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What happens when you go coronavirus viral

Meet three people whose tweets about surviving Covid-19 briefly made them internet famous.

Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.
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As the coronavirus pandemic stretches from spring into summer, social media has become an essential part of keeping in touch. So it’s no surprise that those who have tested positive for Covid-19 are turning to platforms like Facebook and Instagram to update their friends, detail their symptoms, and express their anxieties. And some of these posts are turning everyday internet users into online celebrities, if only for a moment.

Covid-19 survivors are going viral and finding legions of well-wishers rooting for their recovery. Some of their stories are even getting picked up by national and international media. Twitter, in particular, has become a launching pad for coronavirus stories to go viral, as threads of tweets are easily elevated by trending hashtags and widely shared through retweets from celebrities.

But with internet fame comes unexpected scrutiny and even harassment. Trolls are calling these survivors “crisis actors,” and total strangers are inundating them with personal questions about their medical histories. One Wisconsin high school student was even threatened with jail time by a sheriff after posting about her Covid-19 symptoms on Instagram, according to a lawsuit she filed.

Ending up in the spotlight surely isn’t everyone’s goal. Many share their coronavirus experiences online to warn others to take the virus more seriously or to push back against popular misconceptions, like the idea that young people can’t get seriously ill from the novel coronavirus. We spoke to three such people — a prominent legal recruiter, a medical school professor, and a college student — about what it’s like to go viral for having Covid-19. Here’s what happened to them.

David Lat, legal recruiter

Before falling ill with the novel coronavirus, David Lat mostly posted about topics like the Democratic presidential race and the Supreme Court. As a legal recruiter and founder of the popular blog Above the Law, Lat was well-known in the legal industry, and the lion’s share of his followers on Twitter has historically been lawyers and law students.

When the novel coronavirus first hit the United States, Lat remarked on the outbreak as an observer. One blog post he published at the beginning of March wondered what an economic downturn exacerbated by a pandemic would mean for major law firms, hypothesizing about layoffs and the implications of a recession. He also shared a few tweets about how the coronavirus could change society and politics.

But then, on March 17, Lat announced in a series of tweets that he himself had tested positive. The thread criticized the “ridiculous efforts” that getting a test required and offered an apology to those he might have infected. The same day, Lat revealed in another thread that he had been hospitalized and said, “I’m a generally healthy, 44-year-old male, 153 lbs. (surely less now), 5’7”, no drugs, rarely drink, no health conditions other than exercise-induced asthma.” He started the hashtag #LatsCovid19Journal and promised updates.

People rallied to support Lat. They included a slew of celebrities, like actor Patricia Arquette and Rent star Anthony Rapp. Even Cher tweeted in response to Lat’s thread about being hospitalized, which has garnered nearly 40,000 “Likes” and thousands of retweets. That was “awesome,” Lat later told Recode.

The day after his first big viral thread, Lat continued to tweet about symptoms, urging officials to conduct more testing.

“I wanted to alert anyone who had come into contact with me that I had it, which could help them get tested in the event that they came down with symptoms,” Lat said in an email. “I got such a strong response to those initial posts on Twitter and Facebook that I decided to keep on posting. I realized that people were hungry for information about this new and frightening virus.”

After tweeting often on March 18, Lat’s account fell silent. Unknown to his followers, he’d been hooked up to a ventilator and could not tweet. Nevertheless, strangers continued to come across his case online and began to update one another on how he was doing. Even comedian Kathy Griffin chimed in (she’d been dealing with Covid-19 concerns of her own). While Lat was intubated, his followers cross-referenced social media posts from family members and pointed one another to legal blogs documenting how he was doing. Fake news sites in the Philippines falsely reported that he had died, Lat later said.

Ten days later, Lat tweeted once again, announcing that he’d returned to breathing on his own and had been transferred out of intensive care. Susan Rice, the former US National Security Advisor, tweeted “Great News!!” Patricia Arquette said in a tweet, “I was freaking out. Days seemed to go by with no post.” One non-celebrity Twitter user replied, “Haha don’t even know you and have literally worried about you daily for the past two weeks.” Someone replied to that tweet, “David kept popping into my head at random times day & night - even snuck into my dreams one night.”

Now that it’s been over a month since his hospitalization, Lat says he’s recovering, though still not back to his normal self. That hasn’t stopped him from continuing to share his Covid-19 experience. He’s written an op-ed for the Washington Post and spoken on segments on networks like MSNBC and CBS. He asked to speak with Recode over email because he was so exhausted from doing interviews with the media, and his voice is still “shot” from the ventilator.

“I did feel an obligation to update people on what had happened to me — partly because I knew, both from social media and from private messages sent to me, that people were worried,” Lat says. “I wanted people, including strangers following my case, to know that I was off the ventilator and recovering.”

Lat now refers to himself as a “Survivor” of Covid-19 on his Twitter bio. Since first posting about contracting the novel coronavirus, Lat says his follower count has grown from about 33,000 to nearly 96,000.

“It’s possible that with time, I’ll just go back to being my old self — and I certainly hope that’s the case when it comes to physical things, like my lungs and my (still-hoarse) voice,” he told Recode. “But when it comes to my emotions, I hope I always harbor at least some of the positive and thankful feelings I feel right now.”

Noopur Raje, doctor and medical professor

Noopur Raje says she normally doesn’t post much about her personal life online. As a specialist in a type of cancer that shows up in plasma cells, she works as both a professor at Harvard’s Medical School and a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital. Raje’s tweets are limited to comments on medical conferences, cancer research, and, occasionally, social issues.

But Raje decided to post something more personal after she and her husband, who is also a doctor, both became infected with the novel coronavirus.

Singh, a cardiologist who also teaches at Harvard, had become critically ill, battling fever, exhaustion, chills, weight loss, and fatigue. Raje relayed that she had ultimately called 911, and her husband was admitted to intensive care, where he’d given his consent for intubation, should it be necessary.

While her husband had fallen gravely ill, Raje wanted people to know that both of them tested positive and that she was completely asymptomatic. Her tweet has gotten over 17,500 “Likes,” making it her most popular tweet by far. People also came to her thread to ask questions about the virus’s symptoms and wanting to know what doctors with Covid-19 had to say about the illness.

“The response has been unbelievable. I did not expect this, but it just underscores the fact that people are so hungry to find out,” Raje told Recode. “The other thing, I think, is that people are not comfortable sharing. It’s almost like, if you say you’re Covid positive, in my line of work, it’s not easy to say that. You feel like you’re going to be looked at.”

Singh has since improved, though he’s still coughing and has some shortness of breath. The couple is now spreading the word, doing appearances on local media and continuing to call for widespread testing. On social media, they tag-team when answering people’s coronavirus questions, including those about their own vaccination statuses. Raje has also been outspoken about social distancing, since some cases can be asymptomatic like hers.

“We’re both physicians and have access to the world’s best health care system. And yet, there were so many unknowns in this whole process, and I learned so much that I felt it really important to share,” Raje tells Recode. “We as physicians — with an understanding of pathology and physiology — had such a hard time navigating this largely because of lack of knowing how this is going to evolve.”

Amy Shircel, college student

On Twitter, Amy Shircel, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls herself a “gorgeous leftist” and a “big fan of Clif bars,” among other things. Her tweets in the early part of this year largely focused on Bernie Sanders, veganism, and college life. Then, after a spring break trip to Portugal was cut comically short due to the travel ban on Europe, Shircel started to feel sick, and the topic of her tweets took a dramatic turn.

The test came back positive. Two trips to the emergency room later, Shircel returned to Twitter to warn other young people that they, too, should take Covid-19 seriously.

The above tweet ended up garnering nearly 300,000 “Likes” and over 100,000 retweets. The threaded tweets describing Shircel’s symptoms and experience with Covid-19 got tens of thousands more “Likes” and retweets. As her thread attracted more attention, Shircel did a slew of media appearances for her college’s student paper, ABC, Cosmopolitan, and the Dr. Phil Show.

But it wasn’t all positive coverage. Some outlets, to her discomfort, highlighted what Shircel calls the “kind of gross” aspects of her illness. For instance, British tabloid the Daily Mail ran with the headline: “‘I was afraid I would die’: Woman, 22, describes how coronavirus left her crawling to the bathroom to vomit, struggling for breath and lying in a pool of her own sweat.”

Then there was the ugliness and invasiveness of the internet.

“People are weird on the internet and people feel entitled to ask you things,” Shircel told Recode. “People were asking me, like, what is my blood type? What is my medical history like? I didn’t have my DMs open on Twitter, but I had them open on Instagram and I was just getting hundreds of DMs, like, do you vape? Do you smoke? Do you have this condition?”

Shircel was also accused of politicizing the crisis. At the end of her first thread, she tweeted in support of Bernie Sanders and Medicare-for-all. She says she was even accused of being a “crisis actor,” a term that’s often used by conspiracy theorists, among a wide range of threatening and negative comments. Recode reviewed screenshots that Shircel took of some of the negative comments she received, which included people doubting her illness, insulting her intelligence, and peppering her with profanities.

“I was getting DMs telling me to die, that they wished I died, that I deserved to die. That I was ugly, that I was fat,” Shircel said.

Shircel says she was accused of tweeting for attention, in part because she sometimes tags the New York Times in threads.

“I think I was misunderstood in my intentions with that,” she said, “but I wanted my story to reach the New York Times. I think it would be a huge platform.”

The Times has not reached out to Shircel.

Still, Shircel says she’s feeling much better. Now, she has nearly 7,000 followers on Twitter, almost all of whom came to her account after she started tweeting about her experience with Covid-19.

Although she still tweets about having had the coronavirus, Shircel also returned to other, more mundane topics. Sometimes, she writes about wanting a boyfriend or naming a new kitten after Bernie Sanders. But now, more people comment than ever before, many of them complete strangers.

“I gained such a large following. I kind of have, like, a small platform now. And, it’s just like guys hitting on me on the internet — after this — like I’ve never experienced before,” Shircel told Recode.

Shircel says she has no regrets about posting about her Covid-19 diagnosis because her message was so important, though she does have one bit of advice: “Ignore all of the random people. Maybe close your Instagram DMs before things go viral or too crazy.”

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