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SOUTH JORDAN — Dean Anderson was watching the sixth inning of a baseball game with his son when he answered a frantic call from his wife.
“Something’s going on. You’ve gotta get over here and figure this out,” she said.
Anderson, the owner of Cafe Yugo, a small Asian restaurant in South Jordan, was caught off guard. His wife, who had been working at the restaurant, had called him after receiving several angry phone calls from people livid over an incident of discrimination. Anderson and his wife were perplexed.
They quickly logged online and witnessed what Anderson would later describe as a “firestorm” of negative reviews on their Facebook, Yelp and Google pages. After some digging, they finally found the cause of the controversy.
In a Facebook post that has since been deleted, a transgender woman claimed she had come to Cafe Yugo and tried to place an order but was rejected by the young woman working at the register. She said the restaurant employee leaned in and whispered to her, “We don’t serve your kind here. Please leave.” The woman said she was shocked and left, but didn’t want to remain silent.
Her post was liked and shared by many, especially by members of an LGBT support group to which the woman belonged. Those sympathetic to her plight left scathing reviews on Cafe Yugo’s Facebook, Google and Yelp pages.
“When you put your entire life … on the line for a business, and something like that happens,” Anderson said. “Facebook and Yelp are really the only form of advertisement that small businesses can do … so that’s really important to us to have good ratings and someone can destroy that in a matter of hours.”
Anderson and his wife were surprised one of their employees would have discriminated, so they went back and found the woman on the restaurant security footage and watched as the woman was served and ate at the restaurant without incident. Anderson saved the footage, then found record of her receipt.
Armed with his evidence, Anderson emailed the woman. After waiting for a reply, he posted the information on the Cafe Yugo Facebook page. Soon after, he received a call.
“She called me and she said, ‘I know what I heard, and I don’t just hear things.’ So I said, ‘Did you actually see the video?’ And at that point, the whole tone changed to apologetic, and (she’s) going to retract this,” Anderson said. “But it was one of those things where I’m glad I had a camera system or we would have been dust.”
The woman later posted on Cafe Yugo’s Facebook page apologizing and asking others to stop leaving negative reviews. Once people saw the video and the receipt, many who had left negative reviews took them down and posted apologetic, positive ones.
Others quickly turned and went after the woman, posting angry messages on her Facebook account, which has since been deleted. When contacted about the incident, the woman told KSL the whole experience was a misunderstanding and a mistake on her part and declined to comment further.
In an effort to make things right, the LGBT group the woman associated with made donations to homeless shelters and other LGBT support groups in Cafe Yugo’s name and paid for the meals of several Cafe Yugo customers. They told Anderson the woman’s end goal may have been a lawsuit, the restaurant owner said.
“We’ve got nothing but praise on how we handled it,” Anderson said, “but (initially) it was a mob, everyone was just quick to jump on and go after somebody.”
While public punishments and lynch mobs seem to be a thing of the past, the internet — and social media, in particular — may signal a return to times gone by. With nearly the whole world online, “mob mentality” is a relevant reality.
“Classic social psychological theory from decades ago would talk about mob mentality back when it wasn’t online, but I think the principles hold, especially something that’s called ‘depersonalization,’” said Jacqueline Chen, a social psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah.
“When you’re in a big crowd … even more so to some extent online, you don’t feel like you will need to take individual responsibility for your actions because you’re just one of many," Chen said. "You might not be as in-touch with your personal values … and this is made worse online because there’s a feeling of anonymity. … You can be kind of swept up in what other people are saying and doing.”
Social forums like Facebook and Twitter offer users the opportunity to enact social justice with a bad review or shared post. That justice, however, isn’t always so judicial. Spurred by the actions of a group, individuals may jump on the bandwagon and condemn before waiting for or seeking confirmation beyond word-of-mouth.
“We’re known, as human thinkers, to take mental shortcuts, and one of those is if a lot of people are saying something, it must be true,” Chen said.
These shortcuts can sometimes be helpful, she said. If someone is yelling that a building’s on fire, it’s in everyone’s best interest to get out of the building first before waiting for proof. There are many instances, however, when waiting for the facts is the wisest decision, Chen said. It is often a lack of facts that spurs widespread and undeserved public shaming.
It was in the aftermath of the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville when civil rights activists took to Twitter to identify the protesters at the march. They wanted to find and shame them, but the only evidence they had to go off of were pictures of the rally.
One of the protesters looked a lot like Kyle Quinn, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas’ College of Engineering. A picture of the protestor in an Arkansas engineering T-shirt was tweeted out identifying him as the engineering professor.
This isn't KYLE QUINN .:. Who is he ??? #Namethenazi ???? .:. pic.twitter.com/8P6pNlukeC — Ferris Bueller (@YoungWaxGod) August 13, 2017
The only problem was that Quinn was at home watching a Planet Earth documentary at the time of the rally. He was quickly inundated with tweets, emails and phone calls from people threatening and cursing at him. Many called university administrators imploring them to fire Quinn. It was when someone tweeted out his home address that Quinn finally decided to get the police involved.
"They're emboldened because they're online and there's no or little consequences for their actions. That was definitely the most disturbing part — not knowing what poor decisions this group of people on the Internet could make next,” Quinn told NPR.
Though a mob on social media with few facts at its disposal can do serious damage, public shaming has also been responsible for righting quite a few social injustices as well.
“We (are) at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming,” wrote Jon Ronson, British journalist and author of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” “When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless and increasing in speed and influence. Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice,” he said.
Ronson recalls a time when L.A. Fitness refused to cancel the gym membership of a couple who had lost their jobs and couldn’t afford the fees. The public rallied and L.A. Fitness backed down. Suddenly, the powerful were being influenced by the once-silent and anyone with a social media account.
Ronson, however, has also investigated ways of combating the impact of public shaming, since much of it lives on in the infinite world of the internet. Ronson now assists those who have been publicly shamed (the deserved and the undeserved) by helping them clean up Google searches of their names.
"It's so corrosive to create that kind of society (that publicly shames)," Ronson told CNN. "This desire we have to be like amateur detectives, (looking for) clues into people's inherent evil by finding the worst tweet they ever wrote, is not only wrong; it's damaging."
And for the average human with a social media account, there’s a whole new meaning now to the phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.”