Apply a dose of skepticism to viral tweets

SUE LANI MADSEN, SPOKESMAN COLUMNIST

Copyright © 2019 Spokesman-Review 1/26/2019.

D.C. encounter inflamed by hasty judgment

Going viral can be deadly. In “The Great Influenza,” a history of the 1918 pandemic, author John M. Barry describes a century of research to isolate the origin of the deadly influenza virus. It only took four days to track down the source of the Covington High vs. Nathan Phillips virus, but it was already too late to undo the effect.

The pandemic began on Friday, Jan. 18, with a Tweet from an account calling itself @2020fight.An editor for Storyful, a social media intelligence agency, described the account to CNN Business as a problem for its “high follower count, highly polarized and yet inconsistent political messaging, the unusually high rate of tweets, and the use of someone else’s image in the profile photo.” More than 2.5 million people viewed @2020fight’s 1-minute video of two people in front of the Lincoln Memorial. A boy wears a MAGA hat, a man holds a Native American drum.

By Saturday, the Washington Post had interviewed Nathan Phillips, describing the boys as having “swarmed around him as he and other activists” were preparing to leave, with the incident ending when Phillips walked away. The Post described Nick Sandmann as relentlessly smirking and Phillips as a Native American elder and U.S. Marine Corps veteran who fought in the Vietnam War.

Death threats to the boys,their parents and the school followed as surely as high fevers and aching joints follow the flu. Twits on Twitter called for MAGA hatwearing teenagers to be fed into a woodchipper, or locked into their school and the school set on fire. And those are from celebrities using their real identity.

Then more videos surfaced. And the initial story proved to be at best inaccurate, at worst a deliberate lie, but definitely more complex.

The Black Hebrew Israelites, a weird street-preaching hate group, posted one of the longer videos. It showed Phillips and his companions walking into a crowd of boys who were doing school cheers. No one was chanting “Build the wall.” There was a clear route up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial without going through the boys if that was Phillips’ destination. He didn’t take it.

Phillips’ song was later identified as an American Indian Movement anthem. Sandmann stands silently and occasionally smiles while Phillips plays the drum in front of his face. One of Phillips’ companions is heard taunting another boy during the singing. Sandmann is seen gesturing to his classmate to back off, and the classmate does. The incident ends on the video when the boys run off toward the arriving buses, chanting “Let’s go home.”

By Saturday night, the virus was mutating. Did you see a relentlessly smirking young racist who wouldn’t step aside or a nervously smiling teenager facing a longtime political activist challenging him to engage? The viral mob dug for more ammunition.

Phillips did not fight in the Vietnam War. He served in the Marine Reserves during the Vietnam era as a refrigerator technician and never left the country. According to some people, he’s deliberately provoked confrontation before.

Covington (Kentucky) Catholic High School has an all-white faculty and a mostly white student body. According to some people, it has problems dealing with race issues. That’s a true statement for many high schools, public and private.

Two people standing in a large crowd, millions trying to read their minds. The original incident wasn’t much, but the ease of raising a viral mob is horrifying. Expect more of the same when the Mueller report comes out or the next Supreme Court nominee sits in front of the Senate.

The 1918 influenza virus rarely killed directly. It weakened the body and made it susceptible to pneumonia or other opportunistic infections. The division and hatred in the viral mob is just as deadly to the civil body.

“If a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…” – Jonathan Swift, 1710

There is no virtual public health officer to step in and quarantine falsehood. Inoculate with skepticism, especially when reports reinforce the story of your political tribe. And slow down your personal news cycle. Give the facts time to unfold. Read the newspaper.

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