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Lessons from the Covington Catholic debacle

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On Friday, a conflict at the Lincoln Memorial captivated the country, moving quickly from viral tweet
 
January 22 · Issue #276 · View online
The Interface
On Friday, a conflict at the Lincoln Memorial captivated the country, moving quickly from viral tweets to the national news. Three groups — Catholic schoolboys in Make America Great Again hats, indigenous rights activists, and black nationalists — collided at the Capitol, and the ugly confrontation that followed has dominated the national conversation since.
What you take from the story will vary depending on how you identify, your politics, and what you make of the attending video footage. Most likely, you’ve made up your mind about it already.
My own feeling is that wearing a MAGA hat broadcasts a strong allegiance to a racist president and his racist policies, and to swarm around a Native American elder and block his path is to menace him. Even in the heat of the moment, when members of the national group known as the Hebrew Israelites were hurling slurs at the students, it seems unbelievable that the student’s chaperons didn’t intervene to stop them from jeering or making tomahawk gestures at a 64-year old tribal elder.
If you feel differently, I’m sure you’ll let me know. But one conclusion that seemed to be shared by parties on all sides of this drama is that our media and political ecosystem now seem engineered to produce more of these hyper-polarized conflicts. If that’s the case, what lessons can we take away?
I want to offer a few thoughts.
Conflicts can be “real” and “fake” at the same time. No one disputes the fact that the Covington Catholic conflict actually happened. But it’s also true that the account that tweeted the original viral video appears to have been using a false identity — and was likely amplified by bot networks of unknown origin. Donie O'Sullivan reports at CNN:
The account claimed to belong to a California schoolteacher. Its profile photo was not of a schoolteacher, but of a blogger based in Brazil, CNN Business found. Twitter suspended the account soon after CNN Business asked about it.
On Tuesday, a source familiar with Twitter’s investigation into the account said the company’s initial findings suggest that the account was run from the United States. The source cautioned, however, that determining which country a Twitter account is actually run from can be very difficult.
Just because secret bot networks are promoting a conflict doesn’t mean the conflict isn’t authentic. But I always think it’s worth considering how social networks thrive on outrage, and what the second-order effects of that are. (I hasten to add that outrage is often justified and necessary. Did you know we have child concentration camps in this country?)
You don’t have to have a take on day one. The Covington conflict cycle played out roughly like this: First, more liberal-leaning folks tweeted links to the original video protesting the aggression of the high school students. Later, conservatives tweeted links to other videos purporting to show that it wasn’t as bad for the students as it looked — prompting some members of the media to walk back their initial outrage. That generated a fresh round of yelling at media for being cowed into silence by bad-faith actors. (Laura Wagner’s piece here is in the latter camp, and is quite good.)
But I do think there was value in watching more video of the protests as it emerged before offering up a take. The more angles of the conflict that I watched, the more unsettled I was by the teens’ behavior — and by their chaperons’ inaction. Not everyone has the luxury of waiting until day four of a story to have a take. But a lot of members of the media … do? And if you do, you might consider holding your tongue, at least for 24 hours or so. It’s here that Twitter’s incentive system deserves criticism — the earlier you tweeted the first video, and the more incendiary your view, the likelier you were to have it shot into the algorithmic stratosphere. (One Vulture contributor was fired over the weekend after saying that he wished the teens were dead.)
Yes, everything is Gamergate. In 2014, Kyle Wagner wrote a spot-on essay about how the lessons of Gamergate — the campaign of targeted harassment against mostly female journalists, cloaked in the language of press criticism — predicted much of our current moment. He writes:
There is a reason why, in all the Gamergate rhetoric, you hear the echoes of every other social war staged in the last 30 years: overly politically correct, social-justice warriors, the media elite, gamers are not a monolith. There is also a reason why so much of the rhetoric amounts to a vigorous argument that Being a gamer doesn’t mean you’re sexist, racist, and stupid—a claim no one is making. Co-opting the language and posture of grievance is how members of a privileged class express their belief that the way they live shouldn’t have to change, that their opponents are hypocrites and perhaps even the real oppressors. This is how you get St. Louisans sincerely explaining that Ferguson protestors are the real racists, and how you end up with an organized group of precisely the same video game enthusiasts to whom an entire industry is catering honestly believing that they’re an oppressed minority. From this kind of ideological fortification, you can stage absolutely whatever campaigns you deem necessary.
You see this kind of response in the conservative reaction to the Covington videos, which essentially says: these kids were just exercising their First Amendment rights, and the real issue here is that the intolerant left and mainstream media have come to demonize them and chill their free-speech rights. They also complained that the Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, had walked toward the teens initially — and not been sought out by them, as some had first reported. This is the basic mechanic by which the Covington teens can get a sympathetic audience on the Today show, and a possible invitation to the White House. If you’re a news consumer, it’s helpful to understand this playbook as you watch it play out during every major conflict. And if you’re a news producer, it’s helpful to understanding so that you don’t yourself get played.
But not all of this is new. Prominent conflicts that play out in the mass media have always served as a backdrop to debate our values. It’s the democratization of media production, paired with the viral sharing mechanics of social networks, that can make it feel as if these conflicts are happening more frequently than before. Certainly everything feels more exhausting than before.
I’m tempted to leave it all there — Twitter is a hell site, etc. — but for the fact that this sort of opinion takes it as a given that we would all be better off if we weren’t discussing racism, its connection to the current presidential administration, and the inroads it is making with high schoolers. You can feel exhausted by that conversation, or depressed. But it seems odd to suggest that it isn’t a conversation worth having.

Democracy
France fines Google nearly $57 million for first major violation of new European privacy regime - The Washington Post
Facebook's WhatsApp Limits Message Forwards to Rein in Fake News
Facebook Faces Potential Record U.S. Fine on Privacy Violations
Stung by criticism, Facebook’s Sandberg outlines new plans to tackle misinformation
Why these young tech workers spent their Friday night planning a rebellion against companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook
One month after controversial adult-content purge, far-right pages are thriving on Tumblr
President Trump Posts Altered Photos to Facebook and Instagram That Make Him Look Thinner
This is what Google says search will look like under EU copyright laws
Russia Accuses Facebook, Twitter of Failing to Comply With Data Laws
India wants social media platforms to remove content it deems ‘unlawful’
Elsewhere
Facebook thinks the New York Times’ coverage of it has gotten more critical. It has.
Facebook's internal documents about how it made money off children to be released
Facebook is restructuring its augmented reality glasses division as it inches closer to launch
Facebook and The Q have been growing HQ trivia competitors overseas
Snap's Security Chief Fired Over Secret Relationship With Outside Consultant on Cheddar
Launches
Facebook launches petition feature, its next battlefield
Facebook and the Technical University of Munich Announce New Independent TUM Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence
Twitter is rolling out a new web interface, including an emoji button
Match Group and Betches’ new dating app lets you swipe for your friends
Takes
If Mark Zuckerberg Wants to Talk, Britain Is Waiting
It’s not enough for Facebook to own your images. It wants to own your mortality, too.
And finally ...
Incredibly Relatable: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Proving She’s Just Like Us By Wasting Her Life On Social Media
Talk to me
Send tips, comments, questions, and your takes about Covington high school students: casey@theverge.com.
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