Jazz wrote about the media response to this incident earlier. I wanted to focus on the social media aspect of this incident. As soon as a clipped video of the confrontation between a Native American man with a drum and a high school student began circulating, the left began seeking a way to punish the high school student, his family, his school, and even the school’s president. The problem was that no one knew on Saturday who the student was.
As the Washington Examiner reports, amateur internet sleuths quickly decided his name was Michael Hodge. And once they had a name, the desire to punish Hodge for his sins took over. Yesterday Andrew Hodge, Michael’s older brother described what happened to his family: “People then proceeded to spam my family with harassments and threats of physical violence.”
In addition to the threats and abuse directed toward Michael and his family, some creative members of the mob set about trying to destroy his future prospects by contacting the college he plans to attend and calling him a racist.
The irony is that the mob doing all of this is angry because Michael Hodges is (supposedly) a bad person. In reality, it’s the members of the mob trying to destroy him who are terrible people.
Sunday, the teen who actually appeared in the video released a statement which revealed his real name was Nick Sandmann.
Sandmann’s statement says in part:
I am the student in the video who was confronted by the Native American protestor. I arrived at the Lincoln Memorial at 4:30 p.m. I was told to be there by 5:30 p.m., when our busses were due to leave Washington for the trip back to Kentucky. We had been attending the March for Life rally, and then had split up into small groups to do sightseeing.
When we arrived, we noticed four African American protestors who were also on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I am not sure what they were protesting, and I did not interact with them. I did hear them direct derogatory insults at our school group.
The protestors said hateful things. They called us “racists,” “bigots,” “white crackers,” “faggots,” and “incest kids.” They also taunted an African American student from my school by telling him that we would “harvest his organs.” I have no idea what that insult means, but it was startling to hear.
To drown out the insults directed at them and with the permission of an adult chaperone, the students began chanting some of their school chants.
After a few minutes of chanting, the Native American protestors, who I hadn’t previously noticed, approached our group. The Native American protestors had drums and were accompanied by at least one person with a camera.
The protestor everyone has seen in the video began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him. I did not see anyone try to block his path. He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face.
I never interacted with this protestor. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me. We had already been yelled at by another group of protestors, and when the second group approached I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers…
During the period of the drumming, a member of the protestor’s entourage began yelling at a fellow student that we “stole our land” and that we should “go back to Europe.” I heard one of my fellow students begin to respond. I motioned to my classmate and tried to get him to stop engaging with the protestor, as I was still in the mindset that we needed to calm down tensions.
The teen’s statement closes by showing respect for the rights of others, in particular, the Native American man who confronted him, despite the death threats he and his family have received.
I harbor no ill will for this person. I respect this person’s right to protest and engage in free speech activities, and I support his chanting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial any day of the week. I believe he should re-think his tactics of invading the personal space of others, but that is his choice to make.
I am being called every name in the book, including a racist, and I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination of my family’s name. My parents were not on the trip, and I strive to represent my family in a respectful way in all public settings.
I have received physical and death threats via social media, as well as hateful insults. One person threatened to harm me at school, and one person claims to live in my neighborhood. My parents are receiving death and professional threats because of the social media mob that has formed over this issue…
I have read that Mr. Phillips is a veteran of the United States Marines. I thank him for his service and am grateful to anyone who puts on the uniform to defend our nation. If anyone has earned the right to speak freely, it is a U.S. Marine veteran.
So how did all this anger and outrage happen? In a well-written piece for the Atlantic, Julie Irwin Zimmerman admits she got it wrong when the story first appeared. She winds up calling this a Rorschach test and I believe she’s absolutely right.
The story is a Rorschach test—tell me how you first reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016 and your general take on a list of other issues—but it shouldn’t be. Take away the video and tell me why millions of people cared so much about an obnoxious group of high-school students protesting legalized abortion and a small circle of Native Americans protesting centuries of mistreatment who were briefly locked in a tense standoff. Take away Twitter and Facebook and explain why total strangers cared so much about people they didn’t know in a confrontation they didn’t witness. Why are we all so primed for outrage, and what if the thousands of words and countless hours spent on this had been directed toward something consequential?
Why are we all so primed for outrage? Why were so many people, without understanding what had happened, looking to punish someone, even physically assault someone they didn’t know.
You may remember Reza Aslan. He had a sweet gig at CNN until 2017 when he lashed out on social media against President Trump. But he was just one of the thousands on Twitter eagerly joining the mob looking to punish a teenager they knew nothing about over an incident they knew almost nothing about.
What’s behind all of this is altruistic punishment. We make ourselves feel good by punishing others. It’s a powerful impulse that resides within all of us. It pops up all the time in pop culture wherever a mob of people has decided to punish a stranger. Some of the stories are even worse than the one that happened this weekend. I don’t have much hope that this is going to change anytime soon but the advent of social media seems to have exacerbated this tendency. Until we learn to recognize it and get control of it, social media is going to continue to be an awful place where awful things, like threatening the lives of random teenagers, will continue to happen.