How the Digital Rumor Mill Fed Incoherent Social-Justice Hysteria

Graphic credit: Reason Magazine

by James A. Bacon

When Emma Camp was a student at the University of Virginia in 2020, she heard the tale of Morgan Bettinger, another UVa student, who was said to have approached left-wing protesters in downtown Charlottesville and threatened to make “speed bumps” of them.

The story, says Camp, was repeatedly endlessly on social media — group chats, Instagram posts, and viral tweets — and then leaped to local television and print media. Bettinger was criticized, ostracized, made to fear for her safety, and ultimately punished by UVa’s student judiciary committee.

After graduating, Camp became an assistant editor of Reason magazine. In that capacity, she has written an in-depth article in the June 2023 issue demonstrating that the story she’d heard at UVa was a fabrication– the outgrowth of social-media rumor mongering run amok.

The article. “How an Ill-Informed Internet Mob Ruined a UVA Student’s Life,” does a brilliant job of tracing the trajectory of that lie from the actual events through the social-media postings by militant UVa activist Zyahna Bryan, to the amplification of the charges by other local activist groups, local journalists and even UVa faculty.

“This is the story of a rumor mill that rushed to collective judgment, a pervasive climate of anger and outrage, a weak campus administration, and a unique higher-ed justice system that faltered just when it was most needed,” Camp writes. “It’s the story of a woman who was informally ostracized and formally sanctioned for a story that seemingly everyone on campus had heard and believed, but which was never proven.”

The Bettinger episode provides a window into how cancel culture works at UVa. It is evident from Camp’s piece that Charlottesville’s leftists wanted a villain — and they created one. And then they made sure she was punished.

The Jefferson Council has written how the Bettinger case revealed glaring flaws in the internal administrative processes of the University of Virginia, which found no evidence that Bettinger had violated any laws, rules or regulations but punished her on the grounds that she uttered a phrase that she “should have known,” given Charlottesville’s collective trauma from the Unite the Right rally three years previously, could inflict emotional distress.

Camp’s article shows how the controversy arose from social media-generated hysteria with only the flimsiest basis in fact.

The incident originated when a Black Lives Matter protest organized by Zyahna Bryant blocked the streets around the downtown pedestrian mall, the site where, three years earlier during the United the Right rally, a neo-Nazi had run his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one. Driving back from her job, Bettinger found her route blocked by a city dump truck. Protesters were milling around. She got out of her car and spoke to the driver, saying, as best she recalls, “It’s a good thing you’re here or they could become speed bumps.”

Protesters overheard the remark and interpreted it as a threat — even though Bettinger was not in her car and was not addressing them. Bryant did not hear the remark, but word spread and she appeared quickly on the scene.

“It’s a Karen, it’s a Karen,” Bryant shouted as she filmed Bettinger. Faintly, one voice can be heard asking, “What did she say?” Another person replied, “She said we’ll make good speed bumps.”

“Oh! We’ll make good speed bumps?” Bryant exclaimed in the video, “We’ll make good speed bumps?”

Bryant began posting online, and the “speed bumps” story quickly went viral — and began mutating like a virus. Writes Camp:

Charlottesville Beyond Policing, the group that organized the protest, gave more details in a Medium post shortly afterward. The woman “drove around the public works truck blocking the street that demonstrators were convened on, and felt compelled to say, not just once, but twice, that protesters would ‘make good speed bumps,'” the post reported. “The second time she repeated it loudly to a Black protester and added ‘good fucking speed bumps.'”

Soon after Bryant’s tweets, the allegation was picked up by local journalists.

“While the group gathered on East High Street, a white woman drove around the public works truck blocking the road, and twice told the protesters they would ‘make good speed bumps,'” C-VILLE Weekly reported. “The threat is especially chilling and violent given that Heather Heyer was murdered by a driver just a few blocks from where the protest took place.” Heather Heyer was a 32-year-old woman who was killed during the 2017 Unite the Right rally when a white supremacist deliberately drove his car into a throng of protesters.

Videos captured by protest attendees show that a small crowd, including Bryant, soon gathered to confront the woman, who had since retreated to her car and appeared to call the police.

“Fuck you, I almost died in a fucking car accident…fucking cry bitch,” one protester shouts in footage of the incident.

“No one captured [the woman’s] words on camera. However, WUVA can confirm she refused to leave the scene even though protesters were asking her to, and at no point were protesters blocking her car,” the student-run website WUVA reported. It added that she “refused to leave until Charlottesville Police officers arrived at the scene in an unmarked minivan.”

Bryant sent her first battery of tweets within minutes of the incident, and outraged comments quickly began flowing in.

“*She* called the police?? To do what? Report herself for making a threat??” UVA professor Jalane Schmidt replied.

“if you know this karen, please take her keys. if she feels the overwhelming need to run people over, she shouldn’t be driving,” local journalist Molly Conger tweeted.

None of it was true. None of it. But no one in the Twitter Outrage Mob paused long enough to examine the absurdity of their accusations. In what bizarro world would it sound plausible for a single woman to drive around a barricade into a crowd of protesters, get out of her car and threaten twice to make them “speed bumps,” and then, having provoked the crowd, get back into her car and back away? The scenario was incoherent on its face, but the militants believed it, local media took it seriously, and UVa launched an investigation into it.

Bettinger’s identity soon was ascertained from the license plate number on her car, and the personal attacks commenced.

One student tweeted that Bettinger was a “f*cking Nazi.” Another wrote: “All I know is that I’m not comfortable being classmates with someone who promotes domestic terrorism.”

Student Council President Ellen Yates declared on Twitter: “Absolutely disgusting. She knew the history, and she knew what she was doing. A person who makes this kind of threat should not be a student at UVA. There can be no community of trust with people like her in it.”

Mob action is driven by the propagation of rumor. In the 21st century, social media accelerates the propagation of those rumors, and social media-driven rumor and misinformation are the driving force behind contemporary cancel culture. Although the American justice system presumes the accused innocent until proven guilty, the Twitter Outrage Mob presumed Bettinger guilty, and created an environment within the UVa judicial system in which Bettinger had to prove her innocence.

Nothing has changed. Social media-generated accusations are fueling an investigation into another incident at UVa, which occurred earlier this month. The outcome of that investigation has yet to be determined. Bacon’s Rebellion will update readers at the appropriate time.

James A. Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council, an organization of University of Virginia alumni whose mission includes fighting for free speech and intellectual diversity.