To Snitch or Not to Snitch

Seeing an empty space where a watchdog should be, some SCU students took to social media to hold their fellow students accountable for breaking county health orders.

To Snitch or Not to Snitch
Image courtesy Pexels

On January 23, 2021, the seven-day average for new COVID cases in Santa Clara County was 710 people. Governor Newsom had yet to lift the regional stay-at-home order for all of California. Just three days earlier, the state had become the first in the nation to surpass 3 million diagnosed coronavirus cases.

Despite the grim numbers, some Santa Clara students—like so many young people throughout the country—were over the lockdowns and constant vigilance. So that day, they took to the backyards of homes just off campus to party away the woes of a global pandemic, potentially endangering the broader community in the process. In a move that defies logic yet perfectly captures the invincible attitude of the young, the partiers posted photos of the bashes across social media.

University administration sent out a campus-wide email admonishing the partygoers for flouting school and county health directives. But some Santa Clarans wanted to take things into their own hands.

Enter @snitchscu, an Instagram account created to focus the frustration of students who diligently observed county health guidelines. The anonymous team behind the account collected screenshots, posts, and messages sent in by those outraged by the partying, identified the offenders, and sent in their names to the Office of Student Life (OSL).  That one fateful party drew @snitchscu into the national spotlight—the account quickly accumulated 400 followers in a few days, and the New York Times even name-dropped the handle in a February article.

The inevitable backlash to the backlash was not far behind. It certainly wasn’t “cool” to tattle on peers, all of whom by that point had been denied 10 months of the college experience they (and their parents) had paid for. We all know what snitches get…

But forget the breaking of some arbitrary college cool code. Was it the right thing to do?

“Yeah, it sucks that they can’t have that college experience,” @snitchscu’s owner said in an interview with The Santa Clara—they asked to stay anonymous, for obvious reasons. “I’m not having a great time in college either with online [classes], but it’s just this entitlement. That they’re entitled to this experience and nothing, not even the pandemic, can stop them from it.”

Part of living in society means we accept certain terms to take care of each other—such as not attending packed parties mask-less during a pandemic (this was pre-vaccine times, remember).

“Doing things like wearing masks and getting vaccinated: In ethical terms, it’s not really debatable,” says Markkula Center Director of Religious and Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics David DeCosse. Anger and exasperation are understandable, but snitching isn’t the ideal solution, he says.

“[Snitching] can subvert important, well-considered, established procedures of accountability the University certainly has,” DeCosse says. And a tattling Instagram account is likely not listed in said procedures. There are other ways to get those in violation of protocols to start observing health protocols, instead of feeling backed into a corner by snitches and public humiliation.

Talk to people directly, DeCosse suggests. Tell them how their actions affect you. Or, if that doesn’t feel safe, submit what you’ve seen via the anonymous hotline EthicsPoint, a reporting tool used by many corporations and institutions of higher education that allows users to hold workplaces accountable for misconduct that handles everything anonymously and without public scrutiny.

“There are much healthier ways of helping students follow guidelines than shaming them on Instagram,” SCU Public Health adjunct lecturer Michele Parker agrees. “Shame is not an effective way to encourage behavior change.”

Bronco Health Ambassadors, a group of students that helped promote county guidelines and encourage gathering safely last year, are a good example of one alternative to @snitchscu, she says. Born out of one of Parker’s public health classes, not only did the ambassadors help students schedule vaccine appointments and get tested, they also passed out free swag like masks and hand sanitizer. It was the manifestation of changing behavior and keeping Santa Clara safe, done through encouragement, not shame. And the road to normalcy, Parker says, is paved with those three things: vaccinations, frequent testing, and safe socializing.

Perhaps @snitchscu started out with similar good intentions. Regardless, it ultimately drove a wedge between students, and Bronco Health Ambassadors were an attempt to stitch the student body back together.

“The key to protecting the health of any community is to encourage the community to work together,” Parker says. It’s not public embarrassment that Broncos needed, but actionable guidelines on how to stay safe. “Snitching is never done to help people. I don’t think you can use that word and say you’re promoting health.”

“I regret snitching as a mode of accountability,” DeCosse says, because snitching takes away from the life-or-death nature of this pandemic and, as Parker notes, the real need to adapt our behavior to best protect each other. “We need to move forward in a positive way and support each other,” she says. If DeCosse and Parker agree with @snitchscu on one thing, it’s that partying like it’s 2019 at the peak of a pandemic was wrong, no question.

Until the rate of infection began to consistently flatten, the account would serve as the campus’s barking watchdog. When Santa Clara County’s fully-vaccinated rate hit 52%, @snitchscu admins decided to close the account.

The caption of the final post, instead of reveling in their shaming practices, reminds the SCU student body to look out for each other: “None of [this] would have ever been possible without everyone that played a hand in holding your peers accountable…There are good people who care at this school, and the majority of you did the right thing, and you should be proud.”

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