Anatomy of a Smear: Ad Hoc Propaganda

Security Studies Group (SSG)

2 year ago

January 21, 2019

Information operations take many forms and are conducted by nation states, political organizations, activists, corporations and private citizens. The common factor is an attempt to influence the beliefs and actions of others through the power of information. This can be done in ways ranging from a 100% factual and fair presentation of the truth to a 100% false misrepresentation of it. Most information operations fall somewhere in the middle and use elements of truth as their starting point.

A recent incident involving a group of kids from Covington Catholic High School and some protestors at the Lincoln Memorial was a textbook example of creating a narrative using a false victim. It was not a planned operation but involved the shared interests of liberal activist groups and much of the media combining to tell a false and damaging tale. Confirmation bias also played a major role as the same story, which fit the preconceived notions of the media outlets, was shared without independent verification or validation based on a single source. All of this created a situation where a propaganda event was generated and served up as news to the public.

The Incident

A group of high school students were waiting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where they were told to gather before boarding their bus. They had participated in the March for Life earlier that day.

While waiting there, the students were harassed by a religious cult known for making vile and rude statements

Far from engaging in racially motivated harassment, the group of mostly white, MAGA-hat-wearing male teenagers remained relatively calm and restrained despite being subjected to incessant racist, homophobic, and bigoted verbal abuse by members of the bizarre religious sect Black Hebrew Israelites, who were lurking nearby. The BHI has existed since the late 19th century, and is best describes as a black nationalist cult movement; its members believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites, and often express condemnation of white people, Christians, and gays. DC-area Black Hebrews are known to spout particularly vile bigotry.

After this had gone on for a while, the boys asked their chaperones if they could sing their school songs so they didn’t have to listen to the abuse. The boys did not shout any racist or other slurs at the agitators during this time.

While this was happening a group of Native American activists from the American Indian Movement began to march toward the high schoolers. They were not trying to pass by as there were clear and open spaces on either side of the group of boys. As they march up, one of the videos shows an agitator saying the boys were targeted partly due to some wearing red Make America Great Again (MAGA) hats associated with President Trump. The activists were chanting and drumming and their leader, a man named Nathan Phillips, continued into the group and marched directly up to one boy who was simply standing quietly and began drumming and chanting loudly inches from his face.

The boy did not react except for a slight smile as the man continued to taunt him from close range for period of minutes. At one point the boy can even be seen looking over his shoulder and giving a signal to remain calm to some of his friends.

There are multiple videos of the event and none of them show the boys chanting any racist slurs or “Build the Wall” as Phillips had claimed they did. They show many of the boys bouncing and chanting along to start with but eventually upon seeing that Phillips was being aggressive they stopped chanting with him and began chanting at him. At one point a few of the boys did the “Tomahawk Chop” a gesture used widely at sports events, but no racial or other slurs were employed as seen in any of the available footage.

The boys were rambunctious but restrained and if anything should be commended for remaining under control in the face of targeted harassment by two groups of adult agitators.

The False Victim Narrative

News reports from almost every major media outlet told a completely different tale of how a mob of MAGA hat wearing teens surrounded and harassed a Native American elder who was marching peacefully. Phillips said they subjected him to a barrage of racist taunts including “Build the Wall”.

“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’ ” Phillips recalled. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way, and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”

Virtually none of Phillip’s tale or the news reports was true as the videos clearly show. Pictures and video of the boy Phillips had marched up on and taunted were used to validate his story but they only appeared to do so without the context that Phillips was the one who instigated the incident. He was not trying to march and being obstructed; he purposely walked into the group of boys when there were clear paths on either side and then he aggressively singled out one individual and invaded his personal space.

Phillips was repeatedly lionized in the press and gave tearful interviews where he talked about Native American causes and how being attacked by a mob of racists showed this was still an issue. Unfortunately, whatever the validity of his causes, he used a staged incident and a willing media to publicize them unfairly to the detriment of the kids who had done no wrong.

Phillips has a long history as an activist and also claims to be a Vietnam veteran who served in the US Marine Corps as a “recon ranger”. This is not a valid name for any Marine specialty or unit and Phillips age of 64 calls into question how he could have completed training and served in Vietnam prior to the US withdrawal. Several veterans groups are filing requests for his service records to validate his tale.

The Aftermath

Now that the actual story has been put into play, news outlets that previously reported this as a mob of racists attacking a Native American are being forced to correct themselves. The preferred spin seems to be “Fuller story emerges” as in this NY Times piece.

A fuller and more complicated picture emerged on Sunday of the videotaped encounter between a Native American man and a throng of high school boys wearing “Make America Great Again” gear outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

The problem for the New York Times and the many other outlets is that all of this information was easily available when they filed their initial inflammatory articles. SSG found all the video footage necessary to debunk the initial stories contemporaneously with their publication and requiring minimal research.

This has been the case far too many times for it to be an accident. The major media outlets see a story that fits their existing and preferred narrative, in this case “Trump supporters are racists” and they run stories fitting that with far too little validation to be acceptable under the ethical standards they claim to employ.

The media outlets doing this are ostensibly competitors and they are all constantly on the hunt for a scoop or breaking news. But once a juicy narrative is discovered, they pile on in a herd mentality discarding the rules for sourcing and validation they should follow. This leads them to form an ad hoc propaganda network publishing and distributing stories that match their beliefs which are not given the scrutiny they should due to confirmation bias in an industry that is dominated by a liberal belief system.

In this case all of that led to school kids being demonized and smeared unfairly. The boy featured in all of the stories has received numerous threats of violence against him as have the families, the school and many others associated with it. This is an unacceptable situation and one that journalists need to take far more seriously than they have in the past. They claim to be independent chroniclers of events, but time and time again their mistakes seem to always be damaging to the political right.



About the Author

Security Studies Group (SSG)

SSG focuses on defending the value of American power against the true threats we face. Both the legislative and executive branches need rapid access to concise and factual data to inform strategic re-orientation in counterterrorism and national security policy. That’s what Security Studies Group is all about.