A Conversation With The Admin of @GaysOverCovid
An anonymous Instagram sparked a heated dialogue about safety, privacy and privilege earlier this week.
On Monday, journalist Alex Hawgood and I spoke to the mysterious operator behind the account @GaysOverCovid. We decided to partner up on writing this newsletter to report on how he views "accountability" accounts online during a public health crisis and time of political unrest.
Over the past week, people online have been fascinated by an anonymous Instagram account called @GaysOverCovid, which curates publicly-posted videos and photos of gay influencers and healthcare workers disregarding public-safety guidelines by partying during the pandemic. The account’s feed showcases gay Christmas soirées with dozens of grinning guests in holiday sweaters, indoor non-socially distant gatherings, and packed all-night circuit parties in COVID-hotspots like Mexico and Brazil. One popular post, which might best be described as an example of gaydenfreude, is a video of a handful of men bobbing in the warm waters of Puerto Vallarta after a gay cruise capsized. The incident, the account joked, was “a series finale ending to 2020.”
In the wake of data pointing to massive spikes in infection after holiday travel, Gays Over Covid’s 120 thousand followers view the Instagram page as an urgent civic duty. “It’s an opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done before by holding these people who are really popular on social media accountable for their actions,” said Zack Ford, a former editor at the news site ThinkProgress. The thinking goes that “Covid-shaming,” a concept originally used to criticize celebrities like television anchor George Stephanopoulos for running afoul of social distancing measures during the salad days of the pandemic, is a way to reduce the impulse for people to spread the virus and save lives.
But as Gays Over Covid continues to enjoy lockdown popularity, one lingering concern has yet to be locked down: Who exactly is the mysterious operator behind the account? Through a series of careful negotiations and assurances, we were able to conduct a series of brief interviews via Instagram direct message and a 60-minute phone conversation.
Here is what we know: The provocateur behind Gays Over Covid is, you guessed it, a gay man. Besides stating that he is in his “late 20s,” he was tight-lipped about all other aspects of his identity due to “threats” made against him online. On the phone, he speaks confidently and has an affable demeanor. He recounted that he started the account in July after joking with friends about how people could not seem to stay indoors during the pandemic. Largely working from home, he noticed many of his peers seemed to be “ignoring the threat of the virus” by being out and about.
The account was not an instant sensation. For the first five months of its existence, it garnered just a few thousand followers. But over time, people started to submit content of friends not abiding by public health guidelines for the account to call out. "We would run polls and ask questions about why they would rather have us call them out than confront their own friends," Gays Over Covid said. "Their response was that they don't listen. A public forum is better because it sparks change, or at least attempts to." Heading into the holiday season, the account was noticed by the meme account The LA Basics, which began sharing posts by Gays Over Covid to its close to 100 thousand followers on Instagram Stories.
As covid-vigilante account grew, so too did the intrigue. "The crazy thing is was we only had 8,000 to 10,000 followers, but the views we were getting on a story were 35,000 to 40,000," Gays Over Covid said. "That told me people didn't want to follow the account because they didn't want to be associated with it or look like they were supporting it. But they would peek at the stories."
In addition to calling out parties and mask-less gatherings, Gays Over Covid began spotlighting individual gay men, including handsome influencers with perfect bodies and healthcare professionals that flouted social-distancing measures. "If you’re a nurse who has preached all year long about staying home, and the strain everyone has put on the healthcare system, you probably should have stayed home, too," read a post published last week documenting a gay nurse who had traveled to a Puerto Vallarta for New Year's celebrations. Another featured Mike Schultz, a nurse at San Francisco's California Pacific Medical Center who previously contracted COVID-19. He was accused of posting content that showed him preparing for a circuit party in Mexico.
While carefree men posted photos and videos from parties, those stuck at home grew angrier. Fights broke out online. Sleuths worked backwards from photos posted by Gays Over Covid to identify people featured in party photos. In response, some gays called out the account as an attack on queer livelihoods. "People stay home too long and they lose control of their lives and try to control other people's lives," said Lan Vu, a 37-year-old beauty salon owner from San Francisco who moonlights as an operator of a Facebook party hub called Circuit Bitch (Let Go). Mr. Vu was open about crisscrossing the gay party circuit to attend large all-night events in cities like Houston and Atlanta, pandemic be damned. He said watchdog accounts are “like Salem Witch hunting,” adding that “people don't think about if people lose their jobs or income.”
Critics have questioned whether public shaming is a useful way to police behavior at all. Others say the posts are dangerously invasive. Unsuspecting men have been identified by name, location details, travel itinerary, Venmo transactions and employment information. The outing of gay revelers at crowded vacation destinations or underground dance parties even prompted many popular gay influencers to do the unthinkable: They made their accounts private.
Sure enough, it didn’t take long before the same espionage tactics employed by the call-out account became weaponized against the account itself. Last weekend, Mr. Vu issued a startling bounty: $500 to anyone who could expose the identity of the gay behind Gays Over Covid. That same day, an attempt to hack the account’s password led many online detectives to conclude that the man behind the memes was a digital creator named PK Creedon, who goes by the handle @pk514. Mr. Creedon responded to the accusation by uploading a rambling, near 10-minute long combative video on Instagram disputing the accusations. The clip has been viewed over 75 thousand times.
The cancel-culture game of cat and mouse coupled with the low cash reward for an Instagram account with relatively few followers was a perfect piece of camp drama for extremely-online gay culture starved for winter content. Hundreds of people began flooding Mr. Vu’s inbox with erroneous claims. Celebrities like Lisa Rinna and Jonathan Van Ness followed Gays Over Covid. Perez Hilton joked that he was the mastermind behind the account. The story was picked up by "Good Morning America" and some media outlets went as far as to call it the “gay civil war.” (This was before the attempted coup, mind you.)
On the phone, Gays Over Covid insisted that the overarching goal of the page is to spark conversation, not controversy. "I just want people to stay home and if we can save one life then I feel good, and we — the community that's submitting content — have done a good deed," he said. "We have to live more empathetic lives. We have to care for our mothers, brothers, sisters and the people we're going to come into contact with." He said he was especially disturbed at how flagrant people are with sharing content about their escapades. "They want to go to a party and they want to gather — it's just crazy," he said. "Then they do it publicly. These aren't paparazzi sneaking shots in the bushes. You're sharing these things to your public Instagram story. People say this is a shaming profile, but they have no shame in what they're doing."
He said he now receives tens of thousands of direct messages daily, which has made his schedule hectic. "I'm employed full time in a career,” he clarified. Although some followers view Gays Over Covid as broader commentary on the gay community's relationship to a previous deadly virus, he is not so sure. But he is heartened to see the ways the account has opened up broader conversations in the gay community around around race, class and representation. "The privilege of being white and gay is different than being black and gay, or trans and black,” he said. “There is privilege to a white man, no mater if he's gay or straight." He noted that there is also something of a social-media feedback loop at play: Most of the men featured on the account are white and cisgender because those are generally the influencers with the most followers, which more people see and thus put on his radar.
The account’s sudden success has made him think critically about callout culture. He knows people can potentially suffer consequences from his posts. "Is this responsible to call somebody out and potentially have them lose their job?" he wondered. "Who am I to do that? That's the conversation I see out there. While I empathize with that thought process, the bottom line is there are people dying. People dying! And you can be sick and not know it. I wouldn't want to be treated in a hospital if I knew my nurse or doctor got off the boat from a circuit party."
He doesn't fault everyone at the parties, however. "If you're a gogo dancer and a drag queen making money off tips and everything is closed down and your unemployment is expired and you're trying to get by, I have empathy for those people," he said. "But there's alway personal responsibility. The government failed, but the health experts have spoken up, community leaders have spoken up."
He promised that he wanted the pandemic to be over just as much as the celebrating gays he critiques on Instagram. "I love a good circuit party," he admitted, perhaps surprisingly (or not). "But not now. Now when the CDC is screaming, ‘Stay home.” Now when L.A. County is screaming, ‘Stay home — there's no beds left in the ICU.’”
Tackling thorny issues of public health and personal identity has meant that he's been met with plenty of negative feedback online. In the late hours of Sunday night, Gays Over Covid’s Instagram page was suddenly deactivated after being hacked by an online mob. "I had 506 emails last night of people trying to get into my account," he said. He was able to get the page back up within a few hours after resetting some security settings, but he almost let it stay dead. "When the account got taken down last night I was kind of relieved. It was a sigh of relief — not having anything coming back to haunt me. It was just over. I really didn't care. I wasn't going to miss it."
Imposters moved fast during the brief downtime. A purported backup account called @GaysOverCovid2.0 quickly accumulated thousands of fans online. "I'm not on Twitter; there are no other Gays Over Covid anything," he said. (He said he is not related to other accounts that have been widely-criticized for detailing people’s private health issues outside of the coronavirus.) He has no desire to start a replacement account if the main page is ever deleted for good. "I've made my impact."
Although the future of Gays Over Covid is uncertain, branding opportunities are not off the table. As of now, he has not made a dollar off the page and he eschews the idea of monetization. He has cross-promoted other accounts like The LA Basics for free, he said. Overheard At A Gay Bar, another anonymous Instagram meme page, is authorized to sell Gays Over Covid merchandise provided they donate the profits. "I didn’t have any goals with this," he insisted. "This started as a joke, literally: ‘Oh, the gays are over Covid. Look at them go and party.’ I don't want to make any money. I'm not trying to get notoriety or get fame. I just want people to stay home."
He is currently considering bequeathing the account to someone else because he said he simply isn't sure if he is up for the stress and hassle of maintaining it. "At this point, I'm like, ‘Here, take over this account.’" Whatever headaches the account has caused him but might be over soon. In a world where each day can feel like an entire month of content, Gays Over Covid is increasingly less and less the internet's main character of the week. After Trump supporters stormed the Capitol last night, social media lit up with accounts that sought to identify any of the violent extremists involved.
On Twitter, the journalist Chris Weidner wrote: “The new #gaysovercovid is @homegrownterrorists on Instagram. The account is identifying #maga terrorists from the Capitol insurrection and has nearly 15K followers already." An hour later, Home Grown Terrorists had doubled its followers.