Like many non-essential workers whose screen times have increased in tandem with boredom and generalized anxiety, Rachel Graham of San Diego starts her day by opening Twitter in search of an update on the coronavirus outbreak.
First, she checks her notifications—mostly alerts to tweets from journalists covering the disease and virologists and epidemiologists studying its spread. She looks through her direct messages, where like-minded EID (emerging infectious disease) junkies send her articles. Sometimes she messages an expert to make sure she understands a report correctly. Then she starts tweeting and retweeting.
Graham runs @V2019N, or just “COVID19,” an anonymous Twitter account that she started in mid-January. After sending more than 15,000 tweets and attracting more than 149,000 followers—including some well-respected infectious disease experts—hers is now one of the most prolific news aggregators dedicated to the outbreak.
The account is all coronavirus, all the time, as she put it in a phone conversation that ranged from preppers, pandemic preparedness, and the H7N9 flu to Internet trolls and Tony Fauci. She tweets dozens of times a day, mostly links to news articles and lab study write-ups, and retweets of scientists. Her profile picture is a map of China, with red lines marking the spread of the virus outward from the initial epicenter in Wuhan. Her cover photo is an outbreak word cloud, with phrases like “COVID-19,” “PANDEMIC,” “fever,” and “spread” spelled out in big, dramatic letters.
The project keeps Graham busy while she is sitting at home, bending the curve. But she was probably more prepared for social distancing than most of us, the writer and mom of two tells me, because she was 50,000 words into a draft of a novel about a fictional pandemic when she first read that a new virus had emerged in China. By the time governors handed down stay-at-home orders in March, she had already been knee-deep in the coronavirus for two months, running her Twitter account full-time.
When reports of unexplained pneumonia in Wuhan first popped up in January, Graham knew right away who to follow to keep up with the news. She had developed an interest in emerging infectious diseases while working at a private drug research lab in D.C., and ran pandemic preparedness drills as a volunteer for the medical reserve corps. She’s also a former paramedic. After she moved to California and became a writer—she has published romance novels under a pseudonym—she joined Twitter around 2012 to promote her work. She also used the site to track Ebola and MERS. Out of her interest in pandemics came an idea for a novel in the model of World War Z (the book, which she assures me is better than the Brad Pitt adaptation). Informed by her research on viruses and zoonoses—diseases that jump from animals to humans—it involves an arenavirus that emerges in Venezuela and causes a hemorrhagic fever and neurological problems. Victims walk around spilling the virus, debilitated by dementia (like zombies, but more medically plausible, though Graham volunteers that “every virologist would say, no, that wouldn’t happen that way”).
She was at work on the draft when she first read about the coronavirus in early January, around the time when the non-profit FluTrackers.com, an infectious disease forum founded in 2006, started covering it. After two weeks of poring over the news for several hours a day, Graham started @V2019N and shared updates from there. “I’m a writer, so I have some personal time,” she says. “I had the luxury of following it sort of fanatically.”
A subscriber to The New York Times and Washington Post, she soon added the Wall Street Journal. Some followers complained about paywalls when she tweeted their articles, so she began posting screenshots of highlights in addition to links. She also shared pre-prints of academic articles on the virus—studies that had been submitted to journals for publication, but hadn’t yet been peer-reviewed—alongside hashtags scientists were using for the coronavirus, and her readership started to grow.
At the end of January, Graham had three or four thousand followers, largely made up of “preppers” with perhaps-obsessive interest in readying themselves for pandemics or natural disasters and other apocalyptic events, as well as scientists interested in the pre-prints. The count jumped to around 40,000 in February, when people interested in financial news started to turn up, she says, looking “to get a sense of what was coming for the markets.” More followers showed up in March, “when it moved to the forefront of people’s minds.” The count is now 149,200 and growing.
In mid-January, after reading a Times story about Wuhan, I went on a following spree. One of the scientists or science journalists I followed must have retweeted @V2019N, which I started following and reading daily for a while. I was soon aware that this thing was not the flu, and that it would spread. I keep looking back at a text I sent on January 30th: I’d attend my college newspaper reunion in May, I joked to a friend, as long as we weren’t dealing with a pandemic by then. Being on Twitter in the early days of the pandemic meant you had a better sense of what to expect—first what was spreading from China and Italy, and then what to do to protect yourself, when the virus had arrived but the government was still sending mixed messages on social distancing. The joke online is that finally, Twitter is real life. Maybe it always was.
In January, the White House, with all the resources of the U.S. federal government and top scientists at its disposal, had not ramped up mask production or developed a competent testing plan (it still doesn’t have one). Meanwhile, American TV news was focused on the impeachment trial and the Democratic primary. When anchors did mention coronavirus, it was usually to echo the White House’s official line that “the virus’s risk to Americans is low” and that anyone worrying should really, really get their flu shot because they were more likely to come down with that anyway. But for Americans curious enough to read international news—or even just the international section of American news outlets—the signs were all there.
“There’s been amazing reporting on this, from January,” Graham says. “It’s so surprising the rest of the world didn’t sit up and take notice.”
That’s one reason she started the Twitter account: “as a warning.”
“I guess it’s been a little bit of a let down because there was a lot of shouting into the void,” she adds. “It felt like that. I think it felt like that for the most respected epidemiologists in the world, because they were putting all this information out and no one was preparing the way they should have been.”
Long before the account blew up in March, Graham was warning her friends that the virus was going to be a problem. A month earlier, she was telling her two kids, who are nine and twelve, that they would be getting an early summer vacation. She told her mother, who is 82 and has a heart condition, to stop going out—especially to stop handing out the wafers at Mass—on February 28. But not everyone bought it. “There were a lot of people in my real life saying, ‘Oh, Rachel, come on,’” she says.
She saw a tweet from another early follower of the epidemic in late February that she related to. “It said, ‘Has anyone else gone from crackpot—‘there’s a pandemic coming!’—to guru, in two weeks?’ That tweet was really heartening,” she says. “We had all felt the same way. We had been preparing for this, we had warned our families, and then all of a sudden things changed.”
Given social media’s deserved reputation for spreading misinformation, it seems counterintuitive that Twitter would stand out as being ahead of the curve during this crisis. And there is plenty of garbage spreading there—nonsense from Tom Cotton, official Chinese government propaganda denying the virus originated in Wuhan, whatever Trump says on a given day, the bots amplifying it all. Graham is fixated on making sure she only shares information from credible sources in the medical community, and is quick to issue a correction if a story she shares is discredited, for this reason. But for all the noise, Twitter has also allowed scientists and physicians to share their findings on this new, terrifying threat in real time, so their colleagues abroad can better treat patients, and public health officials have more information as they make policy decisions. More dystopian, American health care workers have leaned on Twitter to beg the government for personal protective equipment, to some success. But then those opportunities raise their own questions: Publishing a draft study and sharing it widely gets information out faster and could save lives, but what risks do you take by circumventing the peer review process? Graphs illustrating relative risk of complications by age group are informative, but what happens when bored armchair epidemiologists read them wrong—or do so intentionally to make a point? How much time should scientists spend researching the virus, and how much should they spend communicating their findings to the public on their feeds? What does it say about the U.S. that we depend on social media to alert the government to nurses’ need for masks and gowns? It turns out we will tweet through the apocalypse, and we’re watching the chaos play out in real time.
Another way to track public opinion on the pandemic is the trolls. First, there were the replies from the “‘It’s just the flu’ bros,” as Graham calls them, denying the coronavirus was worth worrying about and insisting that the flu was as or more deadly. Then came the responses from those who insisted that only Asian people could get the disease or die from it. Graham says of the people in denial, “I thought, oh, it’s so pervasive. People want that reassurance that they won’t get it.”
Now there are the grifters. In mid-April, a copycat account popped up with a nearly identical Twitter handle to Graham’s, trying to take advantage of the fervor around coronavirus news to make money. Graham changes her pinned tweet every week to a link to donate to a new charity, usually a food bank in an area hard-hit by the epidemic. The copycat recreated those calls for donations, but put a BTC number where the donate link would have been. Graham enlisted her followers to mass-report the fake and get it banned from Twitter.
Through it all, Graham is content to track the epidemic from her computer, tweeting to an audience eager for pre-prints suggesting that an effective antiviral drug or vaccine could be on the way soon. The pace and focus of the online discourse around the virus has changed a lot since she started following it. News coverage is constant, more focused on the U.S., and more available to the public. While there was steady research coming out of China from the outbreak’s beginning, there are now so many coronavirus-related pre-prints published online a day—hundreds—that she can no longer read every one. She now turns to key experts, either by looking at their feeds or by checking in via direct message to learn what they find credible and worth highlighting.
But despite the insatiable appetite for corona-coverage these days, Graham doubts that such a robust audience will exist for her zombie-virus novel when this is all over. When I ask her how much detail she’s comfortable sharing, given that the book isn’t published yet, she stops me. “Please, no one will ever buy it now,” she jokes. “No one wants to read about a pandemic.”
Madeline Conway is based in Chicago. She has had an amateur fascination with epidemiology since participating in a CDC-sponsored Science Olympiad event in 7th grade. Follow her @MadelineRConway.