Digitally Yours: Social media cultivates more social responsibility

Terry Nguyen | Daily Trojan

Every once in a while, a viral video unleashes a tirade of discussion, social critiques and news. And I’m not talking about the Walmart yodeling kid or the condom snorting challenge that left parents concerned about their teens. Viral, socially important content online could be the redeeming factor of social media. It fosters social responsibility and citizen consciousness in situations where one feels powerless or experiences bystander apathy.

Since Thursday, a viral Twitter video depicting the arrest of two black men in a Starbucks has caught the attention of the internet and has been a primary focus of the latest news cycle. The reason behind the arrest was unclear; footage showed a witness approaching the police as they handcuffed the two men and questioning the justifications for their actions.

Several other individuals in the video’s background also acknowledged that they had not witnessed the two men commit any wrongdoing during their time in the store. It was later revealed that the store’s managers reported the men for trespassing, since they were sitting in the store without purchasing anything.

If not for the Twitter video’s virality, it’s possible that the arrest would have been overlooked as just another incident — by police, Starbucks employees and witnesses. In these moments, social media opened up the possibility not only for citizen journalism, but also for social responsibility.

Melissa DePino, the woman who posted the original video on Twitter, saw the arrest as blatantly racist and explained the situation in her tweet. Individuals who saw the post in their newsfeeds recognized the implications of the actions committed in the Starbucks and felt it was their responsibility to share it with their followers.

On a smaller scale, social media also fosters corporate responsibility. Most corporations have active social media accounts, tracking direct communication between them and consumers’ attitudes toward their brands. It’s become relatively easy to start online campaigns, and many users have taken advantage of Twitter hashtags to boycott companies for their policy views, sponsors — or in Starbucks’ case — its employees’ actions that demonstrate implicit racism.

As the video gained attention online, Starbucks tweeted that it was “reviewing the incident.” On Monday, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson called the arrest “reprehensible” and stated he would be meeting with the two men who were arrested. According to Johnson, the manager who called the police has also been put on leave.

It’s easy to decry social media, especially when companies as large as Facebook are plagued with scandals and users start to realize the dangerous side of these platforms.

Posts go viral all the time, but it’s rare for a video to clearly capture social wrongdoings that elicit strong responses from the online community. The Starbucks video demonstrates the existing implicit biases and consequences of racial profiling in our society.

Starbucks is now considering a change to its training program, with Johnson pledging to start unconscious bias training for new employees. It’s also working to introduce guidelines for store managers when it comes to handling situations that warrant calling the police.

To people of color, and specifically black people in the U.S., implicit racism — even blatant racism — isn’t a new phenomenon. Following the incident, many have decried Starbucks or described other social situations in which they have been mistreated for their skin color.

But, it took only one viral video for a billion-dollar corporation to consider improving its employee training program. I’m not saying these programs will fix the structure of implicit racism in society, but it’s a step forward to holding companies accountable and dismantling the systems of power that have gone on unchecked. All it took was a cell phone and a few customers outcrying the “reprehensible” course of actions toward the two men, and the internet responded with outrage.

Terry Nguyen is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the features editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Digitally Yours,” runs every other Tuesday.