By now, you know a version of the story. In one telling, a large group of MAGA-hat wearing teenage boys from a Kentucky Catholic school are aggressors; in another, they’re not. As Julie Irwin Zimmerman wrote at the Atlantic, what you see in the video of the boys from Covington Catholic surrounding Nathan Phillip this past weekend in Washington, D.C., probably depends on a number of things that are already decided. “The story is a Rorschach test — tell me how you reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016, and your general take on a list of other issues,” Zimmerman wrote.
But something beyond the biases we carry is at work here. Namely, how we became aware of the incident: on social media. A Rorschach test assumes the paper it’s printed on has no effect on the image we’re trying to interpret. But social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram — is not a blank sheet of paper. It has its own agenda. It wants to keep us guessing.
On Monday, CNN reported Twitter suspended one of the accounts that helped the original, cropped, video (which was lifted from the Instagram account of someone who was there) go viral. That account was supposedly run by a high-school teacher in California — a woman named Talia with the handle @2020fight, who’d garnered 40,000 followers. The clip “she” posted was shared thousands of times and had views in the millions. But CNN discovered the account’s user photo was actually that of a blogger in Brazil, raising questions about its veracity and purpose.
Molly McKew, an information warfare researcher, told CNN: “This is the new landscape: where bad actors monitor us and appropriate content that fits their needs. They know how to get it where they need to go so it amplifies naturally. And at this point, we are all conditioned to react and engage or deny in specific ways. And we all did.” She later tweeted: “I think there’s even more to this story. But we’ll see as time goes on.”
Seeking more context has come to mean finding further ammunition for one side of the argument.
This search for further context used to be a sign of an open and enquiring mind. In some cases, such as McKew’s, this is likely still what it means. But for many others engaged in the unending daily information war, seeking more context has come to mean finding further ammunition for one side of the argument. And there’s already too much to work with.
For starters, there are more videos. Videos that show, from different angles, and at different times, the mob of boys surrounding Nathan Phillips as he sang. There are videos that show the Covington students being taunted prior to the encounter with Phillips by members of the Black Hebrew Israelites. There is also video purportedly showing the Covington boys shouting at young women. That eight-second clip is shaky. In it, we see a group of young men, probably some of the same boys, in their MAGA hats and then a young woman, exasperated: “I’m so tired already.”
There are prior incidents that suggest a record of risible behavior from the school, including when some students from the school donned blackface-like makeup at a basketball game. There is also the matter of a high-powered PR firm stepping in to represent the Covington students, and of Nick Sandmann — the young man at the center of the frame, and thus the controversy — landing an interview on the Today Show.
And there is, of course, the @2020fight account — perhaps a bad actor, a deliberate misinformation channel or bot, or perhaps not fake at all.
All of it one more attempt at figuring out what’s really going on. All of it, to some extent, context.
We’ve learned a lot since 2016 about the social platforms we use, and about the context we find on them. We know, for instance, about the possibility that a foreign power may use these networks to spread lies and half-truths. We know, too, about the artificial metrics and the spuriousness of a viral event. We know how issues are amplified to a level they might never have enjoyed — for better and worse. We know how easily we can be manipulated and tricked, or forced to immediately question what we see, even if we’re pretty sure we know what we saw.
Yet here we are again. Angry, divided, and — above all — confused. How does this keep happening?