The high school student was vilified on social media, but some said the stand-off had been misinterpreted after longer footage emerged. Picture: Supplied
The high school student was vilified on social media, but some said the stand-off had been misinterpreted after longer footage emerged. Picture: Supplied

Disturbing source of MAGA teen row

It was the viral story of the week: a teenager in a "Make America Great Again" cap was filmed standing in front of a Native American drummer smiling broadly as his friends cheered.

As the days passed, a more complex picture of what happened between rival groups at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington has emerged.

Most disturbingly of all, the murky origins of the footage have raised alarming questions over who shared the footage and whether their intention was really to further divide America and stoke tensions even further.

High school student Nick Sandmann was swiftly condemned as a racist when the video emerged a week ago, the footage held up as evidence of a broken society, a culture of hatred in the United States and an administration that trades on divisions.

But the story took on a life of its own after a longer video emerged that added context and complicated public understanding of what really happened.

 

Catholic schoolboy Nick Sandmann went viral after taunting Native American elder Nathan Phillips while wearing a Make America Great Again cap. . Picture: Supplied
Catholic schoolboy Nick Sandmann went viral after taunting Native American elder Nathan Phillips while wearing a Make America Great Again cap. . Picture: Supplied

 

HATRED AND DIVISION

The new footage showed a group of Hebrew Israelites taunting the teenagers and calling them "incest babies" and "future school shooters" before the situation escalated.

The students began chanting in response, passers-by were dragged into the tense situation as the four African-American men threw around the n-word and Native American elder Nathan Philipps decided to step up to defuse the situation.

What resulted was the short scene the world at first saw with no context - the 64-year-old and the teenager standing face-to-face as the musician played his drum and chanted and Nick smiled. Who was the aggressor? Was the teenager simply standing his ground?

The different interpretations have played out across social media, with furious commentary thrown back and forth as each side of politics sees the version that fits their own preferred narrative.

 

Mr Phillips said he felt "hate" and had heard the students chant "build the wall" - something not captured on video. Nick then issued a statement claiming he had also been trying to stay calm and defuse the tension. Both appeared on the Today show to explain their side of the argument.

An uncomfortable confrontation has become one of the biggest stories in the world, with well-known figures from both sides of politics all the way up to the President getting involved.

Deb Haaland, one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, on Saturday tweeted: "The students' display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration."

In Monday, Mr Trump tweeted that the Covington Catholic high school students "were treated unfairly with early judgements proving out to be false - smeared by media."

He later added that the teens had "become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be."

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told Fox News on Wednesday she had "never seen people so happy to destroy a kid's life."

That prompted a reply from Florida school shooting survivor David Hogg, who asked pointedly: "Really?"

Others pointed to the children in US detention centres and the Trump administration's policy of separating migrant families.

WHO CIRCULATED THE STORY?

The story has mushroomed throughout the week, but the most alarming aspect of the furore is its origins.

The House Intelligence Committee asked Twitter to provide more information about the @2020fightaccount that first circulated the video, which has been viewed more than 2.5 million times.

The social media giant suspended the account on Monday after a CNN investigation revealed suspicious features. The account used the photo of a Brazilian blogger, but claimed to be a California schoolteacher named Talia.

It also followed more than 37,000 users and averaged 210 posts and likes a day, which are reportedly classic signs an account may be fake.

The @2020fight account was listed on social media marketplace Shoutcart, which allows individuals to pay for "shoutout" posts on popular accounts, Robert Matney, director of communications at cyber security firm New Knowledge told the Huffington Pos t.

"Deliberate attempts to manipulate the public conversation on Twitter by using misleading account information is a violation of the Twitter Rules," a spokesperson for Twitter told HuffPost.

Russia has previously used these sinister cyber attack strategies to manipulate the 2016 US presidential election - although this account has not been linked to the country.

In December, two explosive reports revealed the incredible extent of Russian meddling on every social media platform to help Mr Trump during and after the presidential election.

They revealed that a shadowy organisation called the Internet Research Agency used the networks to spread disinformation through millions of posts targeted at specific demographics, particularly African-Americans.

It used black activism accounts to stoke racial tensions and shared pro-Trump memes on religious and conservative pages.

 

HOW DOES THE 'MAGA TEEN' ROW FIT IN?

The confrontation between Nick and his friends and Mr Phillips has all the elements for the ultimate social media storm.

It involves two parties who fit neatly on two distinct sides of politics, and an incident with competing interpretations capable of inciting strong emotions.

The Omaha tribe elder had been attending an Indigenous Peoples Rally, while the Catholic private schoolboys had travelled from Kentucky to attend a March for Life anti-abortion march.

This was funded by their school, which was then dragged into the debate as social media users unearthed reports of alleged rape and racism involving students.

Observers took sides, typically based on whether they too were conservative and religious or progressive and atheist.

The response from the media was torn apart, with fierce criticism over how journalists had pounced on the story and vilified the teenager without knowing more.

Even Covington Catholic at first condemned his actions, before saying it wold investigate the matter further. The school was forced to close on Tuesday because of the threat to the safety of students and staff.

N ew York Times columnist Frank Bruni said the media storm showed how "we react to news by trying to fit it into the argument that we routinely make, the grievance that we usually raise, the fury or angst or sorrow that we typically peddle."

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff wrote for CNN that the video was not a "meaningful reflection of human nature or even America's current cultural divide" as many had claimed, but "simply demonstrates how social media amplify and inflame our tensions".

He said it was online platforms and algorithms driving them that were the "real enemies of humankind", rather an "a few smug white kids or chanting American Indian elders".

There is another of way of looking at this moment and why it provoked so much feeling.

White, conservative Catholics in MAGA caps versus a chanting Native American elder in a contentious viral video: it's the perfect metaphor for this sorry moment in American politics.


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