In recent weeks, Anatasia Army, 33, has kept tabs on celebrity social media exploits from the safety of her Brooklyn apartment. She saw when billionaire David Geffen shared his hope that “everyone is staying safe” in an Instagram post uploaded from his $590 million superyacht. And when comedian Ellen DeGeneres compared quarantine to “being in jail.” Most recently, she watched House Speaker Nancy Pelosi inadvertently reveal in a TV segment that she owns two industrial refrigerators, each reportedly worth $12,000.
“As soon as I saw that number, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I could live on that,’” Army, a babysitter, says. While public displays of wealth have often elicited backlash, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the context almost overnight. A luxury kitchen appliance, Army says, “takes on a new tenor” when lines for food banks stretch for half a mile and the nonprofit hunger relief organization Feeding America estimates that an additional 17.1 million Americans may soon be struggling to eat.
The internet has provided many of us with a much-needed tether to other people and places in the midst of the pandemic, but social media is also playing another role: It has become a catalyst for anger as it exposes the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. For every video call with a loved one, there’s accumulating evidence of unfairness as people in quarantine reveal their starkly different isolation experiences.
The quarantine is really canceling a lot of celebrities. They don’t know how to act! Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Cardi B are the templates. Just donate, have some fun on IG and quit acting like you’re uniquely suffering in your mansions.— Stephanie! (@qsteph) April 8, 2020
Amid a nationwide shortage of tests and personal protective equipment such as masks and respirators, some have used their privilege to their advantage — and flaunted the results on social media. As health care workers across the country resort to using ski goggles as eye shields and average Americans apply DIY mask patterns to old T-shirts, models like Bella Hadid and Naomi Campbell are posting photos in protective equipment that’s nearly impossible to procure.
Others, such as Kris Jenner, the matriarch of the Kardashian empire, have been tested for the coronavirus even without showing symptoms, while in other parts of Los Angeles, officials refused tests to people whose loved ones had died of Covid-19. Some fans are unfazed (“You are still freaking beautiful with a mask on,” someone posted on Gwyneth Paltrow’s selfie in a device that looked even more complex than the coveted N95), but comments sections reveal growing frustration. “[Y]ou better be donating any of the extra masks you have to nurses,” one commenter wrote on actress Kate Hudson’s photo in a surgical cover.
The divide became more literal in recent weeks when wealthy out-of-towners began to inundate rural areas and vacation destinations, which typically have the least capacity for the intensive care beds many coronavirus patients require.
Idaho’s growing coronavirus hot spot emerged not in cities such as Boise, but in the sparsely populated Blaine County, courtesy of skiers from across the country who continued to flock to the slopes into March. That month, Airbnb reported a $280 million increase in year-over-year revenue in rural areas, while revenue in urban areas dropped by $75 million. Locals have pushed back on the influx of potentially infectious outsiders: Hawaiians begged mainlanders to stay away from the archipelago, and full-time Cape Cod residents tried to ban coronavirus carpetbaggers from viral “hot spots,” but it didn’t dampen anyone’s desire for escape.
Instagram influencers such as Naomi Davis have put faces to the phenomenon: Davis and her husband decided to “head out west” in an RV with their five kids after spending two weeks in their Manhattan apartment — and chronicled the choice on Instagram. But fans criticized Davis’s decision to prioritize her family over the public good. “This is not about you,” one stated plainly. “It’s choices like these that will continue to cost other people their LIVES, and make the rest of us who are actually following the rules stay locked in for longer. Not cool,” another commented.
Smaller disparities are manifesting on social media, too. As people score kettlebells and Nintendo Switch gaming consoles, both of which are sold out for the foreseeable future, they can’t help but share their good luck online. But even the basics, like the ability to stream Netflix’s Tiger King or log on to a Zoom dinner party, are out of reach for the roughly 42.8 million Americans who don’t have reliable high-speed internet. These adults have struggled to work from home — if their employers even afford them the choice — and their children have been effectively barred from continuing their education as school moved online overnight.
Inequalities like these have persisted for decades. But Covid-19 has quickly clarified the economic and social challenges millions of Americans face. Whether they’re Instacart workers on strike for better protections or Instagram users vocally disavowing the influencers they used to admire, people are no longer satisfied with luck, hope, or some future opportunity — they’re demanding a collective response to the crisis now.
“Everyone agrees that this is a moment of extraordinary social transformation, but no one knows what direction it will go in,” says Amber Wutich, an anthropology professor and director of the Center for Global Health at Arizona State University. But she thinks this digital class warfare, while ostensibly centered on tie-dye quarantine sweatsuits and sourdough starters, could be the harbinger of a more serious shift in how we see celebrities — and each other.
Diseases are often described as a great equalizer — they don’t discriminate. But “it’s not equal,” says Nükhet Varlik, an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and a historian of the plagues of the Ottoman Empire. Whether it’s the Black Death or the current coronavirus, infection rates and subsequent deaths vary along class and racial lines. While the wealthy could still succumb to infection, they can employ avoidance strategies the masses can’t. “There’s always this sense of inequality in disease,” Varlik says.
People with the means to leave have fled, often successfully, from disease. In ancient Rome, the wealthy retreated to their mountain homes each summer to escape malaria in crowded cities. During the 1665 Great Plague of London, King Charles II and his courtiers made haste for Oxford, which was otherwise closed to outsiders. And in 1854, three-fourths of London’s Broad Street residents deserted the area within a week of a cholera outbreak; only the poor remained.
Now the rich are headed to the Hamptons. “That’s a very, very long tradition, so it’s not at all surprising that it would happen this way,” says Walter Scheidel, a professor of classics and history at Stanford University. “It hasn’t really changed at all.”
But these inequities can seem especially stark in the social media era. “Creators and influencers in many ways have been made for this moment,” says David Craig, an associate professor of communication at the University of Southern California. “They have built careers over time by building fan communities and interacting with them in a way that not only gets them to hang out and spend time on these platforms, but to support them economically, through many different business models.”
How celebrities look complaining about quarantine when their houses have swimming pools and cinema rooms pic.twitter.com/c7AUgvgwwC— Jack (@J4CKMULL) April 9, 2020
How celebrities and influencers have approached their fan communities in the midst of a global crisis has differed wildly. Some people, like the singer Pink, who tested positive for Covid-19 and agonized over her son’s prolonged symptoms, and fitness influencer Amanda Kloots, whose husband was hospitalized with the virus, have worked to encourage fans to comply with isolation measures. The “bad boys” of the internet, like Logan and Jake Paul and PewDiePie, have simmered down, perhaps aware of everyone’s low tolerance for offensive or outlandish antics at present.
“And then you’re having a couple of examples where there are creators falling out of line with their community because they’re doing something that is considered deadly, and they’re being rightfully called out,” Craig says.
Arielle Charnas, an influencer with about 1.3 million Instagram followers, was at the center of one such storm. In March, Charnas called a doctor friend and, despite widespread shortages and strict testing criteria, was able to procure a Covid-19 test. It came back positive. Instead of quarantining in her Manhattan apartment, Charnas and her family moved to the Hamptons, carrying the virus with her to the coastal community. The public was vociferous in its disapproval.
“I truly hope you take a step back for a considerable amount of time and think of some fundamental changes you need to make,” one person commented on Charnas’s website. “You posting your cute little Instagram COVID19 adventure with your #volvo #sponsored is beyond TONE DEAF.”
The backlash that public figures like Davis, reality TV star Kristin Cavallari, and Charnas have faced could be dismissed as “cancel culture.” But Wutich, the anthropologist, says holding each other accountable on social media can be productive, whether the subject is racial or gender inequality or social isolation strategies. “We’re seeing [this] on steroids right now during the pandemic, but it’s always the case that those interventions on social norms have the ultimate goal of saving lives,” she says.
And, she notes, “Gen Z and millennials have learned that in a situation where they have relatively low social power, they can use collective action through social media to push back against social norms they find unacceptable.”
Some governments have exercised their power to enforce social distancing. In Norway, for example, citizens were banned from visiting their cabins so they wouldn’t place an undue burden on rural health care providers. Anyone who didn’t return to their primary residence would be subject to fines or imprisonment. But many places, including parts of the United States, have shifted “the responsibility for human health from the community, including the government, to the individual,” Wutich says. Now people are “running up against the fundamental insufficiency of this way of protecting health.”
The resulting angst is exacerbated by social media evidence of how dependent we are on each other — and, in particular, how dependent the privileged are on the poor. Megyn Kelly, evidently unaccustomed to cooking for herself, burned six pieces of chicken to a crisp and tweeted the results. Real Housewives star Ramona Singer, left to her own devices, used a toilet brush to clean the outside of her toilet bowl, as depicted in a video her daughter filmed from their Boca Raton quarantine. And Charnas was criticized, in particular, for bringing her nanny to the Hamptons, potentially exposing her to the virus. Charnas eventually issued a written apology and filmed a teary-eyed Instagram story. “We’re not bad people,” she pleaded.
The growing sense of economic precarity doesn’t help the sense of class warfare brewing online, either. Americans typically like to think of success as random, says Lisa Nakamura, director of the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan. Other people flaunting their wealth on social media hasn’t typically made us angry because it’s viewed as aspirational content — we believe we could be the next one to strike it rich.
“But this [pandemic] showed that is never going to happen,” Nakamura says. When you see an influencer’s toned body, she says “You could think, I can get that body. When you see their clothes, you think, I can buy those clothes. But when you see their capacity to live wherever she wants, while other people are stuck at home, it’s ridiculous. And that’s not aspirational, because you don’t want to aspire to that.”
If the internet has been our portal to immersive digital environments, the pandemic itself may be a portal to a new way of living in the real world. In his book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Scheidel argues that disasters such as war and plague have traditionally caused inequality to shrink, at least temporarily.
“There’s a lot of inertia, generally, in society,” he says. “You really need some kind of unexpected disruption to make people want to do something about it.” The coronavirus could offer such an opportunity. But sometimes disasters can result in the exact opposite outcome, says Ann Carmichael, an associate professor emerita at Indiana University and a plague scholar. “From the Black Death on, including the influenza of 1918, there is a powerful energy placed into making sure the people who were in power before the plague are the people in power after the plague,” she says.
No one is sure how the current pandemic and the resulting financial fallout will play out. The government may be able to suppress an economic tailspin. “But if for some reason [the recovery] turns out not to work, that would surely shatter people’s confidence in the system. or people’s sense of resignation that nothing could ever change,” Scheidel says.
Thanks to social media, that change may already be happening. While Army worries that “eventually people are going to probably hide these [luxuries] a little bit more” on social media, even as the real disparities persist, Scheidel sees the potential for substantive change. It’s easy to dismiss the antics of fashion influencers and celebrities — even the most off-putting posts are quickly lost in a rapacious news cycle — but Scheidel says the accumulating evidence of the enormous gap between the haves and have-nots could have real-world consequences. “There are real ramifications when people say, ‘Wait a minute, why can’t we have those things, too?’”
Eleanor Cummins reports on the intersection of science and popular culture. She’s a former assistant editor at Popular Science and writes a newsletter about death. She previously wrote about why some are resisting government social distancing orders for The Highlight.