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The full timeline of how social media turned United into the biggest story in the country


It’s Sunday evening, and United Flight 3411 is supposed to take off in Chicago at 5:40 p.m. Central for Louisville. United wants four already-boarded passengers to leave the plane so that the company can seat four of its employees. One of the four doesn’t want to go.

What happened next was recorded on phones throughout the plane, and nearly instantly posted to Facebook and Twitter, where they now have millions of views. So began one of the more extraordinary Internet Outrage Cycles in recent memory, one that has lasted for days, marked by several statements from United that have yet to address any of the concerns driving the conversation.

United Airlines CEO apologizes for ‘horrific event,’ promises review of policies after passenger violently deplaned

Below is a timeline of how the story spread and evolved online.

Sunday, April 9

The first videos

7:30 p.m. EST:  The first videos from United Flight 3411 appear on Twitter. In less than 24 hours, it would be one of biggest stories in the country.

A passenger across the aisle captures David Dao being violently pulled from his seat by Chicago Department of Aviation officers:

Tyler Bridges and his wife, Audra, both post a video to their social media accounts, taken from down the aisle, that partially shows Dao being extracted from his seat. He is dragged by law enforcement officers past the Bridges and other passengers, who are vocally objecting to pretty much everything about the situation.

The Facebook version of the video had more than 19 million views before it was no longer publicly available on the platform.

United Airlines said a man wouldn’t give up his spot on a flight. According to witnesses, he was pulled screaming from his seat by security and back to the terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. (Video: The Washington Post)

The passengers posting videos at this point are still on board the flight. There are others tweeting about all this, too:

United gets complaints

7:37 p.m.: United’s Twitter account responds to the first few complaints about what’s happening on board the plane, including in the replies to the videos:

8:21 p.m.: Bridges posts another video to Twitter that appears to show Dao racing to the back of the aircraft, his face bloodied. Another passenger says about 10 minutes lapsed from the time Dao was removed from the plane to when his reappeared, seen below.

Meanwhile, four United employees board to take the four seats the airline cleared for them. They are not popular aboard the flight, Bridges told us.

8:41 p.m.: Flight 3411 takes off two hours late, according to FlightAware.

The media notice

10 p.m.: Flight 3411 lands in Louisville. One passenger almost immediately begins tweeting more details to a local news station seeking comment.

Late Sunday night: United issues its first official statement about the whole thing to the Louisville Courier-Journal, in a story published just after midnight:

“Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”

The saga is certainly getting some attention on social media at this point. According to Google Trends, there are fewer than a dozen news articles about United overnight, as search interest slowly creeps upward. The real virality starts to kick in early the next morning.

Monday, April 10

6 a.m.: United begins tweeting snippets of its previous statement to those who heard about what happened on the flight:

United gets trolled

8 a.m.: By now, a small number of dedicated Twitter users are replying to unrelated tweets on the United account with burns and complaints about what happened on flight 3411. It’s a sign that the videos are starting to make the rounds:

The memeing begins

Noon-ish: By now, the story is starting to appear in the national news, and Twitter is memeing the heck out of United’s approach to customer service. Celebrities start tweeting about it.

12:27 p.m.: United’s chief executive, Oscar Munoz, issues a statement.

The statement, which only apologizes for the airline needing to “re-accommodate” passengers, and not for one of those passengers being dragged off the plane, only seems to infuriate the Internet even more.

1 p.m.: Memeing intensifies. The story is all over the front page of Reddit, with posts ranging from AMA requests for the doctor (who is still publicly unidentified) to an r/circlejerk post that you should not click through to unless you are okay with seeing Nazi imagery (it’s here).

There’s even some good, old-fashioned Reddit drama, when a moderator of the videos subreddit removes one of the videos of the incident, for violating a rule against showing police brutality. Because the post was on the front page at the time, the moderators — and by extension, Reddit — is accused of shilling for United, even though other posts about United are everywhere on Reddit that afternoon.

4:20 p.m.: A parody account appears that is actually good. By now, according to Google Trends, news coverage has started to increase substantially.

United “blames the victim” 

7:30 p.m.: There’s another statement from United’s chief executive, this time a letter sent to company employees. It is not good.

In response to that statement, the Huffington Post’s front page later reads: “UNITED CEO BLAMES THE VICTIM!”

9:08 p.m.: The dictionary trolls United.

11:30 p.m.: Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue is about the United debacle. It ends with a fictional United ad that, among other things, claims United’s new slogan is “F— You”

Tuesday, April 11

Outrage goes international

Overnight: As outrage built in the United States against United, the subject was becoming a top trending topic in China, where viral concerns spread that Dao was being targeted because he is Asian. By Tuesday afternoon local time (overnight here), #UnitedAirlinesforcespassengeroffplane was the top trending topic on Weibo, a Twitter alternative that is popular in China. There’s now a massive online call in the country to boycott the airline, as my colleagues over at Worldviews explained in more depth this morning.

7:20 a.m. There are definitely some “Actually” takes circulating around the Internet that defend United at least a little bit.

But a shockingly large chunk of what has been a very divided online landscape lately seems pretty … united … in their opinion.

Overnight, the #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos hashtag started trending on Twitter. It will stay trending in the United States through the morning.

Doctor’s past scrutinized

9:26 a.m.: The Courier-Journal identifies the doctor as David Dao and publishes a story on his past — including details of a previous arrest for writing fraudulent prescriptions. He was forced to surrender his medical license in 2004, but has been allowed to practice medicine in the Kentucky since 2015, with some limitations, they reported.

TMZ quickly picks up the story, and also writes that Dao was apparently really good at competitive poker before gaining back his medical license.

9:30 a.m.: The stock market opens, and the news isn’t good for United:

Meanwhile, there are a couple of hoaxes circulating around about all this, as is inevitable on the Internet. This, for instance:

… was not made by Southwest Airlines. (For what it’s worth, the person who made the original image said their intention was to make a joke, not to actually fool people).

11 a.m.: United is STILL gaining steam as a trending topic on Google. It’s STILL on the front page of Reddit. And on Twitter, a fragment of outrage has turned on the Courier-Journal reporter who detailed Dao’s “troubled” past, with some questioning the ethics of publishing a story like that about a victim of violence.

That has a context in critiques about how the media writes about minority victims of police brutality (and, for that matter, of anyone who becomes famous on the Internet without seeking it out).

Some, like my colleague at Wonkblog, started tweeting about United’s own “troubled past” in response:

And yes, #Newunitedairlinesmottos was still trending.

3:10 p.m.: United issues another statement from its chief executive, which more directly addresses what happened and promises a review of company policy.

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