YouTube and Twitter Turned the Philadelphia Starbucks Story Into News

It wouldn’t have been a national scandal in an earlier era—and it illustrates the positive ways that social media can still set the agenda.

Photo illustration by Slate. Screen grab of the Starbucks incident from YouTube.
Photo illustration by Slate. Screen grab from YouTube.

This article is part of Watching YouTube, a Slate series about YouTube.

Over the weekend, another viral video made the news. On Thursday in Philadelphia, two black men were removed from a Starbucks by police at the behest of the store’s manager, who said they had tried to use the bathroom without buying something. A patron filmed the incident and posted it on Twitter, where it soon went viral. A second video was uploaded to YouTube. Since then, the story has made national news, with the CEO of Starbucks apologizing and announcing that all Starbucks employees will soon undergo training to recognize unconscious bias.

The Philadelphia Starbucks story is an example of an individual injustice that illustrates a broader one—in this case, systemic racism. Its virality illustrates the ease and rapidity with which a news video that resonates with viewers on an elemental level can spread across the world. For all their flaws, social-media platforms like YouTube and Twitter perform a great service by helping regular people capture and surface stories that the traditional news media might ordinarily miss, or see but deem unworthy of coverage.

This story, it is safe to say, would not have been a story without Twitter and YouTube. I don’t just mean that we wouldn’t have seen the footage of the incident if these platforms hadn’t been willing to host it. I mean that in an earlier era, when the press was more consolidated, the Starbucks incident would almost surely not have made the news. “Two men ejected from Starbucks” is not the sort of hook that would have once captured the imagination of a city editor. But citizen journalists, for better or worse, are not constrained by the blinders of a traditional newsroom.

A decade ago, about when the phrase “citizen journalist” entered the lexicon, many professional journalists were terrified that an army of enthusiastic amateurs would soon put them out of work by doing their jobs for free. They spent a lot of time disparaging the presumed flaws in this plan. Citizen journalists might be able to run out and cover a fire, for instance, but they’d never be able to investigate corruption at city hall, and they may not have the same familiarity with flawed building codes that a seasoned beat reporter might have; that’s the sort of thing you heard a lot of at journalism conferences back then. Occasionally, we would discuss ways that citizen journalists could be co-opted into helping professionals without displacing them, such as capturing breaking-news footage that reporters could then incorporate into their stories. The public, optimistically, might become something like a worldwide team of news interns, performing low-level newsgathering at professional journalists’ behests, all for the thrill of being part of “the news.”

This co-option scenario has basically come true, in the sense that mainstream media organizations now regularly embed nonjournalists’ news-adjacent tweets, images, and videos into the stories they publish. (These social-media users might not think of themselves as “citizen journalists,” but the effect is the same.) The twist—and it’s a big one—is that more and more often, these civilians end up setting the mainstream media’s news agenda rather than the other way around.

The mistake the “whither journalism?” pundits made was in assuming that citizen journalists would approach the act of newsgathering from a journalist’s perspective, that they would want to mimic and mirror a professional journalist’s priorities. Journalists want big stories. Scoops. A fire, a murder, a trail of corruption, that sort of thing. Journalists are trained to ignore, or not notice, individual microaggressions unless they fit into a pattern that can then be used to illustrate a broader narrative. It’s not that journalists don’t care about fighting injustice. Indeed, a keen sense of right and wrong, and a desire to bring malefactors to justice, is one of the main reasons that people pursue this thankless and often low-paying career. But we tend to look for systemic greed and corruption: public officials taking bribes, corporations flouting the law, and so on.

Nonjournalists, too, are interested in injustice—but lacking the access and perhaps the ambition that many journalists enjoy, they are better equipped to document small stories rather than big ones. I don’t mean to be overly broad here. Journalists often do cover tales of local-scale injustice. I am thinking specifically of the “Help Me Howard”–style consumer-advocacy journalism in which local news stations often engage. You know the genre: The station sends a camera crew to a local business to get justice for a viewer who was unfairly denied a refund, or that kind of thing. But with these types of stories, I always get the sense that the news station wants viewers to think “Thank goodness for my local newscast, without which this story would have never been told.” More and more, that’s simply not true.

The “You” in “YouTube” implies that the platform is whatever you, the user, want it to be. Many users use it and other social media platforms as a way to voice opinions that are underrepresented and to share footage that, to them, feels newsworthy. Sometimes it is, by anyone’s standards. Citizen videographers often capture footage of incidents that would have always counted as “real” news: The clip of the white nationalist who drove a car into a group of demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, springs to mind, as does the footage of the New York Police Department officer choking Eric Garner. But they also film and share things like the Philadelphia Starbucks incident that, under traditional journalistic mores, would not have ever been considered stories at all.

The news videos that go viral on social media often documents acts of shocking official pettiness that provoke immediate emotional reactions: the United Airlines passenger forcibly removed from an airplane; the University of California–Davis police officer who pepper-sprayed a group of protesters who were sitting peacefully on the ground. There are many, many others; those two are just the two that immediately spring to mind. My sense is that few journalists would have covered these incidents as stories in and of themselves; if they would have written about them at all, it would have been as anecdotes in a broader story about some larger point.

The citizen journalists of YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms have done this too. They have spun a series of individual incidents into a big story: pervasive authoritarianism, systemic racism, and the abuse of power by authority figures. The individual videos make the individual incidents impossible to ignore. The corpus of videos, as a whole, ties each individual video into a broader systemic story. It is a story that would not have been told in the mainstream media without the diligent work of a distributed network of unaffiliated citizen videographers linked by a single platform.

When I write that another viral video “made” the news, I do not just mean that the Philadelphia Starbucks video got covered in the mainstream press. I also mean that the video forced the story into the mainstream, encouraging countless journalists to take the facts of the incident as documented in the initial clip and go out there and advance the story. Once again, YouTube and Twitter acted as an assignment editor for the mainstream media. Good assigning.