Social media is not like Vegas. What happens on Facebook does not stay there. Sometimes it ends up in The New York Times. This applies to everyday life more broadly—what happens when you walk your dog in the park, or visit the National Mall on a high school trip, can make its way onto Facebook and snowball into national news.
Such is the case of Amy Cooper, a thoroughly unsympathetic character who called the police on a man in Central Park, hysterical over a dispute about her dog. With dog runs in the city closed, Cooper let her cocker spaniel Henry off his leash against regulations meant to protect birds and plants. Christian Cooper, an avid birder with no relation to her, says he asked Amy Cooper to leash Henry, “who was tearing through the plantings.” She refused, according to his account.
Most of what we know about the tense exchange comes from a Facebook video posted by Christian, who outlined his version of the incident in a caption. Christian’s transcript of their interaction is as follows:
ME: Ma’am, dogs in the Ramble have to be on the leash at all times. The sign is right there.
HER: The dog runs are closed. He needs his exercise.
ME: All you have to do is take him to the other side of the drive, outside the Ramble, and you can let him run off leash all you want.
HER: It’s too dangerous.
ME: Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.
HER: What’s that?
ME (to the dog): Come here, puppy!
HER: He won’t come to you.
ME: We’ll see about that…
I pull out the dog treats I carry for just for such intransigence. I didn’t even get a chance to toss any treats to the pooch before Karen scrambled to grab the dog.
HER: DON’T YOU TOUCH MY DOG!!!!!
“That’s when I started video recording with my iPhone, and when her inner Karen fully emerged and took a dark turn…” Cooper added. As the Times reported, the name Karen “has become slang for an entitled white woman.”
In Christian’s 70-second video, Amy aggressively restrains her dog while whining to the police on a phone call about “an African-American man” who is “recording me and threatening myself and my dog.”
“Please send the cops immediately!” she demands, seemingly on the verge of tears.
CNN described the dust-up as “another example of white people calling the police on African Americans for mundane things.”
Amy Cooper looks ridiculous. She looks like a wildly oversensitive, sheltered white woman with an entitlement complex who believes she should be able to do what she wants wherever she wants to do it.
We do not know exactly how Christian Cooper approached her. By his own account, he said, “If you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it,” before attempting to feed Henry. That’s a jerk move. I get why it would set someone off. It does not excuse Amy Cooper’s over-the-top reaction.
After Christian Cooper’s video went viral, Amy Cooper apologized. “I sincerely and humbly apologize to everyone, especially to that man, his family,” the woman told WNBC. “It was unacceptable and I humbly and fully apologize to everyone who’s seen that video, everyone that’s been offended.”
I have no idea whether Amy Cooper was acting out of racism. That’s ambiguous. Given 1) “African-American man” was the only descriptor she chose to use at first, and 2) from all available information, her behavior seems to be an overreaction, I understand why people ran with that assumption. Amy also identified Christian as “a man, African-American, he has a bicycle helmet,” to the police, using his race along with his sex and physical description as relevant identifying details.
This description from the Times report on Amy Cooper’s ascent into infamy is crucial:
Shortly after the video was posted by Mr. Cooper’s sister on Monday, someone who said they had been the white woman’s dog walker identified her. Her name soon began trending on Twitter.
Internet sleuths digging into Ms. Cooper’s life found an Instagram profile of her dog, Henry, and began sharing old photos documenting injuries he had suffered.
In one day, Amy Cooper lost her job, her dog, and her reputation. Even Joan Walsh, opining on Cooper’s firing in The Nation, said she “[didn’t] know if that was the right outcome.”
Viral videos like Cooper’s spread like wildfire partially because they seem to provide clearcut reason for outrage, easily packaged and incentivized on social media platforms. As people signal their outrage, rightfully or otherwise, another group of social media users chafes at the sanctimony. But, more importantly, people push back because they realize the trend threatens everyone.
The practice of recording public interactions with random strangers and uploading them without context (or with one-sided context) to the worldwide town square puts everyone in a panopticon monitored by the self-appointed guardians of political correctness, who work mostly in media and share mostly the same rigid adherence to cultural liberalism. With a slip of a tongue or an outburst on a bad day, you, too, could lose your career and reputation on the world stage, destined to live in the shadows until sufficient time passes for a potential employer or date or friend at the gym to hear you out.
Public shaming can prevent and correct and punish truly abhorrent behavior. But it’s different on social media, where context can be lost or willfully misrepresented. The ease with which we’re now able to shame others on such a massive scale makes people uncomfortable. Not every video that purports to document bad behavior will go viral. Not every video that goes viral will actually document bad behavior. Some will, and their antagonists will deserve their fates.
But Amy Cooper didn’t need to lose her job for being deeply obnoxious. She didn’t need to grapple with this mistake on the world stage. The sentence did not fit the crime. (Except, perhaps, for surrendering her dog back to the shelter from which he came.) In the broader conversation about racism, which of course has not been fully rooted out of this country, we needn’t shed any tears for Amy Cooper. (Read John Daniel Davidson on Ahmaud Arbery.)
We should, however, understand that backlash to her public shaming stems partially from a very fair discomfort with the power social media gives us in every moment we carry our phones. And we should reckon with our use of that power, both as the people who upload and as the people who share. While it feels like social media has been with us forever, we’re still hashing out norms for this new mode of instant global communication. We can do better.