Staff Editorial: Viral does not mean viable

Two weeks ago, Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann laughed in the face of a helpless Native American man simply trying to sing his indigenous prayer.

Or at least that’s what the video showed.

Sandmann was captured on video, Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat on head, standing in front of 64-year-old Nathan Phillips, seemingly blocking him from walking by. He had a grin on his face, and whatever he was doing, it didn’t seem good.

The video went viral.

Hundreds of thousands of views in hours, and if you have a Twitter account, you were one of them. You saw the smirk on the student’s face. Racist, ignorant, cruel — these were the words likely circulating in your head after the first glance, and the backlash on media made it clear Nick Sandmann was in the wrong. When it was revealed the student in the video attends Covington Catholic High School, there was likely a sense of shame in the Mason community, as the school is only a thirty minute drive away.

But as the dust cleared and the media backlash slowed enough for people to learn more details, it turns out the video showed little of what actually happened.

The tweet definitely told a story. A very clear one. But all it really showed was how the confrontation looked. How it looked and what happened are two very different things.

As details emerged and new videos were released, the media began to change their story. But by that point, the Covington Catholic students were the most hated people on Twitter, and the school had condemned the students saying they would “take appropriate action, including expulsion.”

CNN later determined that the whole situation was initiated after a group of Hebrew Israelites hurled hateful insults at the students, and Native American elder Nathan Phillips then walked towards the students because he thought things were getting out of hand. Sandmann and Phillips were then put at the center of the group with all the cameras on them. Sandmann said he smiled and stood motionless to make it clear that he had no intentions of violence. Sandmann said he was trying to “diffuse the situation.”

Phillips confirmed that it was simply an “ugly situation that he found himself in the middle of.” This isn’t an example of the leftist “fake news media”, or the “racist” right. This is an example of how dangerous viral videos can be. It happens far too often, and many news publications are begging that everyone learns from this mistake.

The Internet rarely sees issues as anything but black and white. There is always a right and a wrong — two sides ready to go to war over any issue. Even the most insignificant little thing can blow up into a debate, each side certain they are right.

The confusion over the Covington students is just the most recent example of social media spreading stories that are misleading or outright wrong. And is it really that surprising? The Internet has all the necessary ingredients – instant access to information as a story develops, easily shareable links and posts, and, perhaps most importantly, a community ready to explode at the slightest provocation.

Let’s be clear: the Covington issue is one with plenty of gray area. Every side — the Covington students, the Native American protestors, even the Hebrew Israelites — has their own story about what really happened. And in all likelihood, each is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong. But it’s so much easier to just pick one side, isn’t it?

It’s easier to go on Fox news and read about how the Covington students are being bullied by the “mainstream media,” or to go on Huffington Post and read about how those same students are emblematic of everything wrong with “Trump’s America.” That’s why the Internet can spread so much misinformation. It’s not malice — it’s laziness.

Social media is a weapon. It gave a random Twitter account the power to make a group of students “racist.” It caused hundreds of death threats and hateful statements to be sent to Nick Sandmann. And it will continue to cause injustice until people will learn to examine the whole story, not just the way something looks.