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On the flip side, people all over the world were aghast at the questionable actions of the school and police. They made the situation much worse by attempting to rationalize their actions. Social media is a hungry beast that must be constantly fed. Every attempt to justify their actions led to a new round of posts and reposts. Their attempts to smother the story actually fanned the flames and kept it alive exposing it to more people and more outrage. Even if they were justified in some of their actions and Ahmed’s race and religion had nothing to do with what happened, they failed to realize the public’s predictable perception of the situation.
Virality is a new phenomenon and must be dealt with using new thinking. People caught up in a social media crisis need the training of a media consultant and the knowledge of an attorney. If your position benefits from public outcry then you need to know how to make the issue go viral, when to time your releases, and how to keep the issue buzzing on social media. If publicity works against your position, you need to know to counter the controversy without inadvertently breathing more life into it or giving social media trolls statements they can take out of context.
Unfortunately, not only do most people misunderstand the dynamics and legal constraints of social media, they often don’t even know which side of the crisis they are on until it is too late. Should you say more or less? Just because you think you are right does not mean the rest of the world will. Could something you say be misconstrued against you will? Think carefully before doing either because you can’t take back what is posted on the Internet. For more options, see the Your Options page of this website or Contact Us.
Virality is the rapid spread of information through social media. Anyone can now post information on the Internet that can be seen around the world in seconds. The results can be both good and bad depending on your relationship to the viral content. On one hand, a situation that might have been previously unnoticed can spark public outrage and calls for justice. On the other hand, a viral image can polarize communities and entice people to rush to judgment. Here are some examples.
October 2015, Columbia, South Carolina. A school resource officer was fired after a video of him roughly handling a student went viral. There is little doubt that the viral video is the reason for the swift termination by the sheriff. Witness testimony, especially when it is conflicting, does not carry the same impact or visceral reaction. One way to look at this is that the viral video spawned quick justice for an obvious overzealous reaction to a slight provocation. Another way to look at it is to criticize the rush to judgment based on a public image taken out of context in an effort to control a public relations nightmare. The same week the police officer was fired, 100 students at the school walked out of class to protest his termination arguing that the incident was the student's fault for refusing to comply with repeated requests for compliance by the teacher, vice principal, and officer. It is important to realize that all public actions are potentially captured by a smart phone camera and therefore potentially viral videos.
On September 16, 2015, a 14 year old kid, who loves making things, brought his homemade clock to school to show his science teacher. The science teacher thought it was brilliant. His English teacher accused him of making a bomb and called the principal. The principal called the police who arrested the boy and escorted him from school in handcuffs. Could it have something to do with the fact that the kid’s name was Ahmed Mohamed, he is Muslim, and the school is located in Irving, Texas? Whether those facts were instrumental or not, the principal doubled down by sending home a letter to parents claiming that the clock was a “suspicious-looking item” and insisted that bringing the clock to school is “prohibited” and a violation of the Student Code of Conduct. The Irving police also doubled down, justifying Ahmed’s arrest by calling the clock a “hoax bomb” and claiming officers “feared for their safety.”
Soon after Ahmed’s arrest, a photo of the skinny kid wearing a NASA t-shirt and handcuffs hit the Internet. A short time later the principal’s letter went viral. After that, a news conference with the Irving police chief. Outrage erupted from all over the world. On Facebook, the founder Mark Zuckerberg invited Ahmed to drop by his office. On Twitter, President Obama invited Ahmed to bring his clock to the White House. Ahmed ended up on Time's 30 Most Influential Teens list.
So what can we learn from all this? Social media is a powerful tool that cuts both ways. The injustice suffered by Ahmed was swiftly exposed attracting worldwide attention almost instantly. Not only did Ahmed benefit from the fallout, but someone else might think twice before making the same mistake. Social media has made the world a better place.