Encountering death on Facebook: A digital ethnography of pandemic deaths and online mourning


Referred to as digital mourning (Babis, 2020), the use of social networking sites to mourn seems to have become more prevalent amid the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing observers to describe their Facebook timelines as resembling “virtual obituaries” (Cruz, 2021, para. 3). Using digital ethnography and computer-mediated discourse analysis, this paper illustrates the discourses on COVID-19 deaths as well as the digital mourning practices of Filipino Facebook users. The study found that Filipinos primarily tended to stick to their pre-digital cultural script and virtues when reacting to and mourning deaths on the social networking site (Wierzbicka, 1985). The discourses and reactions of Filipino FB users reflected and mimicked “offline” responses and reactions to death, thereby effectively mediatizing traditional death and mourning rituals. At the same time, newer mourning practices are also emerging in the digital sphere. Tied to the responses and comments regarding death were discourses on COVID-19 denial and folk medicine, as well as emotionally-laden articulations of alignment and disalignment with other Facebook users. These findings make apparent how Facebook news posts on COVID-19 deaths cultivate emotional exchanges and generate pockets of culture-specific networks of mourners and commiserators by circulating news of death, mediating discourses on death, and facilitating various expressions of mourning and commiseration. Through these networks, Facebook actively contributes to the reconfiguring and extending of offline mourning rituals in the digital sphere.