Social media rages for fired toll worker: Why are these tales so irresistible?

A tollbooth worker fired for paying someone’s toll out of his own pocket has received an outpouring of support on social media. What makes such incidents so prone to going viral?

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo/File
The Twitter icon is front and center on an iPhone screen in San Jose, Calif. on Nov. 4, 2013. As more people engage and communicate using social networks, social media's power to spur conversation and change grows.

The social media sphere lit up this weekend with an outpouring of cyber-support for a Florida tollbooth worker who had been fired from his job. 

Vladislav Samsonov, a military veteran who had worked at a booth in Boca Grande, Fla., for 29 years, says he was let go for paying a driver’s toll out of his own pocket. He had mistakenly undercharged the driver and decided to pay the remainder himself. It was something he frequently did when drivers were short on cash – and something he had previously been warned about, Mr. Samsonov told NBC-2.

“In my eyes there was no crime committed, I just helped somebody out,” Samsonov told the outlet. “I’d put the six dollars in, I got the six dollars back the next day.”

The incident is the latest example of the Internet rallying behind a person who, after performing an act of kindness, was perceived to have been punished for doing so. While this instance appears to be more a case of covering his own mistake than helping a stranger out, online users of social media have latched onto the idea that he had been fired for committing a random act of kindness. And, as he tells it, that is how the issue began.

The Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority has declined to comment, according to NBC-2.

Support has since poured in for Samsonov, both in person and online.

As more people engage and communicate using social networks – 52 percent of online US adults use two or more social media sites, the Pew Research Center reported – such responses to a perceived injustice have become more common.

Part of the viral nature of these stories has to do with the Internet’s affair with random acts of kindness.

“It’s certainly clear that Americans like passing on feel-good stories about people doing good almost as much as they like spreading cute-pet videos or the latest on Kim Kardashian,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Amanda Paulson wrote in 2014. She added:

It’s the randomness that seems to catch most readers’ attention, and perhaps make them hopeful that more people would display such kindness to strangers. And it’s possible, of course, that the stories inspire similar behavior, though cynics might say that they enable people to feel good about the world without having to go to the trouble of acting themselves.

Throw in the chance for a little righteous indignation, and the result is viral gold.

“Of all the emotions, it seems to me that righteous rage is the most intoxicating of all,” theology professor and Rev. Michael Jensen wrote in an opinion piece for the Australian Broadcasting Company. “We prefer the chance to unleash some justified human anger to pretty much any other feeling.

“There's a rush that comes with feeling morally superior, not just because you are correct and someone isn't, but because you are not guilty and they absolutely are,” he added. Not the most noble of impulses, to be sure – but it can, in some instances, lead to change.

Take Kristopher Oswald, whom retail giant Walmart fired in 2013 for intervening when he saw a man grab a woman during his break. Walmart said Mr. Oswald, a worker in Hartland, Mich., violated the company’s safety policy when he tried to stop the attack.

The incident caused a such a furor on social media that Walmart eventually announced it was willing to rehire Oswald.

“We realized his intentions were good, and we’ve contacted him to offer him his job back and welcome him back to the store,” a company spokeswoman said two days later. “Sometimes we don’t get everything right, and each circumstance is different.”

In June, elementary school kitchen manager Della Curry was reportedly also fired after she decided to give free lunches to children who didn’t qualify for reduced lunch benefits.

The school district has since denied that was the reason for Ms. Curry’s dismissal, but that didn’t stop a nationwide discussion from unfolding about how districts ensure that children aren’t going hungry in their schools.

All of which showcase, in their own small ways, social media’s growing ability to shape conversations and spur change.

“The power of social media is hard to dismiss,” Ritu Sharma, co-founder and executive director of Social Media for Nonprofits, wrote for The Huffington Post.

“What once seemed like a trivial way to keep in touch with friends, sharing photos and jokes, has become a force for societal change, shining light on subjects previously unknown, deepening conversations and empowering citizens of the world to unite and effect change in a number of ways,” she added.

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