America’s Next #MAGA Superstars

26 01 19

If you were tasked with casting a movie meant to appeal to Donald Trump’s base you’d be hard pressed to find better protagonists than the Covington Catholic students. They’re everything Trump supporters love: young white men, religiously educated, Kentuckians, not just politically active but politically active in a way that states their misogyny. They’re also the ideal realization of what Trump’s base fears: innocent young white men targeted by the liberal mob and in danger of extinction. Trump’s coalition is at its heart a white supremacist movement, who seek to preserve white supremacy at any cost. And they see young white men as their most vulnerable resource.

It was inevitable that the Covington Catholic students would become America’s next #MAGA stars. The backlash began immediately online from pro-Trump trolls on Twitter and /r/the_donald. Some 4chan posters, not surprisingly, identified strongly with the students as one of their own. For the larger pro-Trump media, who as a colleague pointed out to me have wanted their own version of the Parkland student survivors for months now, the scramble to reframe them as heroes came at an impressive speed. The base already on board, it took almost no effort to get legacy media to reconsider their initial take. At that point, of course, President Trump felt compelled to express his support as well.

For those of us who research, and report on information warfare it’s been frustrating to watch legacy media get duped yet again by a counter-narrative. On Tuesday afternoon the frustration on Twitter was palpable. As Joan Donovan said on Twitter “There is a difference between Covington and manipulation campaigns that rely on viral hoaxing of journalists. Here, the content is not manufactured. It was a real event. It happened. Perception is being manipulated, while evidence is edited.” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has a thoughtful piece about the media’s tendency to overcorrect themselves. Deadspin’s Laura Wagner was more blunt, calling out reporters and media outlets who fell into this trap pretty harshly:

“Respectable news organizations and journalists, to whom being seen as balanced, level-headed, and more attuned to context and contingency than the reactive social-media mob is more important than reporting the most accurate version of the truth as best they can tell it, backed off, following Reason’s lead and doing the work of the gibbering masturbators who had risen up in defense of the MAGA teens. They were all too happy to say that the sky was not blue if it meant burnishing their credentials as serious and objective, and fell over each other to back away from what was right in front of their eyes.”

That this happened doesn’t surprise me but the speed and efficiency at which it happened is unsettling. Pro-Trump media have mastered their craft, optimized their tactics, and legacy media are just as vulnerable as they were three years ago. The Guardian’s Jason Wilson outlines the steps pro-Trump media takes pretty much every time. 1. “Reframe the debate as soon as possible” 2. “Pick your narratives” & 3. “Focus on the extremes of the other side.” And Rewire’s Jodi Jacobson points out that legacy media were all too happy to excuse the Covington students and recenter the story around whiteness.

It’s worth noting that the right doesn’t even need to get the America public on these kids’ side. All they need is to create enough confusion so that people feel like they can’t tell truth from fiction and tune out entirely or decide that forming an opinion or speaking out at all would be unfair to the students. Based on how many smart, informed, well-meaning people in my own life have taken that tack, I’d say mission accomplished.

A lot of you have asked me this week if the original release of the video was an act of information warfare designed to inflame everyone. Given the mysterysurrounding the original Twitter account, it’s suspension, and eventual deletion I’m not surprised that there are a lot of questions surrounding how the video got out there. At first glance, it reads like a potential weaponized amplification campaign, but I have an alternative theory that I don’t think has been considered yet. Perhaps the person who released the video on Twitter just wanted to hide their identity, a perfectly reasonable thing to do when you consider how they themselves would inevitably become a target. We have no way to know for certain, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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