When Zoe Callis received an email from Coles informing her it had substituted the out-of-stock, vegan-friendly mince she ordered online with a packet of Harvey Beef Premium Mince, she laughed out loud.
She took to a private Facebook group for Australian vegans to write a short post poking fun at what the supermarket had described as an “inconvenient” situation.
“I mean, this is really inconvenient considering I am vegan,” she wrote.
A few hours later, it began.
She received a flurry of messages from friends joking she had become famous.
“I saw this post on Facebook and it was my profile picture superimposed next to a tray of mince — I thought, what in the world is this?” Ms Callis said.
“It was a news story. It had my full name and a picture of the post that I’d made.
“It called me ‘irate’ — it was ridiculous!”
More media join the pile-on
The story caught on like wildfire.
“I was tagged in more posts and different news outlets took it and re-wrote it,” she said.
“They actually went on my Facebook profile and dug up a picture of me from about five years ago – it was the main photo before you even clicked the article.
“I saw it was actually translated in a Melbourne Chinese news outlet.”
In a matter of hours, Ms Callis became the subject of almost a dozen articles and Facebook posts that attracted thousands of public comments and reactions.
And that’s when things became nasty.
“Only a vegan would kick up this much of a fuss,” read one comment.
“If she ate meat she would have had to energy to do her own shopping,” said another.
“Toughen up princess,” somebody else wrote.
“I actually ended up getting a few comments of a sexual nature,” Ms Callis said.
“I think particularly because it’s a vegan thing not to eat meat and then there’s all this innuendo.”
Private banter becomes public record
Ms Callis said she was shocked something she said in what she assumed to be a private arena could spread so far and wide.
“It was closed vegan group for vegans – we share food and talk about vegan things,” she said.
“I didn’t realise that it could go public. I wasn’t out there sharing this with everyone.
“I do feel like my privacy has been invaded a little bit because my name, age and image and everything has been put out there.”
Ms Callis said when the news story was shared back on to Facebook for all to see, the context of her original sentiment was stripped without her having any control.
“I didn’t want to be another angry vegan. I didn’t really want to invite that kind of response from people,” she said.
“Even though the original article didn’t necessarily say anything bad about me, other than I was irate when I was clearly making a joke, they definitely wrote it because they know that’s the kind of thing people would click and they were the kind of comments people were going to make.
“It just sort of happened and I was kind of like, how is this even allowed?
“[The context] was taken away and all the ideas and feelings I supposedly had have been added by someone else who doesn’t even know me and didn’t speak to me.”
The perils of ‘context collapse’
Curtin University Associate Professor in Internet Studies Tama Leaver said what Ms Callis experienced could easily happen to anyone active on social media.
“There are many ways for what is essentially a private conversation to make its way public very easily,” he said.
“This what we call ‘context collapse’, where the context that you were speaking in is not the context that you’re then read in.
“For anything to do with a hot-button issue, that can be incredibly problematic because you suddenly find yourself defending a position that you would never have uttered in that space.”
Associate Professor Leaver said people on social media could be quick to react to something without exploring the context.
“People are very reactionary and tend to jump down other people’s throats without actually checking if something is humour or intended the way it’s being read,” he said.
“They do feel like they can just pile on, that they can just attack people because they don’t like something they’ve said.
“We’ve seen this happen to celebrities. We’ve seen this happen to people who have various levels of profile. But when it happens to individuals whose material has been taken out of context, it can be particularly disconcerting.
“It does remind us that every act of communication is also an act of publication on social media.”
Using the media to ‘light a fire’
Associate Professor Leaver said the media played a huge role in inciting outrage and tension on social media.
“It would be a wonderful world if we had a lot less clickbait,” he said.
“[As a reporter], if you can’t leave your desk and you’ve got three hours and you have to file something, then finding a hot-button issue Facebook group and screenshotting the most contentious thing said in that group could be the basis for a clickbait story that a lot of people are going to read, react and comment on.
“It’s not really journalism. It’s just lighting a fire and seeing who walks in to either put it out or make it worse.”
Associate Professor Leaver said stories lifted and re-written by other media outlets to compete in the fast-moving 24-hour news cycle led to an echo chamber of reporting.
“It is cheap and nasty reporting,” he said.
“Often what it ends up doing is nobody fact-checks the original post. Nobody goes back to the source and says did this really happen or did this really mean the way it’s being read?
“Because of that, you can get a whole chain of reporting across a number of different sites, a number of different platforms and indeed a number of different countries that is basically a misrepresentation of what somebody said in the first place.
“It doesn’t necessarily cross a legal barrier, but it’s an ethical question.”
Call for a shift in social media etiquette
Ms Callis said while she personally wasn’t angry or upset by her experience, it did take her by surprise.
“It’s a bit of a laugh. I never said anything wrong or embarrassing,” she said.
“I had a funny shopping experience and I shared it in a group of people that would relate to it.
“So, even if people have taken it out of context and called me an angry vegan or a privileged princess, I still haven’t done anything.”
Associate Professor Leaver said he hoped the benchmark standard of what was acceptable social media behaviour would increase with time.
“Hopefully at some point we’ll have better conversations and better literacy about the impact that this can have on other people,” he said.
“My optimistic hope is that there will be a generational shift that will see the people that have grown up with this as their normal thinking that they can do better and produce better norms and better ways of dealing with each other.”