The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Starbucks briefly closed after a hoax about a barista defiling white people’s food went viral

The admissions from a Starbucks employee were apparently too revolting not to share. Spitting in a woman’s coffee, sprinkling dog feces in a child’s hot chocolate, mixing blood into jam — all were disgusting acts, presumably committed by a black woman, Shanell Rivers, targeting white customers in the Atlanta area and detailed on Facebook for the world to see.

By Sunday night, as images of the post mushroomed on social media, Starbucks was trying to reassure customers that the post was a fake that was “maliciously” created. But that was after a store’s phone started ringing in an Atlanta suburb, with threats coming from the other end of the line.

The digital outrage spurred real-life consequences Sunday, forcing the store in Brookhaven, north of Atlanta, to close two hours early, a Starbucks corporate staffer told The Washington Post. Maj. Brandon Gurley, a Brookhaven Police Department spokesman, said police responded with additional patrols in the area. Authorities have also launched an investigation to determine how the false information spread, Gurley said.

The incident marks a growing headache for law enforcement: accusations or claims of salacious behavior weaponized on social media and taken offline to produce real-world potential for harm.

Such targeted false accusations are reminiscent of #Pizzagate, the debunked conspiracy theory that suggested that Washington pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong was harboring a child sex ring involving Hillary Clinton. That online fever dream sparked hundreds of death threats against the restaurant’s owner and culminated on Dec. 4, 2016, when Edgar Welch fired three shots inside Comet Ping Pong as part of a self-proclaimed mission to rescue children.

A Starbucks spokeswoman said Monday that the Facebook post “is completely false” and that Starbucks does not have an employee named Shanell Rivers. “We are working with local authorities,” said Sanja Gould, the spokeswoman. Gould said “a few” threats were made to the store, but she did not have a specific count. She said that she was not aware of any new threats Monday but that the company’s first priority was the safety of its employees.

One Twitter account posted the image Sunday afternoon and racked up thousands of retweets from that post and other updates. Messages sent to two moderators of the Facebook page with the purported message were not immediately returned.

Other recent police incidents also appear to have roots on the Internet. Police said Andrew Finch of Wichita was killed Dec. 28 after a fellow online gamer “swatted” him — prank-calling police with a fake description of an armed assailant, prompting a response by officers. Finch was unarmed when he was shot by police, and the incident is under investigation.

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