America’s Summer of Viral Meltdowns

The sign outside the Panera Bread in Chico, California, clearly informed customers that they must wear a mask in order to enter. But inside, one day in July, someone was breaking the rules, and William Cuthbertson, a 49-year-old librarian, instinctively started filming.
In the video, a woman waits in line and lets a surgical mask dangle from her hand rather than put it on her face to satisfy the restaurant’s harried manager. She is filming too, holding her camera up over her shoulder, pointing it at Cuthbertson. At the one-minute mark, she storms up to the counter. “You’re not going to serve me, because I’m not wearing a mask?” she yells. “That’s exactly right, dummy,” Cuthbertson interjects. The woman spins around, and approaches Cuthbertson and a friend of his, who is also filming. She blows air on them and grins as wide as the frame. “You think that mask is going to protect you? You fart off your ass and you can smell it,” she snarls, gesturing at her own butt, just before the video ends.
Cuthbertson says he started filming because of a combination of anger and solidarity—he hoped he was providing backup for the Panera Bread manager in some way—but he couldn’t say why he shared the video. “I just posted it to post it, no big deal,” he told me. “You see these videos everywhere.”
And this is the type of incident that feels made for the internet. Cuthbertson shared it to his private Facebook, which he hardly uses, and set the post to public. It started taking off from there, and was screen-recorded and reposted on Twitter the same day. Forty-eight hours later, the video was on the internet culture site The Daily Dot , with its star renamed “Panera Karen”—Karen being the catchall name the internet has landed on to refer to all kinds of selfish and aggressive, mostly white, women.
Cuthbertson’s recording was just one two-minute installment in America’s Summer of Outrage: For months, videos of people behaving horribly to one another have been bounding across the internet. Despite the fact that 75 percent of Americans support face-mask requirements, many of these clips feature the minority of people who are most vocally opposed to them. There’s the man in a Costco who refused to wear a mask and then insisted he felt “threatened”; the Ohio woman who lost it over a mask mandate at the DMV is the same woman who lost it over a mask policy at a Planet Fitness; 15 million people clicked to see another woman go absolutely wild outside a Red Lobster in Pennsylvania. All of this is mixed with the constant crowdsourced documentation of quotidian racism and police brutality. In another viral video , also from July, a white woman senselessly interrogates a Black man sitting in a car outside his own house. “Another one of those ladies on TV, on the internet,” he mutters as she stomps away.
[ Read: How ‘Karen’ Became a Coronavirus Villain ]
There is a sharp difference between the filming of...