Editorial: Digital space wrong place to resolve differences

  • Emma Rose McCadden, right, posted a video showing the owner and chef of A Single Pebble, Chiuho Sampson, left, did not allow her service dog inside the restaurant. (Screenshots from TikTok via VtDigger)

  • A Single Pebble in Burlington, Vt. (VtDigger - Shaun Robinson)

Published: 7/25/2022 11:09:06 AM
Modified: 7/25/2022 11:09:08 AM

The Far East met social media’s wild, wild West earlier this month in Burlington, and the result was a cautionary tale about a digital world that one of the main participants, Emma Rose McCadden, later described as “a very fast-paced and very lawless place.”

As reported by the news site VtDigger and the alternative weekly Seven Days, the story unfolded this way. McCadden, a doctoral student at the University of Vermont, and her husband had Saturday night dinner reservations at A Single Pebble, a well-regarded upscale Chinese restaurant that has long been a fixture of the city’s dining scene.

The couple arrived accompanied by McCadden’s service dog Jasper, a black standard poodle who is trained to detect and alert her to changes in her heart rate that can precede losing consciousness, and to seek help if she does. They had previously dined on the restaurant’s patio with Jasper, but when they tried to enter with the dog this time, they were turned away by A Single Pebble’s owner and chef, Chiuho Sampson. Sampson apologized, but in refusing to admit them cited a previous incident in which a dog had attacked diners at a neighboring table. She also asserted in a more general way that, “I run into a lot of issues with those. People say they’re a service dog, but they’re actually not,” adding, “I don’t know your dog.”

McCadden, filming the encounter on her cell phone, explained to no avail that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires places of public accommodation, such as restaurants, to admit service dogs and that the failure to do so constitutes discrimination against people with disabilities. Nevertheless, the couple had to return home that night without dining at A Single Pebble. The next day, McCadden posted her two-minute video of the encounter on the social media platform TikTok.

This had the effect of dropping a lighted match onto a tinder-dry social media landscape. Unsurprisingly, it exploded into flames, scorching the restaurant but also singeing McCadden. Within two hours it had been viewed 30,000 times and by the next day, a million.

Most of the resulting outrage was directed at Sampson and the restaurant, sometimes taking the form of negative “reviews” on Facebook and Google. But McCadden also was on the receiving end of abuse from people who accused her of being a publicity hound and lying about Jasper’s status as a service dog.

Shortly thereafter, an appropriately contrite Sampson issued a gracious digital apology taking full responsibility and committing herself and the restaurant staff to educating themselves about the ADA. For her part, a chastened McCadden took down the video and tried to undo the damage done by those who had seen it.

“I want them to be educated. I don’t want them to suffer,” she said of the restaurant, noting that A Single Pebble was one of her favorite places to eat.

Lessons to be drawn?

Among them: Social media vehicles can rapidly spin out of control, with unintended consequences; there is a vast audience out there in the digital universe with an excess of bottled-up rage that is seeking any excuse to vent it; and posting a video on TikTok might not be the best way to resolve a misunderstanding or disagreement that is essentially local in character and for which context and nuance are important.

The connections made through social media can enrich lives. But too many users of these platforms lack any sense of proportion and exercise little to no restraint over their emotions. The net result is corrosive, poisoning everything from personal relationships to democratic institutions. It is indeed a lawless place and a dangerous one as well.  

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