The Viral Lincoln Memorial Confrontation Shows We're Ill-Equipped to Deal With Online Disinformation

Viral video depicting a standoff between Catholic high school students and a Native American elder.

By Katie Reilly

A viral video depicting a standoff between Catholic high school students and a Native American elder has become a Rorschach test for people’s political beliefs, as well as a renewed warning of social media’s ability to sow political division.

The video, which went viral on Saturday, showed Nick Sandmann, a junior at Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School, staring down Nathan Phillips, an Omaha Tribe veteran and activist who was drumming and singing a ceremonial song, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18 following the March for Life and the Indigenous Peoples March. Other videos, which emerged later, showed that the incident had started with the students being taunted and insulted by a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, who believe that African Americans are the true descendants of the biblical Israelites. A video compilation published by The New York Times on Tuesday offers a clearer play-by-play of what occurred throughout the interaction.


Regardless of the account owner’s intent, experts say the episode is further evidence that video, despite offering more context than still photographs, can still fall well short of telling the whole story behind an event. “The point is that we can’t necessarily rely on video narrative alone. We always need to translate events into their larger context,” says Monica Stephens, a University at Buffalo assistant professor who studies misinformation and incivility on social media. “Those of us who are not there on the ground, we’re only seeing narratives that have been filtered and transmitted through videos that are very easy to crop or very easy to cut and make it seem more terrifying to any one perspective.”

Stephens adds that many of the social media accounts that she studies were set up just to reproduce and spread divisive information in order to boost engagement — often by taking a kernel of truth and placing it out of context, or by exaggerating it in an inflammatory way.


Published January 23, 2019


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