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CoronavirusND and the politics of humor

and | Monday, October 26, 2020

Back in March when campus shut down, uncertainty about the future and a sense of loss set a gloomy fog over the student body. As students struggled to find ways to cope with COVID-19, many of them relied on a familiar coping mechanism for our generation — humor. One meme page, CoronavirusND, emerged as a top source of laughter for students. Over the following months, the account’s role in the ND community would raise pressing questions about the responsibilities of a large social media platform.

CoronavirusND’s Instagram account, titled “COVID Memes for Quaranteens,” has over 9,000 followers. The account uses memes to reveal the hilarities and absurdities of life as a college student during the pandemic. Under a different username — @puttingstudentsfirst — the account was initially used as a social media platform for 2020 candidates for Notre Dame student body president and vice president Michael Dugan and Ricardo Pozas Garza.

(Editor’s Note: Dugan is a former News Writer and Systems Administrator for The Observer.)

Courtesy of Adriana Perez

Dugan told The Observer over email that neither he nor Pozas Garza currently manages the Instagram account, although he admits he has submitted content to the page, and that it is now being run by someone else who was involved in their campaign.

In an email to The Observer, Dugan explained the reasoning behind making his campaign Instagram a meme page.

“The way the account became a meme page was pretty simple: the account had a good amount of ND followers and, since Ricardo and I weren’t going to use it for our campaign anymore, I didn’t really see any reason not to have it become a Notre Dame-centric meme/vent page,” he said in the email. “I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t expect to see it grow quite to the size it has, but it looks like the tri-campus community overwhelmingly enjoys it and it’s gained a large following as a result.

The administrators of CoronavirusND declined to speak to The Observer on the record and did not provide their names. According to Dugan’s emails, at some point after election season, the primary account user changed to someone else affiliated with the campaign.

CoronavirusND’s earliest available meme, from March 11, is a drinking game for handling Zoom classes: “If you’ve gotta work from home, you might as well get wasted,” the meme says. While many of the memes like this one could apply to college students anywhere, the account incorporates a unique Notre Dame flair by mocking the University administration. 

CoronavirusND hits all of the classic critiques of the University, lamenting the cost of education and mocking University President Fr. John Jenkins. A meme from March 16 satirizes Notre Dame’s high tuition as an expensive “streaming service.” Another early meme criticizes the administration for apparently refusing to refund room and board to students (the University later announced that it would pro-rate room and board). 

And so, students who were accustomed to mocking the administration on campus could now get their fix from the (dis)comfort of quarantine. Sophomore Annika Marshall, who follows CoronavirusND on Instagram, said that the account provided “a sense of connection among the campus community as we heard about all the news coming out.” CoronavirusND’s humor seemed to unify the student body during a difficult time of physical separation.

CoronavirusND plays a slightly different role on Twitter, where they have a little over 350 followers. They mostly share news: The account retweets local news sources, tweets about breaking news, updates followers on the COVID dashboard and shares email screenshots regarding the University’s COVID-19 response. To a lesser extent, they also share memes and retweet jokes.

The CoronavirusND Instagram page is managed quite differently. The majority of their posts are humorous, but they also post semi-regular updates on the dashboard and email announcements that they label as breaking news. Their more news-oriented posts often encourage followers to share their thoughts — “What do you think?” is a common addendum to the captions.

CoronavirusND’s additional role as an informal news source routinely captures students’ attention. Junior Lizzie Self said “If I don’t check my emails, that’s where I get the word” on happenings around campus. Self also checks the CoronavirusND story for dashboard updates. 

“It’s definitely something I like to look at just because everyone does,” Self said. However, Self does not consider the account to be a news source like The Observer or The Irish Rover.

Although students primarily regard CoronavirusND as a meme page, the account still plays a significant role in disseminating information amongst the student body, the Notre Dame community and perhaps even the South Bend population at large.

The weekend of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, CoronavirusND’s Twitter and Instagram accounts shared a video of Fr. Jenkins on TV in which he appeared at the White House’s Rose Garden nomination ceremony without wearing a mask or maintaining physical distance. CoronavirusND’s Twitter video was shared by WNDU morning news anchor Joshua Short and hyperlinked in a New York Times article about the backlash Fr. Jenkins received on campus.

So, even if CoronavirusND is not widely considered a news source, it is certainly treated as one by students and even journalists. In the digital era of social media, everyone is a reporter — except that not everyone is, at least by journalistic standards. 

Thus, the influence of CoronavirusND raises questions about the responsibilities of having a large platform when it comes to sharing news, such as ensuring that the information is true and well-sourced, gathering comments from involved parties, corroborating evidence and establishing credibility and a sense of seriousness as a news source.

In addition to shaping the information ecosystem, the account also makes more direct commentary on campus politics. Earlier in the semester, CoronavirusND responded to calls for Fr. Jenkins to resign by encouraging students to “step back and think before we demand somebody’s job.” On occasion, CoronavirusND has taken jabs at the Notre Dame student government in since deleted posts.

Even more, CoronavirusND uses its platform to promote causes and amplify ideas that matter to them. Recent posts have advised students to “make [their] voices heard” by signing a petition calling for students to have the option of pass/fail grading for the fall semester. This petition and proposed student senate resolution, according to the corresponding resolution document, was created in collaboration with Dugan. 

On Sunday, they posted a list of mental health resources in response to the tragic deaths of Valeria Espinel and Olivia Laura Rojas. Overall, the account consistently expresses concern for the well-being of the student body.

The CoronavirusND administrators seem to recognize the power of their platform, as they carefully consider which ideas to promote. Junior Duncan Donahue, who helped organize the Student Strike for Black Lives, asked CoronavirusND to share graphics for the strike in a series of Instagram direct messages obtained by The Observer. CoronavirusND denied the request, agreeing with the cause but citing doubts regarding the efficacy of the students’ tactics.

“It’s an interesting idea, but it doesn’t make sense to us,” the account said.

Donahue said he was surprised at CoronavirusND’s response. According to Donahue, “in so much of what they do, they are often critical of the administration and position themselves as a student voice.” Given the strike’s targeting of the University, Donahue said he expected CoronavirusND to share the graphics.

The account’s selective promotion of students shows that CoronavirusND only criticizes the University within certain limits. Its criticisms appear bold and unrelenting, but they are lodged firmly within the realm of mainstream Notre Dame humor.

The administrators’ insistence on anonymity makes it difficult to get a full picture of their motives. Regardless, the throughline in all of their posts is a refusal to publicly alienate any large portion of their following. CoronavirusND succeeds for the same reason that students rave over the anti-administration Keenan Revue sketches — with rare exceptions, the jokes have uncontroversial appeal. 

CoronavirusND provides a case study of the politics that lie behind running a large meme page. The account has a wide-reaching influence, even dipping into the journalistic scene with its “#BREAKING” news posts. Their large platform has the power to shape campus life, but what does an account do when its popularity stems, in part, from an unwillingness to disturb the status quo? CoronavirusND voices the popular discontent of the student body by raising issues such as the lack of fall break or Fr. Jenkins’ maskless White House visit, but thus far, they’ve passed on the opportunity to use their platform to speak on more controversial topics like social injustice.

Some would argue that a meme page has no obligation to speak on social or political issues. CoronavirusND, however, has forged its unique brand around campus politics. CoronavirusND is not an apolitical account; it is a political account that sides with the majority and strategically chooses the ideas it wishes to amplify. In between laughs, followers must judge for themselves the extent to which CoronavirusND uses its platform in a socially responsible way.

Liya Blitzer | The Observer
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About Jim Moster

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About Adriana Perez

Adriana is a junior from Guayaquil, Ecuador majoring in Political Science and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Sustainability. You can find her on Twitter @adrianamperezr.

Contact Adriana