Catholic school students in Trump hats. A Native American elder beating a drum. Black Hebrew Israelites hurling bigotry.
This chance encounter on the National Mall that winter afternoon blew up into a near perfect storm fed by the kinds of divisive social issues roiling the nation.
Liberals and conservatives each saw what they wanted to see in videos captured on smartphones at the scene. It seemed as if everyone with a Twitter account had an instant opinion as the first video clip, reflecting only a brief portion of the Jan. 18 encounter, raced across the world.
In the aftermath, USA TODAY analyzed more than 3 million tweets and thousands of public posts on Facebook, from the moments after the video of Covington Catholic students encounter with Native American activist Nathan Phillips was posted to President Trump’s tweets days later.
The volume and velocity provide an illuminating example of how social media and the news media can be exploited to fuel outrage in a deeply divided country, even as the full picture of an event is still forming.
All it took was a nudge from a few suspicious accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Partisan fervor mixed with high emotions did the rest.
Nearly 24 hours after the first published story, there were more than 30,000 tweets an hour mentioning Covington.
Tweet after tweet fed the outrage machine, swiftly condemning the students, who appeared to critics to have surrounded and mocked Phillips at an Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C. Then media coverage began to accelerate. Among the students who were attending a March for Life anti-abortion rally in the capital, Nick Sandmann, was singled out for the way he smiled at Phillips as the two stood face to face.Religion scholar Reza Aslan wrote on Twitter: “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”
Finger wagging from millions of strangers quickly escalated to threats. “Name these kids,” comedian Kathy Griffin demanded of her 2 million followers. “I want NAMES.” A film producer tweeted – then deleted – a scene from the movie Fargo: “#MAGAkids go screaming, hats first, into the woodchipper.”
Even after a longer video emerged, showing that the confrontation began after the Black Hebrew Israelites targeted the boys with what Sandmann called “hateful things,” no one could agree on what happened. A month later, they still haven’t.
An investigation conducted on behalf of the Diocese of Covington concluded last week that the students did not instigate the incident and made no “offensive or racist statements,” though the report acknowledged some students made a “tomahawk chop” gesture. The investigation determined, as did reporting by some news outlets, that Phillips had approached the students as they were exchanging words with the Black Hebrew Israelites, contradicting what he first said when describing the standoff. Phillips said he stepped between the students and the Black Hebrew Israelites to defuse the “volatile” situation. But fuller video of the entire encounter shows Phillips walk past the Black Hebrew Israelites and up to the students.
Phillips, a member of the Omaha tribe, responded to the school’s report by saying the students were disrespectful: “I ask everybody to remember what we all saw – students performing a culturally-appropriated ‘school chant’ and the tomahawk chop just feet away from me on that fateful day.”
Lance Soto, an indigenous leader from Covington, told the Cincinnati Enquirer: “I hope that our people realize that it’s not up to white people to determine what is racist or derogatory toward Native Americans.”
Bishop Rev. Roger Foys of the Diocese of Covington argued the reaction from the students on the National Mall was expected and “one might say even laudatory.”
“The immediate world-wide reaction to the initial video led almost everyone to believe that our students had initiated the incident and the perception of those few minutes of video became reality,” Foys said in a letter sent to parents last week. “In truth…our students were placed in a situation that was at once bizarre and even threatening.”
The ease with which political divisions can be exploited on social media and are then amplified by the news media is a lesson for our time, says Klon Kitchen, senior research fellow for technology, national security and science policy at the Heritage Foundation. But, says Kitchen, the real problem is us.
“We are building thick bubbles of information around ourselves, where it’s always self-reinforcing, where we are losing any kind of perspective on alternative views and where we are very excited about participating in the public takedown of people’s reputations,” he said. “It’s not the only time we’ve seen this and it won’t be the last.”
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SOURCE: USA Today, Sean Rossman, Jessica Guynn, Brad Heath and Matt Wynn