Last week, social media exploded with a viral video of several “Make America Great Again” apparel-wearing teenagers allegedly taunting a Native American activist. Media was quick to swoop. As the story unfolded, it became clear that the larger picture was quite different.
The New York Times is just one of the many media organizations to refine and clarify their initial reporting. In fact, one can now find the Times’ opinion section teeming with critical articles about how reporters—and social media as a whole—handled the video.
The full story appears to be a strange and complicated confrontation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Several groups converged with high tensions regarding political ideology, race and religion.
One group absent from the initial reporting was the group of Black Hebrew Israelites. The organization is recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as supporters of violent black nationalism.Additionally, they have been recognized as anti-LGBT and antisemitic.
Black Hebrew Israelite activists are known to use aggressive rhetoric while hosting public demonstrations—such as the incident that occurred last weekend. While they sparked the high tensions, the other participants played right into the combative atmosphere.
Perhaps the clearest picture is provided by a New York Times video project that pulled together other video clips from the incident.The collection of videos paint a scenario in which the Native American activists, MAGA teenagers and Black Hebrew Israelites showed varying degrees of aggression or irritation.
University of Nebraska at Omaha Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Political Science professor Johnathan Benjamin-Alvarado had his own thoughts on the viral video.
Benjamin-Alvarado acknowledged the Black Hebrew Israelites were an instigating force but still said that the boys appeared to be “mimicking and clowning” Nathan Phillips, the Native American activist.
“This is a case where two wrongs don’t make a right in any way shape or form. To excuse those young men for their behavior because they were goaded by a group of antagonists is not fair,” Benjamin-Alvarado said. “It probably would have been better if they were more closely monitored by their chaperones.”
The problem that has emerged from this ordeal is the echo chambers that formed with politically charged social media circles. Right-leaning social media clung to belief that news organizations had skewed the story. Left-leaning social media stood by the initial shock and outrage spurred by the video.
In a way, both of these groups were rightfully upset and wrongfully refusing to look at the larger picture.
Is the group of students involved in the confrontation free of wrongdoing? Absolutely not. Many of the students, in multiple videos, can be seen mocking Phillips’ drumming and making culturally-insensitive hand gestures.
On the other hand, it is wrong to ignore the confrontational behavior exhibited by all parties present at the incident.
The most important takeaway for those who were swept up in last week’s viral political firestorm is to have patience and avoid strawmen fallacies. Facts need time to emerge when the only evidence is a poorly shot, non-contextual video making the rounds on Twitter.