We’ve all seen the video: A teenager in a MAGA hat smirks as a Native American protester pounds a drum inches from his face. For most of us, our first instinct was that of disgust at the smug teen, especially if you first encountered the video on Twitter accompanied by the caption, “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the Indigenous Peoples March.”
If you’re a liberal who’s “extremely online,” there’s a decent chance that you spent at least part of Saturday voicing your indignation at this kid’s behavior, either with an original post, by sharing someone else’s take, or by tapping out likes to the sickest burns. When our heads hit the pillow at the end of the day, the punchablilty of that spoiled kid’s face was a cause we could all rally behind.
On Sunday, a more complete picture of the incident began to emerge. Additional footage revealed the presence of a third group, Black Hebrew Israelites, hurling hateful invective at the kids from Covington Catholic High School as well as those participating in the Indigenous Peoples March. Furthermore, the elderly Native American protester – Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam veteran – can be seen approaching the group of teenagers, not the other way around.
To right wing partisans, this was clear evidence of the left wing’s increasingly mob-like mentality, proof their crusade was more about performative rage than whatever truth the facts revealed. When even more videos emerged, there was the backlash to that backlash. By Wednesday, there was backlash to the backlash to the backlash that NBC News was getting for their interview with the MAGA Kid on the “Today Show.”
Like last week’s controversy over the Gillette ad, it was all so predictable. In the video and subsequent commentary, most of us saw what we wanted to see, and heard what we wanted to hear. To many on the left, the incident simply reinforced their belief that anyone wearing a MAGA hat is a bigot; to many Republicans, the controversy was further evidence of the media peddling a leftist agenda devoid of real facts.
Ultimately, the incident proved to be the culture war’s version of Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch” episode: A choose-your-own adventure.
However, the similarities to “Bandersnatch” don’t end there. Just as that episode’s protagonist, Stefan, began to suspect that his fate was being decided by forces beyond his control (you, the viewer making his choices), there was something suspicious about the way that first minute-long video began to go viral.
An investigation by CNN Business revealed that @2020fight, the account that posted the original “MAGA loser” tweet with the video, was using the picture of a Brazilian blogger as its avatar, despite claiming to be a California teacher named Talia. Furthermore, an information warfare researcher named Molly McKew realized that “a network of anonymous accounts were working to amplify the video.” Citing “misleading account information,” Twitter suspended the @2020fight account on Monday.
Although it’s difficult to know where the @2020fight account originated from, the blatant attempt to undermine social cohesion in an advance of an election closely parrots the Russian election interference of 2016.
The entire incident serves as both a reminder of America’s partisan divide and the inherent danger of being swept away by the latest online outrage. The more unthinkingly partisan America becomes, the worse we function; the more fearful we are of our neighbors, the easier it is to manipulate us with content that alienates at a time when the nation should be focused on unity.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this latest flare up in the culture wars, but the first should be this: If a piece of content is selling a simplistic, politically polarizing message, do not engage. In the Choose Your Own Adventure world of social media, this is the first and most important decision you can make.