Arizona State University has been on edge since the Arizona Department of Health Services announced on Sunday that someone at the school had been diagnosed with the 2019 novel coronavirus. In the days since, there’s been a Change.org petition with 24,000 signatures to cancel classes, and Asian students have reported that classmates are shooting them xenophobic looks whenever they cough or sneeze. Surgical face masks are selling out at stores near campus. The university has tried to dispel concerns, advising the community that the immediate risk to the public is low and that the diagnosed individual is in isolation, not severely ill, and did not live in school housing.
But ASU also found itself containing something else this week: a foolhardy joke about the coronavirus scare by an undergraduate with a famous dad and a considerable social media presence. The result was a lesson, maybe, in the limits of Twitter hijinks amid an actual health panic—that, or an example of how to win followers and influence people during a coronavirus outbreak.
It starts with Liv Cowherd, the daughter of Fox Sports radio commentator Colin Cowherd and a sophomore at ASU, who has 49,800 Instagram followers, 115,200 Twitter followers, and a fledgling e-commerce business. In a tweet typical of her jokey nihilism, Cowherd sent this out on Monday (the “innovation” reference is to ASU’s repeated success on a US News and World Report ranking):
Then, four hours later, Cowherd tweeted this:
No, Michael Crow, the president of ASU, did not actually tell Cowherd to delete her tweet and then proceed to block her on Twitter. As Cowherd would later admit, the screenshots were Photoshop jobs. After her initial tweet, Cowherd contacted Rudy Mustang, known on Twitter for posting screenshots of fake DM interactions with famous figures (like one in which he tries to convince Barack Obama that Michelle is his girlfriend). The fakes Mustang made for Cowherd weren’t perfect—the fonts were incongruous—but it seems like they were enough to fool at least some people.
The tweet with the fake screenshots quickly went viral, garnering 55,600 likes. Cowherd’s DGAF social media presence has earned her semi-mocking Barstool Sports coverage, and, in true influencer fashion, allowed her to capitalize on micro-fame by selling socks. Soon, 100 of her followers went over to the ASU president’s actual account and ratioed a tweet Crow sent out directing people to resources for coronavirus information. They by and large demanded that he unblock her and generally trolled him. “My Twitter mentions are always exploding, but I finally found a few that were linked to [Crow’s] Twitter and I was just like, ‘Oh my God. I need to tell them to stop tagging me,’ ” Cowherd told Slate in an interview.
ASU officials were less than pleased with Cowherd’s clout chasing. In reaction to the flood of users blowing up Crow’s Twitter feed, the actual account for the office of ASU’s president sent out a tweet attempting to clarify the situation.
The dean of students’ office also called Cowherd in for a meeting to discuss how she may have violated ASU’s student code of conduct by misrepresenting herself as Crow. Naturally, Cowherd detailed the events in a TikTok:
Cowherd claims that she expected everyone to realize the screenshots were fake, but says she now realizes that the target of her parody was not well-known enough for people to recognize it as a joke. “With the actual president of the U.S. [in a fake DM screenshot], people know that it’s a joke, whereas this wasn’t as clear,” Cowherd said, adding that she soon sent out tweets to tell everyone that the whole thing was fake. (Her tweet with the doctored screenshots, however, is still up.)
The meeting with the school officials, though, went swimmingly. “They were super nice, super friendly about it,” Cowherd said. “I explained it to them. There was this miscommunication obviously; they didn’t understand the joke that a lot of people got.” According to Cowherd, the officials were nevertheless concerned about spreading any sort of misinformation at a time when anxieties are running high about the disease, and also didn’t want to give people the idea that Crow would ever block a student.
An ASU spokesperson told Slate, “We can confirm that the original message posted on Jan. 28 was fabricated and did not originate from @michaelcrow and that @liv_cowherd has never been blocked from President Crow’s Twitter account. Beyond that, it would not be appropriate to comment on any matters related to student conduct due to federal privacy rights.” (Disclosure: Slate’s Future Tense section is a collaboration with ASU and New America.)
Cowherd thinks that the joke was worth it in the end, noting that her followers have been calling her “savage” for her hijinks. Now ASU can focus on settling students’ fears over the coronavirus scare, and everyone has learned a valuable lesson … right ? “I’ve gained a few thousand followers on Twitter and Instagram and TikTok pretty steadily. … [The secretary] gave me her personal number if I need anything, and they were super friendly when I met them and now I have connections with ASU in a good way too,” Cowherd said. “Nothing bad really came out of it.”