn’t been entirely negative.
He said he’s gotten plenty of messages from people telling him to stop being a killjoy, along with messages from Greek members who say they’re ashamed by their peers’ lack of regard for rules.
In a few cases, Greek members have even tipped him off about upcoming parties he can post about, he said.