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Covington controversy fuels fears about social media's rush to judgment

In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 image made from video provided by the Survival Media Agency, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington.{ } (Survival Media Agency via AP)
In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 image made from video provided by the Survival Media Agency, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)
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The controversy surrounding a confrontation between a group of high school students and Native American protesters at the Lincoln Memorial raged on Tuesday as the Kentucky teens’ school canceled classes due to security concerns and President Donald Trump seized upon the incident as proof of how “evil” the media is.

“After meeting with local authorities, we have made the decision to cancel school and be closed on Tuesday, January 22, in order to ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff,” Covington Catholic High School Principal Robert Rowe said in a letter obtained by WXIX.

Rowe did not identify any specific threats against the school, but several students say they have been targeted after their personal information was posted online by social media users angered by what they believe occurred last Friday.

This all began with a brief video shared across social media Saturday that showed Covington student Nick Sandmann face-to-face with Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American participating in the Indigenous Peoples March, surrounded by other students, many of them wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. The initial perception, which was picked up by many reporters and media outlets, was that a group of racist Trump-supporting white private school kids was taunting and intimidating an elderly Native American veteran.

The incident attracted bipartisan fury, with liberals, conservatives, celebrities, and journalists all condemning the students. Some called for them to be punished or punched, and others sought to identify and ostracize them.

By Sunday afternoon, additional footage emerged that showed another group of protesters harassed the students before Phillips placed himself in the middle of the conflict. Sandmann released a lengthy statement denying he or his classmates made any racist comments and insisting he was trying to be respectful of Phillips.

Many who had lashed out at the teens the day before relented, issuing apologies and in some cases even praising the Covington students’ conduct. Less than 48 hours after a widely-shared BuzzFeed report on President Trump was challenged by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, conservatives and Trump allies embraced this as another case of the “fake news” media getting the story wrong in their zeal to damage the president.

“Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be. They have captivated the attention of the world, and I know they will use it for the good – maybe even to bring people together. It started off unpleasant, but can end in a dream!” Trump tweeted Tuesday.

There is no doubt the initial story was media catnip: young MAGA-hatted March for Life attendees reportedly jeering and chanting “Build the wall!” at indigenous elders before returning to their Midwestern private school. At best, though, the situation is not exactly what it first seemed. At worst, it might be the opposite.

Conservative commentators and some Republican lawmakers have raced to denounce the influence of “identity politics” and “social justice,” insisting the students were unfairly maligned as racists by liberals who assume anyone in a MAGA hat is a bigot.

“The Covington case was such a blatant rush to judgment — it was powered by such crude prejudice and social stereotyping — I’m hoping it will be an important pivot point. I’m hoping that at least a few people start thinking about norms of how decent people should behave on these platforms,” David Brooks wrote in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday.

Some moderate and liberal voices have walked back their initial statements of outrage.

“Next time a story like this surfaces, I’ll try to sit it out until more facts have emerged. I’ll remind myself that the truth is sometimes unknowable, and I’ll stick to discussing the news with people I know in real life, instead of with strangers whom I’ve never met,” journalist Julie Irwin Zimmerman wrote in The Atlantic.

Others argue the additional footage and Sandmann’s statement crafted with the help of a public relations firm do nothing to detract from the conclusion that the students were mocking Phillips.

“I see the smugness of a group secure in its relative power over someone more vulnerable than they are. Nothing about the video showing the offensive language of Black Israelites changes how upsetting it was to see the Covington students, and Sandmann in particular, stare at Phillips with such contempt,” Laura Wagner of Deadspin wrote.

Social media experts say a confluence of political and cultural issues likely made the original video go viral and helped keep the temperature surrounding it high for days.

“When people are so polarized and when people are looking for events to hang their hat on, this type of incident becomes symbolic,” said Karen North, a clinical professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “There are moments that are symbolic representations of people’s passions.”

The Lincoln Memorial setting, the involvement of Native Americans, the ties to Trump, abortion, and racism, the existence of a compelling video, and the subsequent attacks on the mainstream media are all factors that fueled the social media frenzy around the standoff.

“It has a lot to do with the current political climate,” said Mia Moody-Ramirez, co-author of “From Blackface to Black Twitter: Reflections on Black Humor, Race, Politics, & Gender” and director of the graduate program in journalism, public relations, and new media at Baylor University. “People are looking for any little thing to happen. If something happens, it’s going to set people off more than previously.”

People on both sides of the debate have drawn parallels to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a private school graduate who, depending on your perspective, either faced highly credible sexual assault claims unjustly dismissed by the right or a disgusting smear campaign orchestrated by Democrats and liberal media outlets unconcerned with evidence.

So, what really happened at the Lincoln Memorial Friday? This much is largely undisputed at this point:

The Covington students were waiting for their bus after participating in the March for Life, the Indigenous Peoples March group was gathered nearby, and the Black Hebrew Israelites—a fringe organization whose members claim to be the true descendants of ancient Israelites—were hurling vulgar insults at everyone. Some students argued with them and tension between the two groups rose, at which point Phillips stepped in between them drumming and chanting.

Everything else depends on who you ask.

According to Sandmann, the students got permission from chaperones to sing school spirit songs to drown out the attacks and that was all they chanted. When Phillips intervened, Sandmann maintains he was confused but he stayed calm and only smiled at Phillips because "I wanted him to know I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation."

That is not the story Phillips tells. In an interview with CNN, he said it looked like the Covington students “were going to lynch” the Black Israelites if he did not defuse the situation.

“It looked like these young men were going to attack these guys. They were going to hurt them. They were going to hurt them because they didn't like the color of their skin. They didn't like their religious views,” he said.

Phillips claimed Sandmann blocked his path as he tried to move through the crowd, concerned for his own safety.

“If I took another step, I would be putting my person into his presence, into his space and I would've touched him and that would've been the thing that the group of people would've needed to spring on me,” he told CNN.

Even the longer video of the protest has not settled the matter. People on both sides of the debate have highlighted different moments and details to support their perception of what happened.

“Build the wall” cannot be heard on any of the available recordings of the confrontation, but Phillips and at least one other witness insist they heard it. While Phillips is drumming, someone tells the students, “White people, go back to Europe where you came from.” Phillips’ depiction of the students as a lynch mob is clearly overblown, but some are seen making a tomahawk chop gesture seemingly mocking the Native Americans.

This is not the first and almost certainly will not be the last time a Twitter mob rushed to judgment on a viral video only to dial it down when further information came to light. The BuzzFeed story alleging Trump directed attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress published Thursday followed a similar trajectory, with many regretting speculation about impeachment after the special counsel’s office disputed the reporting the next day.

“It’s not unique. It’s something we’re seeing more and more of,” Moody-Ramirez said.

For many on social media, stories like this ricochet through an echo chamber of like-minded users and sympathetic media outlets, amplifying an interpretation of the event that plays to their existing opinions and biases. Moody-Ramirez said educators are trying to teach the younger generation to be more cautious and more responsible when sharing content.

“Maybe down the road people will be better consumers of online information, but right now, it’s still evolving,” she said. “We’re living in a generation of digital natives... They’ve grown up using those platforms, but they may not have the necessary skills to be savvy consumers of this information.”

According to Dustin Kidd, author of “Pop Culture Freaks: Identity, Mass Media, and Society” and a professor at Temple University, it has become very easy for non-media accounts and fake accounts to appear credible, meaning users need to be more alert and more skeptical. CNN reported Tuesday one of the Twitter accounts that spread the original Sandmann/Phillips video had been suspended because it appears to be fake, and Kidd noted screencaps of a fake profile for Sandmann’s mother are now floating around the web.

"You can spread stories around very quickly with what look like headlines, what look like accurate details... before anyone goes back and says, ‘Who’s actually telling this story?’” he said.

Of course, telling people not to rush to judgment on social media is much easier than doing it.

“That would be plausible if we knew there was a source that was going to give us accurate information within an expected timeframe,” Kidd said.

Until the last couple of decades, that source might have been the national news, but nobody waits for the nightly newscast or the morning newspaper anymore.

“Frankly, we should always withhold judgment and wait for all the facts... but that’s not how we function today,” North said. “Because of the real-time transmission of information, people are given a story, headline, and video or photo evidence and there’s no time to stop or analyze or ask questions.”

That this incident appears to have inspired death threats is, unfortunately, not surprising. Social media platforms have struggled to police violent rhetoric and verbal attacks in heated situations. Whether such threats are likely to materialize into actual violence is harder to predict.

“When a death threat is made, you always have to take that seriously, even though we know it’s very easy to make non-serious threats on social media,” Kidd said. “How you distinguish is anybody’s guess at this point.”

How long the story will linger in the public consciousness is largely up to the participants. If they do nothing, experts say, some other outrage will come along quickly and sweep it off the front page.

“The news breaks so fast, it’s very hard for anything to have legs. The question now is, for the two activist sides of the controversy, whether one or both of them is going to decide to keep it fresh,” North said.

With Sandmann scheduled to appear on NBC’s “Today” Wednesday and Fox News host Laura Ingraham reporting the Covington students may soon meet with President Trump at the White House, the story is not over yet. However, little about the reaction so far suggests all this will, as Trump predicted, “end in a dream.”

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