Brandon never set out to become a community news source when he started a Twitter account last month to track the location of COVID-19 cases associated with ASU's reopening.
"To a certain point this is journalism, but this wasn't meant to be journalism, this was meant to be advocacy," said the ASU junior. He asked to remain anonymous because he's worried about retaliation from university admins or from students who don't take COVID-19 seriously — we're calling him Brandon.
Inspired in part by a similar account that posts Phoenix businesses with alleged cases among employees, the "ASUcovidTracker" (@as_ucovid) account was born after ASU announced it would not be publicly releasing information about COVID-19 cases as it reopened, unlike other state universities that have been more forthcoming. What started as sharing the locations of reported cases has since expanded, becoming, in Brandon's words, "this place to show where ASU is failing to respond on COVID."
He is helping "students and workers on campus who ASU is subjecting to dangerous dorm environments [and] dangerous work environments for the purpose of getting that tuition [or] dorm money for the semester," he said.
As the number of confirmed cases at ASU has grown, topping 980 as of September 3, so has the account's following. Beyond offering updates on reported cases, it aggregates news reports, rumors, and documentation of illicit parties. Some of it is pulled from social media, while Brandon gets some tips directly.
A recent thread shared a message from a parent about how a fire alarm caused students in isolation for COVID-19 to be evacuated with the general population, along with TikToks from students showing how the evacuation caused a crowd outside a dorm.
ASU began releasing intermittent updates on its confirmed case numbers two weeks ago. It's unclear to what extent the numbers coming out of ASU are the result of rapidly spreading infections or the university's aggressive mandatory testing program, but they show a dramatic rise in cases — reflected in the Tempe campus' ZIP code, 85281, leading the state in total new cases. The university announced on Thursday it would begin releasing updates each Monday and Thursday evening, but would not send email notification of the updates to students barring significant changes.
ASU claims that students who come in "close contact" — within six feet for more than 10 minutes — with someone who tests positive are notified individually, but one student told Phoenix New Times last week that she was never notified after a lab-group member tested positive. ASU administrators have said they are limited by student privacy laws, but those limits have been contested by experts. An ASU spokesperson did not provide a response to questions about the account or the criticism of its privacy policies.
While the account's 3,400 followers are only a fraction of the 100,000-plus students enrolled at ASU, its followers include numerous reporters and Tempe-area State Representative Athena Salman, who is inquiring into how the school is handling the crisis. In an interview with New Times, she referenced the account as one of the main sources of information she's monitoring about the university's reopening.
With the account's growing public profile, Brandon has felt growing pressure to keep the account from spreading misinformation. In its initial reports, he published possible outbreak locations without trying to verify them, and speculated about where there might be cases based on where the university required random testing.
This loose approach changed after he tweeted a lightly blurred photo of a student outside the door of their room along with the name of their residence hall and a claim that the student was supposedly isolating because of COVID-19.
The backlash was swift. Brandon admits that was a "terrible mistake" that pushed him to reconsider his methods. After consulting with a news reporter, he now tries to verify any information from multiple sources, but makes an exception for things already circulating on social media that he says are public knowledge. He's also been more privacy-conscious, blurring identifying features in party photos and not posting any of the flood of images he receives of students not following social distancing or wearing masks.
"It's not to shame them, but [to] get the university to respond in a way that's more equitable," he said.
Brandon's a full-time student who fits running the account around his classes and work schedule. The biggest challenge is figuring out which items to post of the flood of messages and emails he receives each day. Unlike a news outlet, he has to make this judgment call on his own.
"Sometimes I get very interesting and kind of incriminating information in the DMs," he said. Some items, he believes, would cost the senders their jobs if he shared them. He's also decided to only share the name of residence halls with reported outbreaks, instead of any more specific locations.
While that information is general, even just knowing that dorms have outbreaks has value, said Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath, a professor of health communication at Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health. It moves students' assessment of the risk of COVID-19 from a general concern to a specific threat, he said.
"It becomes that much closer to them. Not just physically, but psychologically as well," Viswanath said.
In the age of social media, it's already become impossible to centrally control information. While protecting privacy is important, institutions need to be proactive in releasing information and be as transparent as possible to fight misinformation or the sense that there's something being hidden, according to Viswanath. Otherwise, he said, worried people will turn to social media where second-hand speculation runs rampant.
Brandon said that if the university were to start releasing information about case numbers and locations and taking more action to control the virus, he would consider shutting down the account.
"If ASU can do what I'm doing, if they can make me irrelevant, then I think that's good," he said.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.