A spark on so­cial me­dia lit a firestorm

How a chance en­counter for Catholic kids roiled a na­tion – and still re­ver­ber­ates

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Sean Ross­man, Jes­sica Guynn, Brad Heath and Matt Wynn

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 alike 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 Face-

book, from the mo­ments after the video of Cov­ing­ton Catholic stu­dents’ en­counter with Na­tive Amer­i­can ac­tivist Nathan Phillips was posted to Pres­i­dent Don­ald 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.

30,000 tweets an hour

Nearly 24 hours after the first pub­lished story, more than 30,000 tweets an hour men­tioned 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 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 a group known as the Black He­brew Is­raelites tar­geted the boys and be­gan yelling in­sults at them, 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 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 inquiry de­ter­mined, as did reporting by some news out­lets, that Phillips had ap­proached the stu­dents as they ex­changed words with the Black He­brew Is­raelites, con­tra­dict­ing what he first said when de­scrib­ing the stand­off.

‘Bub­bles’ of in­for­ma­tion

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, he says, the real prob­lem is us.

“We are build­ing thick bub­bles of in­for­ma­tion around our­selves, where it’s al­ways sel­f­re­in­forc­ing, 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 says. “It’s not the only time we’ve seen this, and it won’t be the last.”

The con­tro­versy be­gan when ob­servers, such as col­lege stu­dent Kaya Tai­tano, pulled out their phones to film the en­counter on the Na­tional Mall. But its vi­ral spread points to the lit­tle-noticed role that so­cial me­dia ac­counts of un­known ori­gins can play in weav­ing in­flam­ma­tory con­tent into time­lines and news feeds.

Tai­tano at­tended the Indige­nous Peo­ples March and told the Guam Daily Post that Phillips was chant­ing and de­scribed his ac­tions as cleans­ing the neg­a­tive en­ergy in the area. The one-minute video clip she posted on In­sta­gram, show­ing a close-up of Sand­mann and Phillips, quickly drew at­ten­tion. “The amount of dis­re­spect . ... TO THIS DAY,” Tai­tano wrote hours after the in­ci­dent.

“Those kids were so lucky that el­der stepped in,” she said.

Spark, then ex­plo­sion

Video of the event was spot­ted by @2020fight, a Twit­ter ac­count with 41,000 fol­low­ers us­ing the name “Talia,” which added a mes­sage that, within hours, trig­gered an ex­plo­sive po­lit­i­cal mo­ment: “This MAGA loser glee­fully both­er­ing a Na­tive Amer­i­can pro­tes­tor at the Indige­nous Peo­ples March.” Twit­ter later de­ter­mined that @2020fight was a sus­pi­cious ac­count, but the mes­sage spread.

Boom. First lib­eral ac­tivists ex­pressed out­rage, then celebri­ties, com­men­ta­tors and jour­nal­ists. The clip quickly had more than 10 mil­lion views and 28,000 retweets. By early morn­ing Jan. 19, peo­ple were be­ing drawn into the on­line squab­ble by the thou­sands.

About 2 a.m. on Jan. 19, well be­fore the story went vi­ral, a Face­book page called REAL Mexican Prob­lems posted it, at­tract­ing more than 1.5 mil­lion views and nearly 22,000 shares. “This is Amerikkkan ar­ro­gance at its worst,” the post read.

The page, cre­ated in 2013, of­ten shares indige­nous themes and memes and de­scribes its mis­sion as “abol­ish­ing white supremacy!” But the only con­tact in­for­ma­tion for the page is a phone num­ber for the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. An inquiry from USA TO­DAY prompted Face­book to in­ves­ti­gate the page.

Who­ever lit the spark, the firestorm raged on its own. Then lo­cal and na­tional me­dia picked up the story.

The River City News, which covers the city of Cov­ing­ton, posted a story on Face­book at 10:50 a.m. the day after the march with the head­line “Video Ap­pears to Show Cov­ing­ton Catholic Stu­dents Swarm­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can Marcher.” The Cincin­nati En­quirer, a USA TO­DAY Net­work news­pa­per, picked up the story and pub­lished a story with the head­line “Cov­ing­ton Catholic faces back­lash over video.” By the time na­tional news out­lets, in­clud­ing USA TO­DAY, be­gan reporting on the story, the video had po­ten­tially reached mil­lions.

The par­ents of one teen who was mis­tak­enly iden­ti­fied by the an­gry mob on Twit­ter were ha­rassed at a fam­ily wed­ding. A Colorado teacher was placed on leave after misiden­ti­fy­ing an­other teen, ac­cus­ing him of train­ing with “Hitler youth.”

More video footage sur­faced two days after the in­ci­dent and, just as quickly as the story spread, so too did ques­tions about what re­ally hap­pened. Me­dia, in­clud­ing USA TO­DAY, fol­lowed up the ini­tial cov­er­age with sto­ries and so­cial me­dia posts that fo­cused on the rev­e­la­tions in the longer video and pur­sued other de­vel­op­ments.

The po­lit­i­cal winds shifted sharply. Now con­ser­va­tives were rag­ing against those who had rushed to de­nounce the Cov­ing­ton Catholic teens.

The back­lash builds

The list #Ver­i­fiedBul­lies was crafted to out lib­er­als who had be­haved badly. Con­ser­va­tives ral­lied around the hash­tag #StandWithCov­ing­ton. Trump weighed in twice on Twit­ter, say­ing the kids were “smeared” by the me­dia.

Chas­tened, some who crit­i­cized the stu­dents apol­o­gized or deleted their so­cial me­dia posts. That in­cluded Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer Jack Mor­ris­sey, who deleted his tweet about the wood chip­per com­ment and told The Wrap: “It was just a fast, pro­foundly stupid tweet.”

Three days after the en­counter, the con­ser­va­tive back­lash had reached a fever pitch. Fox News’ Todd Starnes lashed out at news re­porters, call­ing them “thugs with press passes” who had in­ten­tion­ally en­dan­gered young peo­ple with reck­less cov­er­age “sim­ply be­cause they were wear­ing #MAGA hats.” Julie Ir­win Zim­mer­man, a Cincin­nati writer, wrote a mea culpa in The At­lantic: “I Failed the Cov­ing­ton Catholic Test.”

Threats made against the stu­dents by pub­lic fig­ures – and Twit­ter’s fail­ure to re­move them – con­tin­ued to in­flame the po­lit­i­cal right. Hun­dreds of so­cial me­dia posts were re­ported to law en­force­ment in ad­di­tion to di­rect threats against stu­dents, par­ents and the school.

Weeks later, the na­tional fury has died down, but the em­bers still glow.

Many on the left still de­fend their ini­tial take after see­ing the footage of Phillips on the steps of the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial. USA TO­DAY reached out to Grif­fin and As­lan to see if they stood by their tweets. Nei­ther re­sponded.

Lawyers rep­re­sent­ing Sand­mann and his fam­ily told the Cincin­nati En­quirer they are pre­par­ing for pos­si­ble li­bel and defama­tion law­suits. Just this week, Sand­mann’s lawyers an­nounced they were su­ing The Wash­ing­ton Post for $250 mil­lion, say­ing the news­pa­per’s cov­er­age “at­tacked, vil­i­fied, and threatened Ni­cholas Sand­mann.”

Pro­pelled by the speed of the Twit­ter bull­horn and the news cy­cle, this po­lar­iza­tion is only get­ting more ex­treme, says Whit­ney Phillips, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and rhetor­i­cal stud­ies at Syra­cuse Univer­sity.

That a few taps on a screen can cause so much strife speaks more to the cur­rent cul­tural cri­sis in the United States than the state of me­dia or so­cial me­dia, she says.

“It’s not so much that Amer­ica is be­ing ma­nip­u­lated. It’s Amer­ica be­ing har­nessed,” the Syra­cuse pro­fes­sor said. “You iden­tify a pile of kin­dling and then you di­rect your ac­cel­er­ant there. But the kin­dling has to be there first in order for these cam­paigns to work.”

A sus­pect tweet helped send the story of stu­dent Nick Sand­mann and Na­tive Amer­i­can ac­tivist Nathan Phillips into vi­ral ter­ri­tory.


A video that went vi­ral ap­peared to show stu­dents at the Na­tional Mall mock­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can Nathan Phillips. The emer­gence of a longer clip told a dif­fer­ent story.

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