Pretty much half the news media is backpedaling from their coverage of footage of white Covington Catholic High School students in MAGA hats taunting and harassing a Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in DC amid the Indigenous Peoples’ March earlier this month.
Footage of the incident went viral online, and numerous high-profile publications covered the incident, but after a sustained pushback from conservatives, Team Respectability Politics is now insisting maybe they were too tough on the teens.
That is about to get worse, because it turns out one of the main versions of the video that circulated on Twitter was likely posted by a fake account.
According to HuffPost, the House Intelligence Committee—which, by the way, is now controlled by Democrats — as well as Democratic Senator Mark Warner of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have requested Twitter provide more information about how and why the video went viral.
The news follows a CNN Business report earlier in the day that found an apparently disingenuous account using the handle @2020fight posted a version of the clip that racked up millions of views on Twitter.
CNN wrote that @2020fight was created in December 2016 and purported to be run by a “Teacher & Advocate” in California named Talia. But @2020fight used a profile photo matching a Brazilian model and posted approximately 130 times per day, racking up some 40,000 followers.
According to the Huffington Post, cyber security firm New Knowledge’s communications director Robert Matney said that @2020fight was listed for $28 a post on Shoutcart, a service that facilitates paid promotional tweets. It also appears to have had at least one prior mega-viral tweet, touting a photo of Donald Trump (purportedly) colouring the U.S. flag wrong at a children’s hospital in Ohio.
@2020fight’s one-minute version of the video was accompanied by the caption, “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the Indigenous Peoples March.” It received at least 2.5 million views and 14,400 retweets, according to CNN:
Rob McDonagh, an assistant editor at Storyful, a service that vets content online, was monitoring Twitter activity on Saturday morning and said the @2020fight video was the main version of the incident being shared on social media.
In one indicator of the @2020fight’s video’s virality, multiple newsrooms, including some national American outlets, reached out to the user asking them directly about the video.
HuffPost reported that Twitter has since terminated the account for what it said was “deliberate attempts to manipulate the public conversation on Twitter by using misleading account information.”
The CNN report added that Molly McKew—described therein as an “information warfare researcher,” but sometimes described as a Louise Mensch-esque alarmist prone to “hysteria” about Russian cyber operations elsewhere—labelled the account yet another nefarious, successful attempt to rile up Americans:
Speaking about the nature of fake accounts on social media, McKew told CNN Business, “This is the new landscape: where bad actors monitor us and appropriate content that fits their needs. They know how to get it where they need to go so it amplifies naturally. And at this point, we are all conditioned to react and engage or deny in specific ways. And we all did.”
Another report in the Washington Post on Monday offered lots of quotes on “media manipulation,” but little hard evidence beyond two other viral tweets from seemingly suspicious accounts.
OK, so let’s back up for a second.
First of all, the account seems to have many of the hallmarks of a fake, such as using another person’s photo, offering paid shoutouts, and tweeting more than any sane person would. This is pretty clear. But there’s nothing yet to indicate it has anything to do with, say, that goddamn Russian troll factory. It could be U.S.-based social media marketers that bit off a lot more than they could chew.
Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab told HuffPost, “You can look at an account and say it has a stolen profile picture and its behaviour pattern looks very inauthentic, but you would need a lot of very clear signals before you could attribute it to a certain actor... Whether it’s part of a larger campaign, who is behind it, you simply can’t tell. But it’s certainly had impact.”
This account, which boasts high engagement and an audience of educated 20-30 year olds would have been an ideal choice. A similar tactic could hypothetically be used to skirt political advertising restrictions on Facebook which require ad purchasers to be US citizens.
— Sam Riddell (@RiddellSam) January 22, 2019
However, one might also point out that this was a bunch of teens in MAGA hats harassing a Native elder—odds are pretty good that it was bound to go viral anyhow. Media of the incident was everywhere on the internet, not to mention television and print. As our sister site Deadspin noted, though subsequent videos from other angles added almost no new context to the scene, the ready-made controversy was relentlessly covered by the right-wing media.
In any case, while the video itself depicted something awful (and materially real), the hazy circumstances by which it spread are rapidly becoming a major talking point for both above-the-fray types and conservatives. So it goes, apparently.
Looking like Nick Sandman & Covington Catholic students were treated unfairly with early judgements proving out to be false - smeared by media. Not good, but making big comeback! “New footage shows that media was wrong about teen’s encounter with Native American” @TuckerCarlson
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2019
Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be. They have captivated the attention of the world, and I know they will use it for the good - maybe even to bring people together. It started off unpleasant, but can end in a dream!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2019
Gizmodo has reached out to Twitter for comment on this story, and we’ll update if we hear back.