Grocery-store standoff arrest underscores social media’s power: Expert – The London Free Press
First let off with a warning while police investigated, the 39-year-old London man at the centre of a racially charged grocery store standoff that exploded online is now facing criminal charges – an example, experts say, of the power of public pressure in the social media age.
Viewed more than 2.4 million times in less than two weeks, the short cellphone video of an ugly interaction at a north-end Sobeys has helped set the agenda, one social media researcher says.
“Public opinion before would have taken a lot longer to be voiced. Now the public opinion can be voiced as the events are unfolding,” said Western University sociology and media studies professor Anabel Quan-Haase. “Policymakers, politicians and police, they couldn’t kind of put this under the carpet or ignore it as a small event. Rather they have to really take a stance.”
The 30-second video of the July 17 encounter shows a man in a red T-shirt trying to block another man from leaving the store and referring to him as an “illegal alien.” The man in the red T-shirt then claims he’s attempting to make a citizen’s arrest.
Police at the time said they were investigating the incident as potentially hate-motivated, but that the man who was blocked declined to press charges. Officers who attended the scene gave the aggressor a warning and let him go.
Phillip McLaughlin, 39, of London is now charged with assault, forcible confinement and causing a disturbance, police announced Tuesday. Police say the three charges stemmed from the ongoing investigation by the department’s hate crime unit and consultation with the Crown.
“It was determined that there was enough evidence to support proceeding with those three charges. We had video and even without the wishes of the victim in this matter, we do have enough evidence,” Const. Sandasha Bough said.
McLaughlin went to police headquarters on Monday and was released after being charged. He is scheduled to appear in a London court Sept. 12.
Police say witness statements and the cellphone video were key pieces of evidence in the case.
Videos like the Sobeys standoff have the ability to evoke strong reaction and empathy for the targeted person, Quan-Haase said.
Social media can turn incidents that were once only spread locally into viral stories that can catapult around the globe in mere hours, Quan-Haase said. They also have the ability to set the agenda and force institutions – like police, city hall and community organizations – to care and react more than they might otherwise.
“We’re certainly seeing that social media is shaping police reaction. . . . I think what they’re finding now with events that are unfolding in the virtual, global public eye probably require a different kind of attention,” Quan-Haase said.
“They don’t want to be perceived as not taking the right steps. . . . It could potentially also change what kinds of events receive more scrutiny and more attention.”
But while explosive videos can illicit action – even policy changes – from institutions, one researcher said reactive behaviour isn’t what governance bodies should strive for.
“It’s a terrible way to run things. You can’t drive policy based on an outrage that was caused by one idiot,” said Western University information and media studies professor Tim Blackmore. “That’s not going to make good policy.”
Blackmore said the Sobeys story exploded online not purely because of its content. People placed larger meaning on it, he said, adding it almost becomes a symbol of other societal injustices like racism or xenophobia.
“I suspect the reason that some of this blew up with such ferocity like this,” he said, “is that people were feeling hot, they were angry and they were like ‘OK, no more.’ So then the police look at that and say . . . ‘We need to be seen to act.’ ”