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The Season of the Snitch

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People have always reveled in exposing the hypocritical acts of politicians, but over the last year the cooped-up masses began regarding one another with the same wariness.

As the spring lockdowns were put into effect, people began sharing social media posts as evidence of their peers not distancing, or to identify businesses that were failing to enforce safety measures. In Wisconsin, a local doctor was suspended after being photographed at a rally against masks in April; across the country, governments created hotlines for people to raise concerns related to the pandemic. Last March, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti encouraged people to report businesses that violated Covid-19 safety laws, declaring: “snitches get rewards.” (Rewards were not actually offered.)

The NBA also created a hotline for its players to report on each other while they were playing in their sealed quarantine bubble for the 2019-20 season. “To all my fellow NBA players, don’t call the snitch hotline,” Brooklyn Nets player Spencer Dinwiddie told Bleacher Report, after several players reportedly called in with complaints. But also: “Don’t cross the line to get Postmates.”

College campuses emerged as snitching hotbeds: In some cases, universities including Yale and N.Y.U. set up hotlines for students to report Covid-related complaints; in other cases students took measures into their own hands. A Cornell student apologized publicly after she was shamed for posting a Snapchat from a party. “Nobody likes snitching — it’s not comfortable,” a Cornell sophomore named Melissa Montejo, who signed a petition criticizing that student, told The New York Times. “I really am not one to go around and tell people what to do, but for me, this was troubling. Three months of being careful and not engaging in problematic behavior is worth saving a life.”

It seems inevitable that some college students would choose to socialize despite the risks; by reopening their campuses, universities essentially forced panicked students into the difficult position of reporting on their peers to keep themselves safe.

It didn’t always work. Even as their peers snapped photos of them through their windows, many students at campuses around the country continued partying. At the University of North Carolina, an account called “Where Y’all Going?” posted photos of maskless socializing among students; so did one at Santa Clara University called “Snitch SCU,” and another at Cornell called “Cornell Accountability.”

College students weren’t the only ones using anonymous accounts to enforce Covid-19 safety norms. An account called “Gaysovercovid” was just one of many that emerged over the summer last year to post user-submitted photos, this time of crowded, mask-less beach parties in vacation destinations like Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Much of the social media scolding of those flaunting the rules could be lumped into the category of “corona-shaming.” The roasting was intended to embarrass, and not as an appeal to authorities.

But it has made for an energizing flash point in the ongoing culture wars. An August 2020 segment on the Fox News show “The Ingraham Angle” — titled “Colleges turning students into Covid-19 snitches” — denounced the campus hotlines, while a Feb. 2021 segment on the show titled “Biden’s Snitch Patrol” mentioned Mayor Garcetti’s pro-snitch comments and a teen who turned in her mother for rioting at the Capitol, declaring that “these seething snitches have more in common with the old-fashioned Soviet thought police than they have with the free speech liberals of the 1970s.”

In some cases the snitching backlash has left the realm of television grievance and entered the real world, to disturbing effect. In a December speech, Dallas Heard, an Oregon state senator, encouraged local businesses to file public records requests to find out the names of individuals who had made workplace complaints over Covid concerns — snitching on the snitches, so to speak.

Then, a group called Citizens Against Tyranny that Mr. Heard belongs to posted the names of two senior citizens on its website, accusing them of filing complaints and describing them as “filthy traitors” in a font designed to look as if it was splattered with blood, according to The News-Review, a local paper in Roseburg, Ore.

The post was later removed. On Feb. 22, Mr. Heard was elected chair of the Oregon state Republican Party.



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