The Anatomy of a Social Media “Riot”

By the time police arrived, Union Square was severely overcrowded. Within the park’s nine acres, thousands of young onlookers had gathered for what was supposed to be a gift giveaway hosted by Twitch-personality Kai Cenat. Drawn by the promise of free Play Stations and the chance to meet a social media celebrity, thousands of teenagers had traveled to the park. 

When the crowd, predominantly an audience of youthful teenage boys, clashed with police, things escalated quickly. In dozens of videos shared across YouTube and other social media platforms, police collar the young attendees. One video captures a police officer slamming a teenage boy through a taxi cab’s back window. By the end of the day, several people were seriously injured, 60+ people were arrested and Union Square Park sustained over $55,000 in property damage. Cenat, the influencer who had sparked the gathering with posts made on Twitch days before, was charged by police with “unlawful gathering” and “inciting a riot.”

As police investigate this incident further and Cenat faces a court date, it’s worth considering the broader context of social media relationships and the unpredictable power of influencers to catalyze mass action in physical reality. In an age defined by Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and dozens of other social networks, what role do social media personalities have in driving people to action? What can happen when an influencer with a cult following asks their followers to do something? To answer the latter, we must first understand the phenomena known as parasocial relationships. 

Defined as “a one-sided relationship where one person creates an emotional attachment and invests their time and energy, while the other party doesn’t know of the other person’s existence,” parasocial relationships are a hallmark of social media users, especially younger users post-pandemic.

In a recent study by Wellesley College’s Youth Media and Well-Being Research Lab, researchers found that 90 percent of kids have social media by the time they turn 12 (7th grade for context). With the advent of coronavirus, lockdown and the implementation of remote learning in 2020, millions of teenagers leaned harder on social media to maintain physically distanced relationships and monitor ever-evolving news. In the process, many gravitated to familiar faces, screentime soared and the popularity of specialized, social media personalities rose with it. 

These relationships are built on constant content, frequent user interaction and intensely personal exchanges occurring several times a day. Intimacy is key. 

Most influencers cultivate a following over time, then use these followers to secure lucrative brand deals and partnerships. While encouraging your fans to buy a product or use a service is commonplace, the power of influencers to mobilize fans in real life beyond just buying a product, to encourage them to go somewhere and do something, is still unpredictable and relatively immeasurable.

In the case of Cenat, he unwittingly baited followers to do something dangerous. What was meant to be a good time, short giveaway and brief interaction, became something much more serious. Another interesting element here, the gathering was sparked by a relatively small medium.

If you’re unfamiliar with Twitch, it’s a social media platform best known for live-streaming events, including video game tournaments and product reviews. The platform hosts approximately 140M active monthly users. For context, that’s 1/3 of X’s (formerly Twitter) monthly audience, less than 1/4 of Tiktok’s and barely 1/20 of Meta’s. Cenat, the influencer at the heart of this scandal, is one of Twitch’s most followed creators. To date, he has over 6.5M subscribers and he posts content daily. 

This “riot” resulted from a perfect storm of circumstances. Post-pandemic teens, a diligently followed social media personality, the rise of parasocial relationships, the promise of a free, coveted product, a general lack of awareness about and unpredictability of calls to action on social media – these all melded together to create a moment New York City was unprepared for, yet one we can learn from. As communicators who often partner with influencers like Cenat or work with clients including city departments or public policymakers, we must be prepared. 

It is important that we understand how to predict, understand and measure the power these online figures have to mobilize their followers. Frankly, we must acknowledge this power exists in the first place. Most importantly, we must work towards ensuring and encouraging online personalities to use their influence for good. 

Daily Harvest’s Failed Response And What Crisis Professionals Can Learn From It

Just as social media built the company’s reputation, it also destroyed it. Daily Harvest knew how to use social media and influencers to market its products, but failed to use the outlets for crisis management.  

Daily Harvest is a meal delivery service that specializes in healthy plant-based food. The company focuses on convenience. Made for the busy person, Daily Harvest meals are either ready to eat or require minimal preparation. Grain bowls, soups and smoothies aim to make clean eating more accessible. 

TikTok influencer Abby Silverman received a PR package from Daily Harvest in May that contained French lentil and leek crumbles. After consuming them, she reported severe stomach pain, leading to two visits to the ER. She posted a two minute Tik Tok video about her experience that went viral with more than 1 million views and almost 4,000 comments. This post was a catalyst of conversation which forced Daily Harvest to take action. 

In June of 2022, Daily Harvest voluntarily recalled their French lentil and leek crumbles. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the meals caused sickness in 500 people and sent 113 people to the hospital. Those who consumed the crumbles claimed to experience symptoms such as stomach pain, liver problems, jaundice, dark urine, fatigue, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, back pain and shoulder pain. A lawyer representing a number of victims reported that over 25 of his clients had to get their gallbladders removed. 

Daily Harvest claims they took immediate and proper action in a statement published on their website. The company explained that as soon as they received reports of the contaminated French lentil and leek crumbles they motioned a recall. Customers who received the product were notified and an investigation was launched with the FDA. 

Considering that Daily Harvest acquired most of their business on social media, they should have also used it as a platform to spread information on the French lentil and leek crumbles recall. Daily Harvest failed when it came to keeping their customers informed and victims found themselves looking to Reddit forums for answers and guidance. 

Their first Instagram post on the issue aimed to advertise a different product while leading people to a link in their bio for concerns on the French lentil and leek crumbles recall. Burying information while customers’ health was at risk was unprofessional and inappropriate. Daily Harvest had an obligation to keep their customers informed and failed to take the situation seriously enough.

From a PR standpoint, there are numerous ways this crisis could have been handled better. Daily Harvest was slow to report to their customers on the facts they needed. They neglected to post on social media, portraying a lack of accountability. Customers lost trust in the company based on their response to the issue. A crisis on any scale can sometimes be unavoidable, yet what the company can control is an appropriate PR response that can mend the relationship between consumer and business. 


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