United has a big, stupid, obvious mess on its hands.
Big because it dragged a bloodied, ticketed passenger off a plane for the simple crime of wanting to go where he paid to go. Stupid, because it was entirely avoidable. Obvious, because for all our shock, nobody was particularly floored to learn that a major airline had mistreated a paying customer in such a ridiculously over-the-top way.
We live in an era in which everything transpires in real time; communication is immediate and asymmetric. It’s never been harder to control the story, not when everyone has the power to film and mass disseminate in real time at their literal fingertips (an ability that would make news organizations of just a decade ago fall over in jealousy). It’s a simple matter of hitting “Go Live” on Twitter Periscope or Facebook Live and broadcasting to the whole world.
The upshot of all this is that messaging isn’t unidirectional anymore. People are paying attention to a much larger conversation than they once were, and they’re keyed into stories about the abuse of power in ways they haven’t ever been before. That’s a big part of why this story, and others like it, spread so rapidly and reach instantaneous viral status.
It’s a foolish person who says that the airline industry’s standing in American culture is remotely positive. After decades of declining service quality paired with sharply rising prices and the ongoing indignities of security theatre (which, it happens, you can simply pay to avoid, strongly suggesting that airport security is less about security than the implication of it), people resent the hell out of these companies. The incident with United was exactly as unsurprising as it was controversial. Donald Trump is president; the idea that an airline would begin actually assaulting people is already passé before you’ve had time to digest it.