Rep. Erica Thomas case shows feelings can get ahead of the facts

Expert: Mining social media often means “looking for ammunition”
A dispute between state Rep. Erica Thomas and Eric Sparkes at the Mableton Publix has launched many a debate in social media. Opinions haven’t changed much even as more facts about the encounter surface. WSB image

Combined ShapeCaption
A dispute between state Rep. Erica Thomas and Eric Sparkes at the Mableton Publix has launched many a debate in social media. Opinions haven’t changed much even as more facts about the encounter surface. WSB image

By now, you probably have an opinion in the Great Grocery Store Debate of 2019. Chances are, it didn’t change as facts of the case unfolded.

A Georgia legislator, shopping with her young daughter and expecting another child soon, was ambushed and told to go back where she came from. Or, a guy irritated at someone with too many items in the express lane politely confronted the shopper, lost his temper but quickly left, later to be castigated as a racist villain.

The episode ignited the lake of kerosene that is social media, with race and ethnicity ensuring an inferno. State Rep. Erica Thomas is black. "People are getting out of control with this white privilege stuff," she said at the beginning of a video tearfully giving her account of the encounter.

Eric Sparkes, raised by his grandmother who spoke no English, says he has experienced racism and prejudice during his lifetime. “Her words stating on Twitter, and her video, stating I told her she needs to go back where she came from are untrue,” he said of Thomas’ allegations. “I am Cuban.”

If any of this made you mad and you’re active on social media, you might have commented or shared a post — and helped construct yet another set of virtual battle lines.

» MORE: Dispute builds over Georgia lawmaker's confrontation at grocery store

» MORE: Store video made public in Georgia lawmaker's confrontation at Publix

"Anger is an activating emotion," said Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Contagious: Why Things Catch On."

When people mine social media for updates on trending stories, they’re not often on a neutral fact-finding mission but are rather “looking for ammunition that helps them make the point they want to make,” he said.

Itai Himelboim, a University of Georgia professor of media analytics, studies viral outrage and the nuanced, more contextual revelations that follow. People prefer interacting on social media with others who share their views, creating silos of information flow, he said.

“In these densely interconnected clusters of similar users, misinformation and hoaxes spread fast, with little chance to be corrected or challenged,” he said. “Always be suspicious of stories that tell you exactly what you want to hear.”

As with other recent incidents launched into the national debate on the wings of political rancor and then fueled by frenzied social media activity, Thomas v. Sparkes became a political proxy war. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, one of four congressional Democrats who President Donald Trump tweeted should “go back” to their “totally broken and crime infested countries,” was among the prominent Twitter users to post Thomas’ tearful video giving her account.

Tlaib, who was born in Detroit, posted this message in support of Thomas:

Presidential candidates Bill de Blasio, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg all posted messages linking the matter to the president.

Conservatives pounced on Thomas’ subsequent comments clarifying that Sparkes didn’t actually tell her to “go back” and other details. Sparkes is a Democrat who has disparaged Trump’s antics in past social media posts, for example.

One grocery store employee who witnessed part of the encounter told a Cobb County police officer she heard Thomas “continuously tell Eric Sparkes to ‘Go back where you came from!’ ” but did not hear Sparkes utter those words to Thomas. Another told the AJC that he didn’t hear Sparkes make racist comments.

“I do think he was wrong, but she may not be totally right in this situation,” said Tony Tortorici of Canton, who’s been monitoring the story all week. “I don’t know if it was racist in this case. I’m getting a little tired of it being overused. It could have been a racist situation, but it’s hard to say now.”

Many of the lawmaker’s supporters are standing by her.

“I know Erica personally. I know that’s not in her character to fabricate a story,” said Dylan Yale Williams, who watched the video as Thomas was streaming live and has since seen updates.

“Someone else tagged me on a post. He seemed to be a Republican guy. Of course, that’s going to be the opposite opinion,” Williams said. “If I post my belief and you post your belief, my people are going to follow me and your people are going to follow you.”

Even if Sparkes didn’t make the “go back” comment, he admittedly berated a pregnant woman in front of her child. Michael Smith of Lithonia lays the general lack of civility at the president’s feet.

“I was upset about how a man was mistreating a woman, and there’s absolutely too much of that going around. It was just very Trumpish,” he said. “The climate is the way it is because of Trump and how he has been totally disrespectful.”

Henry Louis Adams of Stone Mountain underscored the undisputed facts of the case.

“Could you imagine being called (an expletive) while in the checkout line by a stranger?” he said. “This is not a Democrat issue, this is a human issue. We may never know the whole story, but if someone has it in them to call you (expletive) to your face, then he said something else. And people have a way with words to say stuff without really saying it.”

Demetrius Myatt of Atlanta, on the other hand, said he went from feeling sympathetic to suspicious.

“When I very first saw the video I was like, ‘Wow.’ My heart really did go out to her. Then I was like, ‘Maybe there’s more to this story,’ ” he said. “When I saw her interviewed with him on the news, I was like, ‘Uh, maybe it didn’t happen this way.’ ”

Thomas held her own news conference, repeatedly accusing Sparkes of telling her to “go back.” Then he showed up as she was preparing for an interview with Channel 2 Action News outside the store. While he did acknowledge swearing, he said he never used the phrase “go back.”

“I don’t want to say he said, ‘Go back to your country,’ or ‘Go back to where you came from,’ ” Thomas said then. “But he was making those types of references is what I remember.”

Thomas later said those remarks were taken out of context and that Sparkes definitively told her to “go back” to where she came from.

Recently released video shows Sparkes walking up to Thomas as she was checking out and apparently pointing to the sign for the express lane, which limits the number of items. He quickly retreats as Thomas responds and steps toward him, pointing a finger at him, the video shows.

The Cobb County police officer who reviewed the footage wrote that Sparkes “did not appear to be irate” or to have “clenched fists,” as Thomas reported. The officer also wrote that Thomas’ 9-year-old daughter was seen “smiling shortly after.”

Thomas said the episode, which lasted less than a minute, left her fearing for her life. Myatt said it seemed more like an attempt at political support.

“I think it’s absolutely disgusting. She should be made to resign,” he said. “We already have enough division as it is. We don’t need any more. She’s not unifying our community.”

He did stress that he thinks Sparkes was wrong for swearing at Thomas.

“Outside of hitting and spitting on a woman, that’s the ultimate disrespect,” Myatt said. “That was extremely wrong. It’s just as wrong for her to stretch the truth. The next time this actually will happen to someone, will people actually take it seriously?”

To that point, hashtags referencing Jussie Smollett, the actor accused of concocting a racist attack to advance his career, have trended in conjunction with updates in the grocery store dust-up. A tweet Thomas posted in 2015, when Smollett was in Atlanta, resurfaced this week: “Going downtown Atlanta for an event I hope I magically bump into Jussie Smollett #biggestfan.”

Charges against Smollett, who claimed that assailants in “Make America Great Again” hats poured bleach on him and hung a noose around his neck, were abruptly dropped to the outrage of then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.

“I’m concerned about what this means moving forward for hate crimes,” a furious Johnson said during a news conference. “My concern is that hate crimes will now publicly be met with a level of skepticism that previously didn’t happen.”

In the metro Atlanta case, some critics blamed journalists for sending the Thomas story trending.

“You’d think after Covington and Smollett the media would wait for some facts to be established before whipping up hate crime hysteria again,” conservative columnist Rita Panahi wrote, referencing another episode that went viral before all the facts were known.

Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann has filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits against several media outlets including Atlanta-based CNN following coverage of the Kentucky school group during a trip to Washington. Short video clips showing students wearing “Make America Great Again” hats standing near a tribal elder who was playing a drum ignited a social media firestorm. Sandmann’s legal team posted more complete video content, showing the students being taunted by another group and performing their school chant to drown out the insults.

Following the now-famous metro Atlanta grocery store trip, Thomas called for Sparkes to be arrested.

“I do believe that was a hate crime,” she said. “We have to make an example out of this man.”

The Cobb County Police Department announced no charges would be filed. Thomas’ attorney has called for further investigation, while Sparkes has said he’s pondering a defamation lawsuit.

Social psychologist Peter T. Coleman, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, researches conflict.

"What has been happening in our nation for many decades now but more acutely in the last three or four years with the Trump presidency are these deep chasms we can fall into," said Coleman, the author of "The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts." "The U.S. has been on about a 40-year trajectory of these cultural, political divides. Trump is both a manifestation of that and reinforces that really acutely."

Coleman did strike a hopeful note, though, pointing to a study titled "The Perception Gap: How False Impressions are Pulling Americans Apart."

The research, from a group called More in Common, found "Americans' views are more similar to their political opponents' than they realize."

The study also found that a voracious appetite for news and social media is associated with what researchers label a perception gap.

“People who consume news ‘most of the time’ are almost three times as inaccurate as those who consume it ‘only now and then,’ ” the study’s summary reads. A chapter on media consumption looks at the link between party affiliation and news diets. Networks such as CNN and MSNBC were more popular among Democrat responders while Fox News and conservative talk radio shows were more popular among Republicans.

“Consumption of media sources that cut against one’s own ideological bent tends to be associated with more accurate impressions of the other side, while sources that confirm one’s pre-existing views are associated with less accurate impressions,” the study reads. “Furthermore, those who post about politics on social media show a substantially larger perception gap than those who do not.”

Coleman noted the study’s term for people who have had it with the viral volcanoes: the exhausted majority.

“They’re just fed up with blame, the toxicity, really just fed up,” Coleman said. “They’re looking for something else. That’s a very hopeful thing.”