Anonymity promoting more reckless attacks from social media rats

I am reminded of the old joke about the restaurant:

“Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?”

“The backstroke, I believe.”

If you don’t find that funny – understandable if not – there is a local similar situation even less amusing.
There aren’t many bread bowls of chowder that come served with a rat, so we should have smelled one during Christmas week when one of those anonymized social media accounts ran one of those contrived videos with one of those seemingly shocked (but strangely subdued) customers scooping out a rodent in her serving at Vancouver’s Crab Park Chowdery.

The video was upon almost every media site and shared across social over the holiday season, the ideal ironic digital diversion at a time of year we eat more than we can digest. It spawned “journalism” continents away and occupied Twitter streams, Facebook posts and Instagram feeds. Television newscasts warned of the “disturbing” imagery viewers would see, in my experience the most effective way to keep people tuned.

And because it happened over the holidays, the sluggish response was reminiscent of the Jonathan Swift quote: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

The overall episode was ridiculous, but because for more than a few moments we in media fell into the froth, it served as an object lesson on the reckless reputational reality of today’s social platforms and the hazards for targeted businesses.

The Chowdery is an emerging, rustic Gastown joint that was sandbagged. Its soup kitchen was in the same building as Mamie Taylor’s, which was also side-swiped. The accuser got a refund and gift card at the restaurant.

A woman who said she was the friend of the person who posted the video did give one brief TV interview and later was on the defensive when a newspaper challenged her, so she wasn’t entirely inaccessible, but my guess is that we won’t hear from her again. The actual owner of the social media account hasn’t surfaced. I’m among dozens trying to get an answer. To be fair there remain a few mysterious elements in the story.

Thankfully, the grown-ups got in the room in due course. Vancouver Coastal Health Authority didn’t jump to any conclusion to precipitously descend on the supplier or the supplied, although it temporarily shuttered the kitchen. But the restaurant owner jumped in and spent time and money to investigate how the heck something like this could plausibly play out.

As far as common sense can tell, it couldn’t. First off, the rat was too big for the bread bowl to go unnoticed as it was prepared and served. To borrow a line we might wish to forget: if the rodent doesn’t fit, you must acquit.

We have been susceptible to memorable hoaxes, doctored photos and manipulated videos over the decades. We will believe, not necessarily because of insufficient media literacy (although that helps) but because of confirmation bias (it aligns with our beliefs, in this case that restaurants might be a bit sketchy with hygiene) and the sociological strength of the wisdom of the crowd.

The compounding headache today is the anonymity with which people can launch mischief and malevolence. The damage arising from the decline of personal accountability, particularly on social platforms, is only deepening. It doesn’t help that many media long since forfeited the discipline of verification; the race to be first is not always the race to be best.

Wearing my media hat, thinking of what it would be like to wear the restaurateur’s hat, I’m not sure it was wisest to at first apologize, even if that was the polite Canadian thing to do. Better to stand your ground and take on the outrage in the heat of the moment rather than take it on the chin and jeopardize your livelihood.
Yes, responsible media reasonably carried the restaurant’s eventual explanation of its processes and practices – and the vastly more believable conclusion that we’d been had. But I didn’t notice a proportionate antidote to the initial indignation on social.

I wandered by the Chowdery last week and business was bustling. The owner, in awfully good spirits considering he could have lost it all, invites everyone to pretty much sit in the kitchen and scrutinize the food prep. (Appreciate it, but no thanks.)

Seems he has the credibility to be believed and supported. In the oddest possible way, the worst possible publicity might have been good for business. •

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.

Editor’s note: This column has been updated to note the person who said she was a friend of the person who took the video did grant a television interview.