If you’re reading this online, you’ve no doubt seen the cell phone video that made the rounds this past weekend, of those white boys heckling a Native American elder on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. How could you have missed it, given the fact that it’s been shared endlessly on social media sites?
If you’ve seen it, I’m willing to wager an ample sum that you’ve made up your mind about what you’ve seen. Odds are, too, you’ve shared that opinion in the vastness of cyberspace, most likely with people who agree with you and have “liked” your view — whatever that might be — to reinforce your sense of the correctness of your shared opinion.
If I’m right about all of the above, then the problem represented by the scenes of the Covington Catholic schoolboys is a more damning indictment of where this nation is tracking than we’re immediately willing to accept or comprehend. Before delving into the depths of this problem, let me say upfront that this column about those obnoxious Covington kids isn’t really so much about them as it about all of us, living as we are with the anxieties of the Trump era.
To be completely transparent, my opinion is that what happened on the National Mall this weekend, under Abraham Lincoln’s granite stare-down, would never have happened if those privileged, MAGA-hat-wearing white dudes had been properly raised by the responsible adults in their lives. If they had parents, teachers, or community leaders capable of imparting both the necessity and the wisdom of respecting people who hold differing opinions from their own, this all could have been avoided. Clearly, that was the original failure.
It’s worth pointing out that the white students involved had, before the more internet famous confrontation, encountered a heckling group of Black Hebrew Israelites, a particularly annoying sect of religious fanatics who believe themselves to be the true descendants of biblically chosen people. Many Washingtonians encounter members of this group daily on the city’s downtown streets and have become so inured to their antics — which can often involve members of the group trolling and insulting passers-by in the hopes of provoking a response — that it’s rare for such face offs to become international embarrassments. But their behavior, in this instance, set the stage for a confrontation. And matters only grew worse as Nathan Phillips and his fellow participants in the weekend’s Indigenous Peoples’ March, which briefly overlapped with an anti-abortion March for Life that drew those teenagers to Washington, arrived on the scene.
Displaying a lack of home training and social adroitness that is required to move about in our multicultural Nation’s Capitol, the Covington kids — encouraged by their school’s chaperones — engaged in a counter demonstration with overtly racist immaturity that quickly escalated to…well, you saw the video.
If there exists a second failure in all of this, it’s that no one in all of this ruckus will be held accountable for creating yet more divisions among Americans. Far from it, as the families of the Covington Catholic boys most prominently seen in the video are lawyering up, hiring public relations and media experts to litigate in the courts of public opinion a versions of the events that everyone has seen — and adjudicated — for themselves.
I’ve watched these videos – the long, short, wide and narrow angles – too many times now and tho it’s super important to root out bogus or misleading sources, the kids were clearly taunting the man https://t.co/uL0KZjW25b
— Greg Krieg (@GregJKrieg) January 22, 2019
But what transpired over the ensuing 48 hours is also a shameful aspect of this sordid saga. As video snippets of the confrontation went viral, people around the globe felt compelled to voice an opinion about what they saw on their cell phones or computer screens. At that point, the matter became yet another in a string of socio-political debate points in a never-ending wrangle over our national character.
Put another way, the incessant and angry online arguments about what actually happened feels important without being important. Rather, it’s an opportunity for uninvolved and uninformed onlookers to interpret what happened from afar and in concert with their political ideologies. Piled into our social media arenas, everyone gets to win their argument about the Covington contretemps by fussing with people who already agree with them. Meanwhile, few are actually contending with it or the larger issues raised by it.
This whole episode is largely illustrative of what passes as civic engagement in an era defined by Trumpist tweets. Our body politic is infected with ignorant bigotry that conflates unthinking leaps of angry judgment — and potential violent confrontations — with free speech and political discourse. For sure, Trump’s tendency toward authoritarianism and his stoking of racial resentment brings our own anxieties to the surface, whether to the right or left of any issue. By tweet or speech, the president delights in holding a funhouse mirror up to our fears, rendering any tissue that holds a diverse nation together.
But that’s all the more reason all of us must be patient, measured, and thoughtful in an era that lacks such qualities. Our collective and national failure to step back from the precipice of knee-jerk emotions spawned by media-generated outrages is necessary to prevent Americans from setting upon one another. Otherwise, each of us can be easily wound up and lose ourselves in the pointless frustrations of any moment.
As if to demonstrate the validity of such concerns, examine the most worrisome aspect of this story. The digital forensics of how the video traveled that day offers a foreboding warning of how easy it is to mislead the masses with sensationalistic social media images. Numerous reports that followed in the wake of the incident noted the fact that Twitter suspended a “mysterious account” that drove the virality of the Covington Catholic video in the first place. According to CNN, which questioned the legitimacy of the Twitter account, someone with the Twitter handle “@2020fight” posted a short version of the confrontational video, attracting more than 2.5 million views and 14,400 retweets.
However, after fielding media queries about the account, Twitter launched an investigation and discovered it didn’t actually belong to the purported owner listed on the account’s profile — a woman named Talia, who described herself as a California “Teacher and Advocate.” Rather, the profile belonged to a Brazilian blogger who posted under a guise, in clear violation of the site’s rules.
Rob McDonagh, an assistant editor at Storyful, which examines and verifies online content, told CNN that the “@2020fight” video played a unique role in bringing public attention to the confrontation on social media. He said the account was “suspicious” because it was relatively new, had an unusually high number of followers, and its messaging content appeared to be very polarizing and political in nature. Moreover, the profile image wasn’t of the person it purported to be, which is typically held as a huge red flag.
The entire episode reflects how easily our fractured society can be manipulated — triggered or “owned” in the parlance of the day — into warrior camps based on preconceived notions.
contrary tweeting is not critical thinking
— Mahogany L. Browne (@mobrowne) January 21, 2019
Before most of us bother with the facts, or despite whatever facts might be, we’re social-media engineered to have an opinion and to forcefully express it on our platform of choice. Details or nuance, be damned. Facts only matter, if they support our belief. By the time the smoky hubris clears, if ever, another outrage du jour flames our short attention and fuels an ever-longer list of grievances.
If you ask me, greater than any danger posed by ignorant white boys chanting their arrogance in public spaces, the threat of an escalating cycle of factional acrimony, stoked by mysterious actors hiding behind fake social media accounts is the more worrisome aspect of this sad event, if only because it threatens to rob us of the wisdom we wished those poorly-raised teenagers possessed.