When I wrote a humorous goodbye song to commemorate the pivotal moments in my college career, I was unaware that the most significant event was yet to come.
The spring semester has come to be defined by COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus. A good portion of the student body has physically left Berkeley, myself included, so it has been a truly sad time, especially for all of the seniors like me who won’t be coming back. Since our last moments together were abruptly cut short, I wanted to retain any semblance of a community. COVID-19 is the crisis that binds us all together, which is why the Overheard at UC Berkeley banner image now reads, “Quarantined at UC Berkeley,” while the mascot of Confessions from UC Berkeley wears a face mask in its picture.
Overheard received a flood of coronavirus-related posts this semester. Many of them offered informational write-ups on the virus to inform the public; others simply shared news articles; some implored students to sign petitions about all kinds of related issues. There were petitions for universal pass/no pass grades, to give A’s to all students, for UC Berkeley to refund students and for billionaires to donate more money to the fight. It put me in a difficult position: The group was being overwhelmed by what would normally be considered irrelevant content, but the content was still obviously important. I knew the moderators and I had to do something.
We began by doing what we always do: evaluating on a case-by-case basis. I felt that we couldn’t just delete every single piece of content that wasn’t strictly something overheard, given the circumstances. It’s a global crisis, after all. Besides, I personally couldn’t stomach having to delete so many posts; it would feel tyrannical. Eventually, we worked out some unwritten temporary rules: We wouldn’t delete things that were related to both Berkeley and COVID-19, even if they weren’t overheard. Additionally, we wouldn’t delete things that would unequivocally directly help the student body by remaining up. This, at least, was a compromise I could feel good about.
That being said, we would be removing irrelevant posts as usual. The billionaire petition had to go; it just wasn’t Berkeley enough. When I deleted it, I got some pushback – the poster was quite displeased with my decision and told me so. They argued that some issues were just more important than the rules of a Facebook group. Sadly, though I do generally agree with that statement, I feel strongly that any group must have limits.
We’ve had to deal with COVID-19 on the Confessions page as well, of course. Since the first coronavirus-related submission came Jan. 25, about 4% of all submissions have been at least partially about the virus. That fact is itself an issue, since the Confessions page tries not to focus on any one thing too much. Unfortunately, in this case, there just isn’t much the moderators and I can do. It feels wrong to shy away from coronavirus submissions just because there are so many of them. Undeniably, it’s going to be what everyone’s thinking about; we can’t help that. I know I often feel the same all-encompassing fear and apprehension that my submitters do.
The crisis has also occasionally put the Confessions page in the position of being a fact-checker – a stressful position that I would rather avoid. Confessions, like Overheard, had partially shifted from a lighthearted source of entertainment to a platform for news. With the page’s large number of members, it has become clear to me that I have a big responsibility to stop misinformation. Early in March, a confession that called out people trying to sell hand sanitizer was posted, which implied that since hand sanitizer is antibacterial, it would be ineffective against a virus like COVID-19. In response to the substantial outcry explaining that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol to be effective in helping prevent the spread of germs, I hastily added a clarifying note to the post. Since this incident, I have learned the importance of having standards for truthfulness, and we have been very careful about posting questionable assertions.
Since the health crisis continues to be an ongoing situation, Confessions’ three-week delay between submission and posting has also been somewhat of an issue. Submissions that claimed the coronavirus wasn’t actually a big deal quickly became outdated as the crisis worsened. Some submitters have even taken to adding time stamps to their posts to add any potentially needed context. I think that’s a not-so-subtle reflection of how uncertain our world is right now.
We still don’t know exactly how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last. In fact, it is all too likely that the fall semester at UC Berkeley will also be affected in a big way. If that ends up being the case, Confessions and Overheard will have to continue operating under the new considerations and rules the moderators and I had to come up with this semester. In some ways, that’s unfortunate. But now more than ever, I feel good that the pages exist. In times such as these, I want to hold on to a sense of normalcy, and though we UC Berkeley students are apart, at least we can be alone together on the pages.