This article is part of a series, Our Pandemic Year, that marks the anniversary of the first quarantine orders in the U.S.Read them all here.
For a few brief weeks last spring, for once, we didn’t really want to hear from celebrities and influencers. Their work, which depends on connecting with others through relatability and authenticity, was ill-equipped to meet the moment. Presenting oneself doing anything that wasn’t personal suffering or giving gobs of money to a cause felt tone-deaf at the time—and even those acts could sound tone-deaf. It was a moment for nuance, and social media is famously not a nuanced place. At the time, I wrote a story about a couple such influencers in the midst of running aground to this effect. Topped with an intense headline— “Is This the End of Influencing as We Knew It?”—it drew the attention of the much-followed Instagram account Diet Prada, and more people found out about it from there.
A year feels way too soon to look back at early COVID in the U.S. It seems like such an arbitrary time marker when in fact, it feels like it’s been 10 years since last March, and also like it was yesterday. For me, looking back means remembering this story, which still looms large in my memory, though most have probably forgotten it. I’ve returned to it many times throughout the pandemic, largely to wince, and I started to dread its anniversary specifically, on top of the generalized dread of this March. Still, maybe, right now, when we’re not quite out of this thing, but starting to conceive of an end, is the best time to take stock of what happened in order to figure out how to move forward.
First, a recap of what happened then. Naomi Davis, known in her online form as Taza, and Arielle Charnas of Something Navy, are two influencer moms who were living in New York City. Both were part of the fledgling influencer cohort that began their blogs and then grew their followings on Instagram; both also became avatars for questionable pandemic behavior just as the novel coronavirus was starting to rip through the U.S. and New York City in particular.
On March 17, 2020, Charnas told her followers she felt sick, and then took them along with her as she went to get tested for COVID. It seems quaint in retrospect. Now, reliable tests are one of the main tools for fighting the pandemic that we have. But—call it recent-history overload—it’s easy to forget that accessing testing in New York, as well as most of the country, was a difficult, confusing experience and a rare one too. Much like vaccines today, there were criteria for who qualified to get tested, and they were rationed for the most vulnerable populations. A few days prior to Charnas’s post, The New York Timespublished, “One woman in Harlem who wanted to be tested was told by health care workers not to worry about her coronavirus-like symptoms. In Brooklyn, a woman had to wait to get tested until her mother tested positive for the virus. One doctor at a hospital network has turned away patients who probably had the coronavirus because they did not meet the current testing.”
Though obviously ill, Charnas didn’t appear to qualify for testing. She proceeded to find a doctor who would give her a test, eventually posting the video of her nasal swab. She even tagged him, engaging old influencing best practices in a brave new world. There was a contingent that vocalized frustration with her actions (and many who praised her) after she posted again, noting she tested positive. The point she made in a Notes-app post was one that many have made since: “It is the responsibility of our government office to ensure all Americans can access necessary tests,” she wrote.
Around the same time, Davis posted about how she was packing up her family of seven in an R.V. and driving away from the city, which at the time was the nation’s COVID hotspot. Many of her followers condemned her, as health experts shared fears that Davis and social media personalities like her might “influence” others into carrying the virus across state lines.
By that time, Charnas, too, was getting out. On March 26, less than two weeks after posting that she had tested positive, she announced on Instagram that she and her family had decamped to the Hamptons, posting a photo of herself looking carefree with arms extended overhead in the air. A thread about Charnas’s entire experience, which described commenters getting “big mad,” went semi-viral on Twitter, which is how I and so many others first encountered her.
If bypassing testing restrictions rankled online commenters, then the optics of driving a couple hours east—or across the country—was way worse: A stay-at-home order was in place for most New Yorkers, and not just those showing symptoms of the disease.
There’s no way to prove with hard data that anyone got the idea to go elsewhere from Davis, Charnas, or anyone else who picked up and left their homes, but many did the same. Getting out of a city during the pandemic was not a difficult idea to come by on one’s own. As Kyle Chayka reported in TheNew Yorker in October, Airbnbs grew scarce over the summer. There was a mass exodus to elsewhere, specifically for longer-term “remote work” getaways outside of urban areas, per the company’s own data: Many migrated upstate, up into the Adirondacks. Others chose Vermont’s ski destinations, resort towns in Montana and Colorado, lake country in Maine as well as Portland, and Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Here’s one dramatic infographic that animated the exodus from the “richest neighborhoods” in New York from May. It couldn’t have been only short-term dalliances elsewhere either; one couldn’t both be on the internet and escape news of the robust housing market and scarce inventory.
I can see now that one beat I didn’t hit hard enough was that Charnas was putting her own face out there because it was her job to always be posting. She became the poster child of people reaching into their pockets to escape the pandemic, even though she and her husband were already sick. She tried to explain that she was following advice from her doctors and the CDC. For terrified people looking for a visible person to project their anxieties on, none of that mattered.
Recapping all of that brought back visceral memories of that time. My roommates and I were still taking 20 minutes to wipe down all my vegetables every time someone went to the grocery store. It was, remember, the same brief moment when Andrew Cuomo was a source of calm, just because he was taking it seriously on a daily basis while the president contradicted his own health authorities and played down the severity of the virus publicly. It inspired one particularly cursed portmanteau. (No need to repeat it here, but here’s a link for posterity.)
If our heroes were too easy to come by, perhaps our villains were too. I didn’t enjoy the celebrities and influencers offering up their lives to me in March and April 2020, and I wasn’t alone in that feeling. It came across all wrong, appearing boastful yet under the guise of help. Not my life, yet not far away enough to take me out of my life. I was too quick to single out one type of person with one type of job, though, one whose livelihood is largely dependent on posting. Cuomo now looks more like Donald Trump than ever, and we, perhaps, resemble Charnas, Davis, and the rest more than we thought we would.
Davis declined an interview, though she has a book coming out, A Coat of Yellow Paint (subtitle: Moving Through the Noise to Love the Life You Live. She does not address the “noise” of last spring, but she details the work one has to do to live one’s life online and survive.) Charnas took me up on my offer. It’s been a difficult year for her. She had already parted ways with Nordstrom in order to launch Something Navy as a standalone brand with clothing drops and a retail location in New York. She hired a CEO and they made a plan before having to push the launch back twice due to the coronavirus. Something Navy finally opened in July, though. Charnas said that her followers, the core fans who knew what they were opting into when they followed her, have stuck with her.
I wondered how she felt when she saw other people—normal people, famous people, people people—doing what she got publicly flayed for as the pandemic dragged on and the “stay at home” spring gave way to a pandemic response that varied wildly by region.
“If I were to think too much about that, I would just make myself crazy,” Charnas said. “I was following my doctors’ and my kids’ doctors’ recommendations. They were saying to me that, you know, at this point, it’s okay for you to go straight to your house in the Hamptons, you’re fine to do that. So that’s what I did. You know what I mean? So when I saw other people doing that—of course, if you had that opportunity, anyone would take that for their family.”
Over the summer and onward, just like influencers and celebrities, regular people had begun to live lives of emphatic desperation online. Suddenly, if I saw some woods or a pool or an ocean or a gorgeous view in the background of a photo or a video, it hit with a heavy thud rather than a pang of aspiration that could be easily dismissed like usual. It wasn’t just posts from influencers that kicked off little spirals, it was everyone’s posts—those of friends, family, friends of friends, loose acquaintances, my own. I know this isn’t a unique feeling (and I also know everyone didn’t feel that way). Stella Bugbee, formerly the editor in chief of New York magazine’s The Cut, put it beautifully this past December: “This year, it seemed like no matter who you are, whatever you posted, you had a high chance of getting it wrong in some way, because many of the values we’ve come to expect (and enjoy) on Instagram feel incorrect for this moment: Narcissism, flexing, even the forgivable human cry for validation seem crass in the face of so much social discord.”
She wrote this months after the spring, months after a summer that many spent reevaluating their relationship to the country’s baked-in injustices. More horrible villains than our original ones, more exacting in their privilege, had become impossible to ignore. The whole world watched a police officer squeeze the life out of George Floyd on film. Officers entered the home of a young woman, Breonna Taylor, and shot her fatally. So many stories like these followed, and meanwhile the state, and in many cases, relatives or friends, revealed their indifference or particular talent in defensive equivocating. It’s still crushing.
Even the storyline that Davis and Charnas initially epitomized kept on going until it reached impossible heights. There was Kim Kardashian, for example, and her wild choice to share her enormous, expensive destination birthday party on an island with her hundreds of thousands of followers. There were so, so many parties. “We all got tested and social distanced, of course” became some kind of incantation meant to will judgment away.
Back in spring 2020, someoutlets that published stories on their actions suggested that Charnas and Davis weren’t the main problem. The problem was much larger; it was systemic, an old story, one you already know. The government was failing to take care of the people who hired them to do so, and in the absence of leadership from elected officials and health advisers people were making their own decisions. Into that void, anger got directed at those who had the gall to post.
“At the end of the day, my intention was just to share what we were going through, just like always. And going forward, I’ve been more careful about what I post. I definitely think twice now,” Charnas told me. “I’m trying to be more sensitive [to what’s] going on around me and in the world before I do share anything.”
As time went on, it became clear that being an absolutist about COVID precautions was unsustainable at best. At worst, it made people afraid to do certain things—like go to the beach or find a better place to live—that eased mental health burdens and made “safer,” more nuanced risk-taking possible. Of course this was hard to see back then. When I first wrote about Charnas last April, I was desperate to know what to do and how to feel about every little thing. More than anything else, I remember guilt. Guilt for health, guilt for home. Guilt for having a job that persisted under the circumstances. Guilt for struggling sometimes to do the one thing I have to do for my job—just write. That’s it!—and hoping that I wasn’t getting it all wrong. There was so much guilt, and that doesn’t translate well online either. Every post on social that didn’t transmit guilt felt unrelatable and tone-deaf, and if it did manage to hit that incredibly difficult tone, it was too overwhelming. I didn’t want to relate any more.
Influencing, the Job, isn’t over, as both Charnas and Davis are a living testament to. The concept of people sharing their lives with followers and, in the process, selling them stuff will likely always be economically viable, in its many iterations, whatever those may be. I do stand by the essence of the piece. Generally speaking, the days of influencers posting straight lifestyle content without a thought to the politics of the moment are over for now—some will obviously and openly not care about it, but that, too, has become a choice. The protests this summer and onward only deepened that feeling. In the meantime, we’ll still follow the story lines that those living lives half online provide for us because influencers, like most celebrities and public figures, are our avatars. They help us work out how we feel by putting their choices out there. They allow us to judge them, so that we can judge ourselves, so that we can know how we want to live.
The Honourable John G. Abbott, Minister of Children, Seniors and Social Development, will be available to media to discuss proposed new accessibility legislation prior to debate in the House of Assembly today (Monday, October 25) at 12:00 p.m. in the media centre, East Block, Confederation Building.
The event will be live streamed on the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accounts.
Media covering the announcement will have the opportunity to join in person in the media centre or by teleconference. Media planning to participate should register with Khadija Rehma (email@example.com) by 10:00 a.m. today (Monday, October 22).
Technical Briefing Prior to the announcement, a technical briefing for media will be provided at 11:00 a.m.
Media participating in the briefing will also have the opportunity to join in person in the media centre or by teleconference. Media who wish to participate in the technical briefing should RSVP to Khadija Rehma (firstname.lastname@example.org), who will provide the details and the required information.
Media must join the teleconference at 10:45 a.m. (NST) to be included on the call. For sound quality purposes, registered media are asked to use a land line if at all possible.
A judge has ordered an Ottawa woman to pay $100,000 in damages for embarking on what he called a “brutal and unempathetic campaign” against two women in a defamation case centred around a video posted just days after the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.
The defendant’s lawyer, Cedric Nahum, says he plans to appeal the decision, which also subjects his client to a permanent injunction that limits her speaking about the case.
“We found the decision quite disappointing. I think it could do a lot to muzzle conversation in relation to race issues,” said Nahum.
He also says the judge didn’t adequately take into account the perspective of his client Solit Isak, who identifies as Black, in the context of George Floyd’s death in interpreting the case.
The other side, meanwhile, called the judge’s decision a “vindication of their reputation” after a traumatic experience that included the loss of employment and threats against them and their family.
Allegations of racism on social media
The case followed a social media firestorm in June 2020 after a screenshot from the Snapchat account of Shania Lavallee was taken from a May 30 video of her sister Justine being pinned down by Shania’s boyfriend Gilmour Driscoll-Maurice — who held her hands behind her and had his knee on her back.
Isak, who admitted to never seeing the video, proceeded to make more than 100 social media posts accusing the women of mocking Floyd’s death, tagging their employers, and encouraging other people to do the same and share information about them.
Those posts were also republished and amplified.
On June 1, Shania issued an apology online, saying in part, “I meant absolutely no disrespect and didn’t mean to hurt or offend anyone. In the video, they were play fighting as they always do and in retrospect I can see how the video could be taken out of context given the current situation and I now see how insensitive it is.
“It was wrong of me to be inconsiderate of the sensitive times at hand and by no means did I use this as a representation of what happened with George Floyd.”
Shania lost her job at Boston Pizza in Orléans, as well as a teaching job offer at the Ottawa Catholic School Board. Justine lost her job at the Canada Border Services Agency, as well as failed a character check in her application for work with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The Lavallees said they also had to leave their home to avoid death threats and vandalism.
On June 5, the sisters’ lawyer asked Isak to take down her posts and issue an apology threatening to sue for defamation. Isak had filed a counterclaim by the end of that month.
In the summary of his decision, Justice Marc Smith said Isak “blindly embarked on a brutal and unempathetic campaign to destroy the lives of two young women” and didn’t have the factual basis for her claims of racism.
Shania had told court they had posted similar “play fighting” videos in the past and at no point in the video did they mention Floyd or refer to “police brutality.”
While they were not able to recover the video, which Snapchat deletes automatically after 24 hours, the plaintiffs provided statements from two friends who saw the video supporting that claim.
The judge accepted the plaintiff’s story and it wasn’t challenged by the defendant.
However, Isak’s lawyer said the particulars of the video were less important than the context of when it was published.
The defendant’s submissions noted around the same time, other viral images were being circulated online of a so-called “George Floyd challenge” where social media users appeared to imitate the kneeling position in jest.
“I don’t think that the judge was able to put himself in the place of a young Black person in the days after the murder of George Floyd,” Nahum said.
“He likely wouldn’t be able to do so as a white judge.”
Sisters ‘sensitive’ to acts of racism
The Lavallees’ lawyer Charles Daoust said it has been a “long, traumatic year for them, but they are happy now to be able to vindicate their reputations.”
“The message from the court is clear that people really should be careful before levelling very serious accusations on the internet, especially to have evidence,” said Daoust.
In a statement, the sisters said as members of the Indigenous community they are sensitive to acts of racism, but the events in 2020 “did not, in any way, relate to racism.”
The CBC asked which land claim organization they belong to, which is how official identification as Inuit is recognized, and Daoust said his clients had no further comment.
Limits of free speech
Isak is not required to issue an apology, but the permanent injunction prevents her from publishing any further “defamatory statements” about the Lavallees.
Nahum said his client is now saddled with $100,000 in debt at the beginning of her adult life and this raises concerns about other people who might seek to speak out against racism.
“When we’re looking at who has been told not to speak here, we’re looking at the voice of a young Black woman, as opposed to all the other news media outlets or other people who had commented on the situation,” Nahum said.
Hilary Young, a law professor at the University of New Brunswick, argued she doesn’t think the decision will have a chilling effect on people calling out racist behaviour.
“I think the law is clear that if there is some basis for you to conclude that someone is racist, there are protections of fair comment that will protect your right to state that opinion. But that’s not unlimited.” she said.
“If you harm someone’s reputation, your good intentions aren’t good enough to get you off the hook.”
Young said the judge did weigh Isak’s intention of denouncing racism in assessing damages and didn’t call for punitive damages to be paid on top of the general damages.
Social media has increased the use of permanent injunctions so defamatory posts can be removed in an effort to repair damaged reputations, she said.
It’s also become more common for private individuals to be involved in defamation cases, which used to primarily play out between public figures and journalists or publishers.
“Now in the internet era, you see a lot more cases where you just have individuals making allegations about other individuals and they haven’t done their research or done a lot of effort to get their facts right,” Young said.
Employers’ due diligence
The judge also said third parties not directly involved in the case should have done more diligence to review the evidence and the sisters’ version of the story.
Daoust said his clients are considering their options regarding the employers who fired the sisters or rescinded offers of employment.
In a statement, the Canada Border Services Agency said as a law enforcement agency its employees must be held to the highest standard of conduct, including in day-to-day activities. The agency said it has “no intention of revisiting its decision in this case.”
The RCMP said it could not comment on an individual’s security clearance for privacy reasons, and should an individual re-apply they would be evaluated according to Treasury Board standards.
The Ottawa Catholic School Board declined to comment on the judge’s decision. Boston Pizza did not respond to CBC’s request for comment.
Ottawa Morning7:54Racism allegations on social media defamed Ottawa women, judge rules
A judge has ordered an Ottawa woman to pay $100,000 in damages for embarking on what he called a “brutal and unempathetic campaign” against two women in a defamation case centred around a video posted just days after the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. 7:54
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