Everyone has a #CovingtonBoys story, and this is mine. It is a story about clickbait. It is a story about how an unknown political operative captured a real event that might never have been noticed at all, and turned it into a news tsunami during a federal government shutdown that has imperiled millions of Americans. And it is about why a powerful story about race in America makes it almost impossible to talk about how you got that story in the first place.
I was on Twitter last Sunday evening when the video popped up, tweeted from an account I did not recognize. “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the Indigenous People’s March,” the four-minute video was captioned. In a tight shot, filmed by a steady hand, the white high school student we now know as Nick Sandmann stood, smiling. To the right, an older man, later identified as Omaha Nation elder and military veteran Nathan Phillips, chanted and beat a drum, inches away from Sandmann’s face. In the background, other white boys, also in MAGA hats, aimed their phones at the pair, clapped, hollered, leaped around, and laughed.
I watched it through, aware of the retweet widget turning over rapidly. It was going viral.
Because I did not really understand what the video meant to the thousands sharing it, I clicked on the response widget on the far left to look at comments. I learned Sandmann and Phillips’ names; that the group of white students were from Covington Catholic in Kentucky, and that they were in Washington for the March for Life. Phillips, I learned, a tribal elder, had been blocked by Sandmann as he tried to get to the Lincoln Memorial to complete a ritual for that day’s Indigenous People’s March (this version of the story soon changed.)
The other students, I read, had begun to chant “build that wall,” mocking Phillips with the “tomahawk chop” gesture still used by professional and college sports fans. I learned that the Black Hebrew Israelites (identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a black supremacist group whose confrontations with “perceived enemies are growing uglier and gaining increasing attention through video clips circulated to legions of viewers on websites like YouTube”) had been harassing the group from Covington for over an hour.
I watched the video again, and was surprised to see and hear none of what I had just read, only aware that the students were Trump supporters because of their MAGA hats. I could not read the students’ gear to confirm what school they attended, I heard no “build that wall” chant and saw no “tomahawk chop.” There was no evidence as to how the two men had ended up facing each other. No one was carrying a sign for the March for Life, and the video was shot so tightly, there was no evidence that they were at the Lincoln Memorial.
How did people know these things? I thought. Answer: they didn’t. At least, not from that first video.
Back in the comments, things had gotten worse. I saw a list of emails and phone numbers where I could voice my outrage about the students’ disrespect for Phillips. I saw that the school’s website had already crashed. On Facebook, I read that Sandmann was “smug,” a “smirking bastard,” who a lot of adult white men wanted to hurt. One wanted to “pulverize” him; another saw him as a boy he would “really enjoy punching in the face.” A third fantasized about “taking a baseball bat to all of them.”
I replied: “What kind of a person gets excited about punching and beating high school students?”
Who was @2020fight?
I searched the web and found that the school had already apologized for the incident (only to retract the apology later, when they came to believe that it was their own students who had been attacked.) Several longer videos, taken from different angles and in different time frames, showing that many more people had been involved, and that Phillips had approached Sandmann, while an unseen man near Phillips had yelled at the Covington students that they were on stolen land and should “go back to Europe.” I went to the account that had tweeted the video, which was spammy, and then traced the tweet back to a second account, @2020fight, that was even spammier: a few hours later, CNN would report that @2020fight was a fake account, controlled in the US but seeming to emanate from Brazil, and that the video had been boosted by a network of 40 other fake accounts. Twitter suspended it. I consulted with some other journalism colleagues: we compared notes, and traded new videos. We all agreed that there was something deeply wrong with the story.
The next day, I did something I have never done before, which was to identify the video as professional clickbait on my own social media feeds, asking my networks not to repost it until they were fully informed. I warned them about the threats of violence and permanent harm to reputation that could be the outcome of a social media mob, and wrote that my research had shown that Phillips approached Sandmann, not the reverse. I wrote about the taunts aimed at the Covington students as Phillips approached. “A bunch of us spent time on this yesterday,” I reported, “and our findings match the findings that are being published in conservative media. And none of us heard [the students] chanting `Build that wall.’”
But these element of the story remained in place, even as new evidence appeared, and people continued to share.
The short answer is that there are facts, but so far they aren’t lining up with each other, and they probably won’t for some time until the lawyers start deposing people. But if you don’t know what passed between the Black Hebrew Israelites, the students of Covington High School, and Nathan Phillips, here are some accounts I have found helpful and/or reliable.
- The map. The physical encounter between the parties compiled on Twitter was meticulously traced by veteran organizer Lisa Sharon Harper. Formerly of Sojourners and now the President of Freedom Road, Harper attended the Indigenous People’s March subsequently watched multiple videos, and provides a map of how everyone moved around the space and what they did. Although it is a partisan account, Harper did not hear “Build the Wall” either, and does not repeat the things that many have found difficult to verify.
- The timeline. Most news outlets began by posting unresearched, reactive accounts of the event based on social media reports that they have since retracted, and in some cases, apologized for. Tuesday’s article in the Washington Post is a fairly accurate account of what we do and do not know.
- The Native American perspective. For a summary of the coverage and backgrounders on Nathan Phillips by Indian Country Today, the most prominent outlet for Native American national news, go here.
- Personal statements. One of Phillips’ accounts of the event is here; Nick Sandmann’s only statement, written in consultation with a public relations firm, is here.
What #CovingtonBoys tells us about social media
I think the most underreported story about #CovingtonBoys is how it got to us in the first place. It originated with a piece of clickbait that was chosen and edited, by persons unknown, to produce outrage on the right and the left. Originating in a fake account, and proliferated by other fake accounts, it was part of a professional social media campaign intended to disrupt. No one seems to know yet who filmed and edited the first, one-minute video, or who is behind the fake accounts: on Wednesday, the Democratic leadership of the House Intelligence Committee requested that Twitter provide details of their own investigation.
I hope we will have them sooner, rather than later. But what I was most surprised by was that, even when I began to provide confirmation that the story had its origins in a clickbait campaign, similar to those we experienced in the 2016 election, the vast majority of people in my network (who were themselves disparaging the Covington students to a greater or lesser degree, and some viciously) dismissed this actual evidence completely.
It surprised me that people who had been so sure that the presidency had been stolen from Hillary Clinton by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica completely dismissed the possibility that their feeds had been hacked again. At its worst, friends and acquaintances often characterized my views as deluded, disappointing, and a distraction from the urgency of what was clearly, to them, an emergent racial justice crisis. In one case, an interlocutor told me flat out that I was lying, without a glance at the link to the CNN investigation that I had provided. Many expressed dismay that, if I pursued the clickbait story, I would contribute to the misapprehension that the Covington students were “innocent” (something I had never said, since I think it is an inappropriate way of describing anyone who is not Jesus, or a newborn baby.) Some believed that my intent was to deliberately undermine and discredit Phillips, which was also not my goal.
I want to stipulate that I care deeply about racism, and racial violence. I understood friends’ and colleagues’ concern that their distress about the encounter at the Lincoln Memorial might be invalidated by changing the subject to why and how it had come to their attention in the first place. Because of this, as I was having these conversations on social media, I decided to temporarily abandon my current reading to prioritize work by feminists of color, to make sure I always had critical voices in my head. I read Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, a pleasure I had put off for too long; dipped back into Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and re-read favorite essays from J. Kehaulani Kauanui and Robert Warrior’s recent collection, Speaking of Indigenous Politics.
I recommend this as a strategy, because it is an antidote to how stupid and ruminative we all become on social media. It helped me listen to others better. It helped me to detect when I needed to express my love and respect for an interlocutor, and it helped me remember to always express appreciation for the knowledge that they brought to our dialogue.
But social media has its own logic, and this is why clickbait works: people filter online information through their deepest belief systems. As we know from the 2016 election, challenging someone’s read of clickbait is tantamount to challenging their most cherished principles, and such exchanges need to be suspended and move off line before friendships are damaged. Thus, I did not succeed in persuading anyone who did not already believe it that the campaign of online violence against the Covington students and their families was disproportionate to the actual harm that had occurred at the Lincoln Memorial, or that the professional clickbait campaign was an urgent story, unless they were already open to that perspective. One white male correspondent even scoffed at the idea that anyone should fear death threats “because they are never real.”
Spoken like someone who has never received a death threat, right? Most importantly, even when I could persuade people that they were responding to a professional clickbait campaign, one that had managed to target an impressive range of the political spectrum from left to right, I could not persuade them to really privilege the knowledge. When I asked people whether they thought they might have been targeted for the video because of data they left behind during the Kavanaugh hearings and the 2016 campaign, they scoffed at the idea.
Clickbait is at least as dangerous as fake news
So, what’s the takeaway – for now?
First, as a nation, despite all the hearings about Facebook and angsty rage about our data privacy, the vast majority of intelligent users have learned very little about how social media works and why their own behaviors are complicit in the success of click bait campaigns. Most people also still confuse click bait with fake news. But the most effective click bait is rarely fake; it is a real event that has been provoked, manipulated, decontextualized, and algorithmically boosted. Click bait is designed to incite a highly emotional response that will cause the viewer to share. (Think Hillary’s “basket of deplorables.” Or the Hulk Hogan sex tape.) Currently there is another click bait video from a Twitter account called @roflinds, in which a young woman asserts that “The Covington Catholic boys harassed my friends and I before the incident with Nathan Phillips even happened. I’m tired of reading things saying they were provoked by anyone else other than their own egos and ignorance.” Nothing in the video identifies even the faces of the harassing boys: as of Tuesday, it had been watched 50,000 times, and picked up by a clickbait site called indy100 and by The Root, a news and opinion site that publishes from a critical race perspective. People are sharing the video, not because they video itself identifies the boys as being from Covington, but because white boys who are racists are misogynists too — right? In other words, they mistake it for evidence that supports their view of the #CovingtonBoys, when a slightly closer look demonstrates that it does not.
Second, people usually do not track an internet item back to the source to verify it: when I asked different individuals how they got some of the Covington material they posted, including the original video, they said: “a friend.” But when pressed as to which friend, it turned out that it wasn’t anyone they knew, and they had no idea what the point of origin was. Ironically, one piece people sent me in response to my concerns was Laura Wagner’s “Don’t Doubt What You Saw With Your Own Eyes,” an essay for the anti-Covington set to reassure them that snap judgements, based on everything you already know, are the best judgements, and that information does not need to be vetted.
But no one seemed to notice that this article was published at Deadspin, part of the Gizmodo empire, a media conglomerate that has always specialized in shifty click bait news that hurts people for the sake of advertising click-throughs. To learn more about this, read Ryan Holiday’s Conspiracy.
As importantly, look at the tight shot of Sandmann and Phillips together: to a racial justice advocate, Sandmann looks like a self-confident bully. But imagine yourself as a person who believes white boys are under attack by the left: in this scenario, Sandmann looks like a restrained and heroic youth holding his own in a tough situation. That’s what good click bait does: it works because it reinforces what you already know. The phrase “MAGA loser” in the original tweet was genius in that regard. It perfectly activated anti-Trump partisans who do, in fact, believe that MAGA hat-wearing people are losers; and Trump supporters who know that they are regarded that way and resent it deeply. It’s why fake tweets, like the one purportedly from Nick Sandmann’s mother advocating Native American genocide, are persuasive: we already “know” her son is a racist. Now we know why!
Third, ask yourself: do academics and activists actually believe that people instinctively know the truth when they see it? Is this what we teach in our classrooms? Is this not a major critique of the criminal justice system – that white people make snap, and lethal, judgements about people of color because of the biases that they bring to encounters? Do we not recall how outraged we were when selectively edited videos led to Congressional hearings about Planned Parenthood selling fetal tissue illegally? Are we not fully aware that people are framed every day because they have been misidentified in a line-up; or killed because someone “felt” they were dangerous? For more about how this relates to a broad-based belief that Nick Sandmann was showing racist contempt for Nathan Phillips, see Molly Callahan’s “You Think You Can Read the Facial Expression On the Teenager in the MAGA Hat? You Can’t.”
Finally, do we really believe, as a country, in destroying lives over the internet? I do not know how the vast factories of clickbait sites will be contained; or if mainstream news organizations can bring themselves to pull back from relying on uncorroborated social media feeds themselves. But part of what we need to be honest about is how much people love to identify an enemy and attack them; how cathartic social media mobs are; and how righteous they make us feel. The disproportionate and permanent costs to real people, and to our political culture, are profound, but in the moment, we don’t really care.
Currently, people are mocking the well-to-do Sandmann family for hiring a tony PR firm, but anyone in social media knows they would be stupid not to do it, because it is the only way to get out from under a Twitter mob. I will be interested in the coming days if anyone can make a solid argument for how this episode advanced racial justice, or even racial awareness. But what I do know is that it did not bring us any closer to being ready for the social media attacks that will accompany the 2020 election.
UPDATE: Interested readers may wish to look at Caitlin Flanagan’s account in the Atlantic of what preceded the encounter between Sandmann and Phillips; and media scholar Ian Bogost’s warning to stop trusting viral videos, also in the Atlantic.
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.