Covington Catholic, “Hashtag Activism”, and the Dehumanizing Effect of ‘Fake News’

What the Internet’s reaction to a misleading video clip reveals about our society in 2019

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A face that a mother loves, but also a face that a grown man wants to “punch”.

I had a relatively quiet weekend. This past week, I started up my final semester of my current graduate program. After a relaxing Christmas break, I returned to the daily grind — classes, research, writing, and some Xbox. I was able to sleep in late on Saturday morning, and upon waking up at noon, I instinctively grabbed my phone to check my messages, emails, and Twitter. As I scrolled down my timeline, I saw a video from the 2019 March for Life, featuring a young, white male wearing an infamous red hat, smiling in the face of an older Native American man, who was chanting and beating his drum. The now-deleted tweet containing the video was captioned, “Students from Covington Catholic High School harass Native American protester”. I watched the video clip. Immediately, I was filled with disgust. After reading through a few of the replies (“Wow, typical #MAGA losers”, “How DARE they disrespect the indigenous population!”, “His stupid smirk is the literal definition of white privilege”), I decided to take a stand, too. I quote-tweeted the video, and furiously typed my own commentary: “This is disgusting. A group of fatherless idiots harassing a Native American protester. This is a scandal, especially coming from those who claim to be ‘pro-life’.” I hit the ‘tweet’ button, published my take, and closed out of Twitter. I then proceeded to lay in bed for another half-hour, switching between NFL news & my Instagram feed, before checking the NBA scores from the night before.

Eventually, I wandered back on Twitter, proud that my tweet condemning the racist kids from Covington Catholic was doing well — 30 likes, 4 or 5 retweets. One reply, from some anonymous user:“How is this a scandal? This video doesn’t prove anything.” Seeing this tweet, I rolled my eyes & shook my head, tossed my phone on the other side of the bed before getting up and hopping in the shower. As I was drying off, I picked up my phone again. I saw several tweets from influential Twitter users, including Fr. James Martin, SJ, a very popular Jesuit priest & author. Though I disagree with him on a few different things, the evil of racism is not one of them. His tweet, broadcasted to his 235,000 followers on Twitter, succinctly summarized my own reaction to the video:

I was also pleased to see that Covington Catholic High School, as well as the Diocese of Covington itself, condemned the racist gesture:

“This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person. The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion. We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement.”

Commentary also extended to political pundits, social-justice advocates, and Catholic theologians, one who tweeted:

Honestly though, are there many Catholic schools who actually teach about the horrors of abortion?

The rest of my Saturday went on as normal. I got dressed and grabbed coffee before driving to a Catholic parish about 30 minutes away, where I sing for their Saturday evening Masses. On my drive to the church, I called my mother, as I do daily. As I was giving her my agenda for the day, I decided to tell her about the viral video. “Mom, you won’t believe this — a group of Catholic high school students attending the March for Life surrounded a Native American protester, and they were smirking, yelling, and clapping in his face. These entitled, privileged brats… what racist morons are we enabling in our Catholic schools?” My mom was horrified at the news, devastated that such racist attitudes exist even today. I went on. “Yeah, but thankfully the Diocese and school came out & said they are investigating… good. I hope these kids get EXPELLED!” I pulled into the church parking lot, hung up the phone, and entered the church.

Following the second Mass, I came outside and saw my car covered with a light coating of snow. I entered my car and turned it on, so to heat it a bit before brushing the snow off. While I was waiting for the car to heat up, I pulled out my phone and checked Twitter. My timeline was filled with tweets about #CovingtonCatholic and #ExposeChristianSchools, the latter of which presumably started to point out the hypocrisy of Christian educational institutions. I was glad to see other people condemn the racist, smug attitudes of the MAGA kids. However, as I was scrolling down the TL, trying to keep up with the latest ‘hot takes’, I came across this video:

I saw other videos too. Many of them were much longer than the original video I saw. These longer videos showed that, contrary to popular perception, the students were not actually “harassing” the indigenous protester — he approached them. In fact, it was the students themselves who were being harassed. The Black Hebrew Israelites — an extremist group of black supremacists who see themselves as the descendants of the ancient Israelites — were the ones committing hate speech. The Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI) are well-known for their anti-LGBT, anti-white, and anti-Christian bigotry. Their rallies are often laced with profanity and vulgar comments, and sometimes outright threats. This was certainly the case in the Covington incident, as you can see here:

As this longer video (and others) show, the students were not at fault, nor did they commit any act of racism. The student who was “smirking” in the face of the indigenous “protester”? He was actually trying to de-escalate the obviously tense situation. In his words:

The mainstream media’s story, like so many others, appears to have been manufactured. Nathan Phillips, the Native American drummer, has already contradicted his own account. What’s even more interesting is the fabrications in his story regarding his apparent military service:

And so, as a recap:

  1. The alleged incident took place on January 18th, 2019, following the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. This marks the 46th year for the march, an event which Covington Catholic High School has attended for years.
  2. On the same day, there was the first annual Indigenous Peoples’ March at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. The event permit was for 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  3. Although the March for Life begins at the National Mall in D.C. and ends at the Supreme Court & the Capitol Building, the vast numbers of students requires various areas for bus pickups. The Covington Catholic students gathered at the Lincoln Memorial (a little over 2 miles down Independence Avenue)at 5:30 p.m. to wait for their bus. This was one hour after the Indigenous Peoples’ March permit expired.
  4. While waiting for their bus, they were approached and harassed by the radical Black Hebrew Israelites fringe group, who insulted the students, using lewd, vulgar, and violent language.
  5. Based on video evidence and the interview with Nathan Phillips, Phillips approached the student group and pushed his drum and drumstick into the face of a Covington student, who eventually walks away.
  6. Phillips then turns and pushes his drum into the face of another student, making physical contact with the student’s shoulder. The student simply stands there (and was accused of “smirking”). There is no evidence of any malicious intent, as he remains standing, calm and collected.
  7. Video of Phillips’ interaction with the student spreads across social media, with the accusations that the student group was harassing the Native American protester, when in actuality, he approached and instigated tension with the students.
  8. While there are reports of the students saying, “Build the Wall!”, there has been zero evidence of that. If anything, the interaction between the students and Mr. Phillips was much more positive and, dare I say, up-beat than the mainstream media would claim.

The Dangers of “Hashtag-Activism”

Following the revelation of the larger narrative, I issued an apology on Twitter:

Other Catholics on Twitter pointed out how pathetic, sad, and disturbing it was to see lay Catholics (such as myself) & even priests condemn the student body without even first investigating:

Lest I think that I am somehow absolved from my Twitter apology, let me elaborate on this:

To the students of Covington Catholic High School,

I offer my sincerest apologies to you, your teachers, and your families for participating in a vile act of presumption. Upon seeing the original short clip, I noticed the MAGA hats (I am not exactly a fan of Donald Trump) & the majority’s skin color (white), and presuming economic privilege (your attendance at a Catholic school), I made an error in judgment — I falsely assumed that you were committing an act of racism against an indigenous person. Not only do I apologize for the presumption, but I also apologize for spreading the “fake news” to my Twitter followers, and quite possibly damaging your reputations, as well. Racism exists, and it is evil. That stated, there is nothing from the longer videos and reliable testimonies that would make me think that you as a student body (or individually) acted in such a racist manner. I apologize for participating in this smear-campaign, for commenting on a news story I knew little about, and for contributing to attacks upon your school and you as individuals. I am writing this apology (as well as this larger piece) as an act of solidarity & support, a pledge to pursue truth over assumptions, wherever that truth may lead. I pray that you find support in your school and parish communities. I will offer whatever assistance I can in helping spread the truth of this incident. My sincerest apologies to you all.

Such are the dangers of “hashtag activism”. From the comfort of my bed, I issued condemnations to kids I did not even know, regarding a situation I had no right to comment on. I actually thought — foolishly — that I was somehow being an advocate against racism, simply because I offered my simple ‘hot take’ before jumping in the shower. I then went about my day spreading the lies, including to my mother while I was on the phone. Never did I actually consider that there was a larger story at work. I literally saw a video of a teenager awkwardly smiling (smirking?) in the face of a Native American, banging a drum & chanting. Deluded by the laws of “wokeness”, I immediately assumed that the kid was a racist jerk, flaunting his “white privilege”. Because he & his friends were wearing “Make America Great Again” attire (something they probably bought as a souvenir, as do many tourists both national & international), I assumed that they were xenophobic rape-apologists, a group of white-privileged brats who probably vacation at the Cape with their trust funds. I did not view these kids as children, or even as young adults, both of whom are certainly prone to making prudential errors. No. In that moment, watching that short video clip, I — the “enlightened”, ‘woke’ activist, used a hashtag & two slamming sentences, and assumed that somehow, I made a real difference.

Hashtag activism gives the illusion that one is actually participating in a movement worth following. Think of some of the more famous hashtags in the past 5 years: #BlackLivesMatter, #JusticeforTrayvon, #IStandWithMigrants: what good do these hashtags do if they are not followed up with concrete, actual action? Even when Internet “activism” is performed, it can turn into full-blown violence and insanity. Here are a few examples:

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A bunch of losers (myself included) who spend way too much time on the Internet sees something, gets “outraged”, and next thing you know, they begin to“dox” (publishing personal information about someone, including job, family members, address, etc.) Another example:

Now, besides researching a person’s background, looking up their childhood photos, seeking to destroy every ounce of his or her future because they committed “thought-crime” (or in the case of the Covington students, no crime at all!) — what exactly does hashtag activism do to combat serious societal evil? What did hashtags do to help the victims of violence in Uganda (#Kony2012), the 2014 Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapping (#BringBackOurGirls), or help provide support to women facing an unplanned pregnancy (#ShoutYourAbortion)? Hashtag-activism gives the illusion that one is actually *doing* something to force change, but without the actual time, commitment, or energy to see it through. Moreover, with all of the virtue-signaling on Twitter regarding the Covington Catholic situation, we come to another question: where were all these people back when liberal post-millennials harassed a Native American for “thought-crime”?

Even IF activism can be used to signal societal change (one thinks of the #MeToo movement & the revelations of sexual harassment and abuse), one must be careful in how it is used.

The Dehumanizing Effect of ‘Fake News’

As mentioned before, the original narrative regarding the Covington students was not only misleading — it was false. But, too late, I guess. Every mainstream news outlet has already painted these students as “racist”, portrayed Mr. Phillips as an innocent victim, and the March for Life as a big GOP event, or something. So what? I mean, 99.9% of the blue check-marked Twitter elite will likely forget about this Covington situation in two weeks. By then, they will have already found something new to be angry about. Does it matter that hundreds of Twitter influencers spread “fake news”? If they are serious about being human, then yes, it should.

First of all, let’s think of the Covington students. Their small Catholic high school is now on the international news cycle. If you type in “Covington Catholic” on Google, one of the suggested searches follows that with “…racist kid”. These students, even though they may be innocent, have already been tried, found guilty, and are being led to the gallows by the court of public opinion. I know what some of you are going to say: “Who cares? They’re white, and white have privilege, so they’ll be fine.” Such thinking is not only illogical, but it is morally irresponsible. While the Left is proudly patting themselves on the back for calling out what they perceive to be Donald Trump’s minions, what they actually did was reveal the personal information of minors, harass their school and families, and spread their pictures around to live in Internet infamy forever. There is no “privilege” in having your entire life broadcasted to the world, especially when you are innocent of any wrong-doing.

Second, humans by their very nature are rational creatures, meaning that we have the capacity to use natural reason to learn about the natural world, explore concepts, and most importantly — pursue truth. Aristotle, the famous ancient Greek philosopher, taught that human nature has three degrees to the soul — the vegetative (which we share with plants & animals, responsible for growth & nutrition); the sensitive (which we share with animals, responsible for locomotion and sense perception); and the rational (which belong to humans alone, responsible for intellectual thought). We do not simply lay in bed waiting to reproduce, nor do we act on instinct alone. We humans have the ability to reason and come to knowledge of the truth. Aristotle himself believed that to be human is to exercise reason and thus pursue virtue. “Fake news” — that is, false reporting & misleading narratives — goes exactly against human nature, because it leads us away from truth and pulls us into error. Not only does fake news degrade our humanity, but indulging & spreading of it turns into a form of pornography where we are entrapped in a cycle of falsehoods that please us, because it reinforces our tribal commitments.

Lastly, fake news erodes public trust in our institutions and in each other. For any society to flourish, there must be harmony between people. That doesn’t mean that everything will be perfect (things rarely are!), but that there is a common goal and a common plan to attain that goal. In a well-oiled society, I turn on the television, and see one objective event (let’s say, a local robbery). I hear the details of the event (person X did Y, and said Z), and that’s that. With “fake news”, on the other hand, there is no objectivity — there is simply deceit. In a situation like Covington, we need to ask ourselves — was our motivation in commenting & sharing the article out of a sincere search for the truth, or was it more about showing others that we “care” about racism (and thus, are not bad like *those* people) ? Fake news knows no boundaries nor political allegiances — it is found both on the Right as well as the Left.

In short, I wrote this piece for three reasons. First, to notify the public about what actually happened regarding Covington Catholic High School during their trip to the March for Life. Second, I wanted to issue an apology to those students & the Covington community for participating in what I call “hashtag activism”. Third, I believe this situation can help us, as a society, reflect upon the ways in which “fake news” can lead us to error, and ultimately, demean our human existence. No doubt something like this will happen again, but when it does, I will simply log off Twitter for the day, so to avoid the war that is to come. By the way — prior to writing this, I called my mom. I told her about the way the story unfolded, and how I participated in its spreading on Twitter. She said something she has said since my MySpace days — “John, why do you spend your time on that garbage?” Sometimes, mothers know the right questions to ask.

Doctoral student in theology, seeking the true, good, and beautiful.

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