There is no doubt that social-media fury can go wrong. In one infamous instance, a young woman made a joke to her small circle on Twitter, just before boarding a plane to South Africa, about white people not getting AIDS. The joke was either racist or making fun of racism depending on your interpretation, but Twitter didn’t wait to find out. By the time the woman had landed, her name was trending worldwide, and she’d been fired from her job.
Throngs on social media violate fundamental notions of fairness and due process: People may be targeted because of a misunderstanding or an out-of-context video. The punishment online mobs can mete out is often disproportionate. Being attacked and ridiculed by perhaps millions of people whom you have never met, and against whom you have no defenses, can be devastating and lead to real trauma.
The vagaries of human nature and the scale and algorithms of social-media platforms fuel case after case of people finding themselves in the midst of such whirlwinds, but sometimes these mobs perform an important function. Sometimes the social-media mob isn’t just justified or understandable, but necessary because little else is available to protect the real victims. Such is the case with Amy Cooper, the woman now famous for making a false police report claiming that an African American man was threatening her life, when in fact he had merely asked her to leash her dog in Central Park, where he was bird-watching.
The difference between Amy Cooper’s case and many others is that the online fury has, in this case, served an important purpose. Unfortunately, such fury has so far been the only available form of deterrence against a heinous and intentional act: the weaponizing of police against black people, especially black men, through false or exaggerated reports. Because such false reports are rarely fully investigated or prosecuted, there isn’t an alternative to this online rage that provides the deterrence we need. Worse, even with years of publicity, little progress has been made in addressing the racist misconduct that allows police to be thus weaponized.
Deterrence is an important focus here, because the consequences of these fake cries can be dire. Black Americans have suffered a range of fates when police arrive thinking they’re dangerous from the outset, whether it’s needless arrest or being killed on the spot, like 12-year-old Tamir Rice, whom a police officer shot within two seconds of getting out of his (still not fully stopped) patrol car. Just this week, a black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, was choked to death by a police officer who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes while Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” and bystanders begged the officer to stop, to no avail.
Amy Cooper’s case is remarkably straightforward. We don’t need to read her mind or speculate about her motives. She tells us exactly what they are. The minute-long video of the encounter, filmed by the bird-watcher, Christian Cooper (no relation), starts with Amy Cooper walking up to and lunging at him. He steps back, saying, “Please don’t come close to me.” She lunges at him again and demands that he stop recording, and he steps back again. Amy Cooper then looks at him, takes out her phone, and matter-of-factly tells him, “I’m going to call the cops, and I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Christian Cooper surely knows his own race and did not need a reminder. Her statement was meant as a deliberate threat.
Amy Cooper then steps back to take off her mask so she can call 911, displaying the presence of mind to maintain social distancing. Once the 911 dispatcher is on the line, she changes her tone of voice to one of distress and says that an African American man is threatening her and her dog. She repeats this charge a few times all the while dragging her dog, in effect choking him, as the dog yelps in pain and panic—sounds the dispatcher may well have heard over the phone. She then lets out a hair-raising, desperate-sounding call for help, half-yelling, half-crying into her phone: “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble; please send the cops immediately.”
Toward the very end, she finally stops choking her dog, and while he lies on the ground, panting, she finally leashes him. In response, Christian Cooper, the man allegedly threatening her life, politely says, “Thank you,” and the video ends.
But life doesn’t end there. Amy Cooper’s 911 call was realistic enough that an NYPD unit showed up to what they thought was a “possible assault.” A tall black man suspected of assault, perhaps holding a shiny black object—bird-watching binoculars—may not even have had the two seconds Tamir Rice had. Thankfully, Christian Cooper had left by then, otherwise it might have been his name, not hers, that became a hashtag.
We now know a lot more about Christian Cooper, whose conduct seems like a paragon of de-escalation to me, but we can skip over all that. Instead of a polite Harvard graduate, he could have been a rude high-school dropout. It wouldn’t matter if he was “no angel,” as The New York Times described Michael Brown, whose shooting death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, kicked off a nationwide movement against police violence. Christian Cooper’s details don’t matter, because his life was on the line for something he didn’t do, simply because he was a black man in America.
During the Arab Spring and its aftermath, which I studied in the field as a scholar, in places such as Tahrir Square, Cairo, and Taksim Gezi Park, Istanbul, I witnessed numerous examples of social-media fury as protesters’ only tool of deterrence against wrongdoing by the powerful. Does it work? Not always, but sometimes there’s nothing else. For example, in the years before millions took to Egypt’s streets in 2011, many videos of police torturing victims surfaced and went viral online, provoking anger. Online comments may not have teeth against the Egyptian police, perhaps, in such a repressive state, but they made an important statement, the only statement available to the otherwise voiceless, powerless masses. Sometimes the social-media mob is the voice of the unheard, and sometimes it’s the only one they have.
Amy Cooper’s false report is not a minor crime, a momentary verbal tussle blown out of proportion by a mindless, keyboard-happy online mob. The immediacy of the threat it represents to so many is perhaps exemplified by the anchor Gayle King, a black woman with a young-adult black male son, breaking down on live television in anguish discussing the case. In their consequences, false reports such as Cooper’s are similar to the crime of swatting—making 911 calls with false claims of having been taken hostage or being in danger inside a target’s house, bringing heavily armed and agitated police teams to the location. At best, the police storm in, kicking down doors with guns blazing, and scare the living lights out of the victims. In one tragic case, the police killed a young man in the targeted house. For years, local and federal prosecutors had ignored swatting, and it is still often described as a prank. Finally, though, in that case, the swatter was prosecuted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
What Amy Cooper did was swatting-adjacent in both intent, execution, and possible consequences—calling 911 to make a false report of being in danger as a way to target someone. As a result of the publicity, she was fired from her job as the vice president at an investment firm, and she “voluntarily” surrendered her dog to the shelter she had adopted him from. I’m sure it’s a difficult time for her, but is it enough of a deterrent to future Amy Coopers? Absent a prosecution, I’m not so sure. And NYPD officials have already told us that they are “not going to pursue” any charges against her, that they have “bigger fish to fry,” and the district attorney “would never prosecute that.”
If protecting black people’s lives from blatant false reports that may endanger them is not big enough fish to fry, what is? Social-media rage is not an unalloyed good. It has its excesses. But until there is sufficient lawful deterrence for this particular crime, I’m not ready to condemn this mob or this fury.