In the age of social media, we’re bombarded with curated content and advertisements promoted by influencers who are, more often than not, trying to sell us something. We’re “influenced” to look a certain way, buy a certain product or even hold a specific set of beliefs.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some college campuses are harnessing the audiences of student influencers to try and encourage risk-averse behavior amongst their peers, a unique approach different from the typical long-form administrative emails that often flood student inboxes.

Most notably, the University of Missouri hired students to post COVID-19 related content encouraging mask-wearing and social distancing, citing undergraduates’ aversion to speeches or videos created by administrators in comparison to their attentiveness to social media.

Similarly, the University of Maryland plans to begin paying students to promote coronavirus safety content on social media “as part of a larger students ambassador program.”

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Given how prevalent sponsored content is on social media already, colleges are utilizing such platforms to essentially advertise public health messaging in a relatable way.

According to Christian Basi, director of media relations at the University of Missouri, it’s not possible to explicitly confirm the campaign’s impact on campus in terms of safety. Though she pointed to the decline in active cases as potential evidence.

Campus influencers may actually offer their fellow students positive and encouraging public health messaging, in contrast to the typical shaming other schools invoke to guilt students into wearing masks or staying socially distant in their dorms.

Research shows good public health messaging is intertwined with positive reinforcement rather than bashing those not adhering to safety precautions. Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist, notes there are several examples of administrators calling students “selfish and reckless and irresponsible,” none of which will likely motivate a change in behavior. In fact, such scolding is “toxic to public health,” and actually abdicates responsibility from the administration, placing the blame on students when restart plans go awry.

What might make campus COVID influencers successful in changing their peers’ behavior is the peer pressure associated with such messaging. In a separate interview, Marcus argues social norms are powerful tools of persuasion when it comes to behavior, so perhaps public health messages from students make it appear as though other students are taking certain safety precautions. 

Specifically, successful advertising targets the emotional state of the intended audience, which is obviously better understood by our peers than a university administrative body. Because these campus influencers are advertising certain behaviors, the marketing that goes along with it is most effective when the viewer is encouraged, rather than guilted into agreement.

Though UW has largely avoided explicitly shaming students into wearing masks or complying with city regulations, administrator emails are not devoid of guilt-tripping, especially preceding last month’s two week lockdown.

When the 14-day student restrictions were announced, Chancellor Blank reminded students “Our seniors want to complete their year without going home. Our freshmen want a college experience, not a return to their high school days.”

In other words, don’t be the student that ruins it for everyone else. But chances are high if you didn’t care enough to wear a mask prior to the email, one line was not going to elicit a desire to put one on.

Chancellor Blank’s email announcing the transition to remote instruction on September 9 echoes the same sentiment in which blame is mostly assigned to careless students, without any accountability for the lack of enforcement which may have enabled such carelessness in the first place.

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The email to students read, “Your behavior matters, and it has the potential to impact more than just your immediate circles as we are seeing with the recent growth in positive cases.” Again, a lengthy email that most likely went unread by the students referenced in the message.

Though the guilt-tripping is pretty clear, emails alone are not responsible for the recent decrease in campus infections. The two-week lockdown, or rather, proof UW’s rules were more than just reminders, is to thank.

Simply put, emails and campus influencers alone are not going to change student behavior for the better on campus, especially when we can easily go off campus with little oversight. Once the UW administration actually took effective steps to reduce the spike in cases this past month, students started to follow their rules with promising results.

Positive reinforcement and consistent, encouraging public health messaging is essential, but the lack of responsibility at the top is to blame for students’ lax behavior on campus and undergraduates know that.

Until the administration admits to the failings of the Smart Restart and its inconsistent campus-wide enforcement, students should not be held responsible for judging and regulating the behavior of their peers, or even other adults on campus for that matter.

Anne Isman ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying economics.