Stop Trusting Viral Videos


KC Noland / YouTube

In a short, viral video shared widely since Friday, Catholic high school students visiting Washington from Kentucky for the March for Life appeared to confront, and mock, Native Americans who had participated in the Indigenous Peoples March taking place the same day.

By Saturday, the video had been condensed into a single image: One of the students, wearing a Make American Great Again hat, smiles before an Omaha tribal elder, a confrontation viewers took as an act of aggression by a group of white youth against an indigenous community—and by extension, people of color more broadly. Online, reaction was swift and certain, with legislators, news outlets, and ordinary people denouncing the students and their actions as brazenly racist.

But as the weekend wore on, a new video cast doubt on the clarity the original had appeared to offer. This one was shot by members of a Black Hebrew Israelite protest group that had also gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, where the incident took place. Over the hour and 45 minutes runtime, members of the group mock and deride passersby of all stripes. According to a statement issued Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School junior seen apparently intimidating the tribal elder in the original video, the students were also victims of harassment by the broader protest, and they had tried to defuse the situation by singing over the Black Hebrew Israelites. According to the statement, the encounter between Sandmann and Nathan Phillips, the Omaha elder, represented a misunderstood moment taken out of context. Phillips, meanwhile, maintained that he and his companions felt threatened by the confrontation with the students, most of whom were white.

Film and photography purport to capture events as they really took place in the world, so it’s always tempting to take them at their word. But when multiple videos present multiple possible truths, which one is to be believed? Given the new footage, some, like the libertarian outlet Reason, said the students “wildly mischaracterized.” Others, like the Washington Post, tried to cast the matter more neutrally, concluding that the aftermath “seemed to capture the worst of America at a moment of extreme political polarization.”

But rather than drawing conclusions about who was vicious or righteous—or lamenting the political miasma that makes the question unanswerable—it might be better to stop and look at how film footage constructs rather than reflects the truths of a debate like this one. Despite the widespread creation and dissemination of video online, people still seem to believe that cameras depict the world as it really is; the truth comes from finding the right material from the right camera. That idea is mistaken, and it’s bringing forth just as much animosity as the polarization that is thought to produce the conflicts cameras record.

There’s an old dispute in film theory between form and content. For most people, the meaning of moving images seems to relate to the footage inside them—the people, settings, and events that the camera pointed at and captured. But in fact, the way those elements were selected, edited, and re-presented, have an enormous impact on the way they are received and understood. In the case of the Lincoln Memorial encounter, neither the original video nor the new one explain what “really happened.” Instead, both offer raw material that can take on various meanings in different contexts.

Because the newer video of the Lincoln Memorial encounter is so much longer, some would contend that it offers clarity about how the conflict arose. But if you watch the video in its entirety, it’s hard to find much clarification. Instead, it offers a large quantity of raw material from the same time and place. That footage betrays just how easy it is to find provocative moments from an otherwise ordinary sequence of events.

For example: At one point, the Black Hebrew Israelite protesters holding the camera engages with woman who had pointed out that Guatemala and Panama are indigenous names with their own meanings, different from names like “Indian” or “Puerto Rico,” ascribed by Spanish conquistadors. “I am from Panama,” the camera man claims, “so now, I’m indigenous from Panama…we indigenous, so we out here fighting for you.”

As best I can tell, the speaker means to argue that allegedly being from Panama, a place host to some indigenous peoples that bears an indigenous name, aligns his interests with those of North American indigenous peoples who had assembled for the Indigenous Peoples March. To say that this is a spurious argument would be putting it mildly; it’s a bit like me, a white man who lives in Atlanta, home of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., arguing that my intentions are necessarily aligned with those of modern extensions of the black civil rights movement, such as Black Lives Matter.

That moment, which lasts less than a minute, could easily be extracted and shared on its own. It would make fine #content: Look at this protester trying to roll over his interlocutor with faulty reasoning! Look how she is lured in to making earnest arguments that bounce right off bad-faith interlocutors! There are dozens, hundreds of these latent, potential viral videos in the footage, all potential flashpoints for online controversy if selected and framed appropriately.

The Black Hebrew Israelites’ performance offer dozens of opportunities for similar brow-furrowing, ranging from bemusing to derogatory. “A bunch of incest babies,” one of the Black Hebrew Israelites shouts at the amassing Catholic students at one point. When a passing black man attempts to defy the group, one of them responds, “You got all these dirty-ass crackers behind you, with a red Make America Great hat on, and your coon ass wanna fight your brother.”

Via broadcast or on YouTube, it’s easy to organize those clips such that they indict the group of Black Hebrew Israelites and mar their intentions. That’s the same appeal that Sandmann made in his statement. He says that the African American protestors were saying “hateful things,” which inspired the group to sing school-spirit chants in an effort to drown them out. During this time, according to Sandmann, Nathan Phillips, the Omaha elder, waded into the crowd playing a drum. Sandmann and Philipps locked eyes—the most notable moment in the original, viral video. According to Sandmann, he only intended to diffuse the situation, in part because he knew it was being recorded. But according to Phillips, the encounter was hostile—“hate unbridled,” he called it—and caused him and his companions to fear for their safety.

As the video and coverage of it has proliferated, critics attempting to explain it searched for the truth in its content. “Viral Video Shows Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Surrounding Native Elder,” the New York Times reported Saturday. On Twitter, people raced to condemn the students, the school, and the Catholic church. But a day later, when the longer footage emerged, those initial conclusions seemed less certain. “A fuller and more complicated picture emerged,” the Times reported on Sunday. But even then, the content was still seen as the place to search for the truth. The Times eventually landed on the same milquetoast conclusion that the Washington Post did, concluding “that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs—against a national backdrop of political tension—set the stage for the viral moment.”

Those parries will likely continue back and forth, with individuals, legislators, and media outlets each offering their own take on the original video and all the information that has seeped out from it since. But fewer will acknowledge the role of video itself in manufacturing real and actual effects, no matter how the surrounding circumstances motivated or contextualized them.

For Sandmann and his colleagues, their actual intentions and motivations seem vital to any account of what took place. But not only can we never really know what those were, they also don’t matter once the original video had been shot and shared. That short clip shows a young man with a smirk, wearing a Make America Great Again hat, appearing to stare down a Native elder: Simply describing the scene, at this political and cultural moment, suggests a racist threat.

That’s not just because the internet makes it easy to come to simple and quick conclusions, and to spread those answers as truth before verification. It’s also because such an edit almost seems purpose-built to service that conclusion. It juxtaposes an almost perfect avatar for apparent white-nationalism, MAGA hat and all, with the apparent cultural frailty of a brown-skinned victim, carrying out an act of indigenous humility. Whether Sandmann and Phillips are telling the truth or not matters only marginally—the image and the clip take on lives of their own, reproducing a conflict that viewers have already been primed to seek out by the overall political situation and their places in it.

To understand just how susceptible images like this are to total reinterpretation, consider an alternative scenario. Imagine that instead of standing silently and seemingly smug, the teen had maintained a neutral countenance and then removed his MAGA hat from his head. Such an act would have been interpreted, almost universally, as a gesture of meekness and respect. Some would have over-interpreted it, no doubt, taking it as a sign that the student had shed not just the cap, a symbol of Trumpism, but all the ideologies bound up in that symbolic garment. And this interpretation would have cohered and spread no matter whether Sandmann really meant any of it or not. (I pointed out a similar feature in the Jim Acosta White House video, where a small shift in the position of a camera could utterly change the apparent meaning of the resulting images.) The entire tenor of the viral moment would have flipped, and the students likely would have enjoyed being portrayed as meek heroes representing the tolerant promise of American youth.

Consider a change in framing or editing instead: Had the original clip been shot from the reverse angle, showing Sandmann and his classmates from the back, his MAGA hat visible but not his smirk, the meaning of the situation also changes. No longer does the student represent the worst stereotype of white intolerance, but now he becomes a mere prop for Phillips, whose drumming reads as both pacifist in its delivery and reception. My point is not to apologize for the students’ behavior, or even to explain it, but to underscore how a slightly different video might have persuaded the very same viewers who censured the Covington Catholic students to reach exactly the opposite conclusion.

About a century ago, the Soviet formalist filmmaker Lev Kuleshov conducted a series of experiments with filmic montage. In the most famous one, he edited a short film consisting of short clips of various subjects: An actor’s expressionless face, a bowl of soup, a woman on a couch, a girl in a coffin. The same clips edited into different sequences produced different interpretive results in the viewer. The deadpan face of the actor appeared to take on different emotions depending on what image preceded or followed it—he appeared dolorous, for example, when seeming to “look at” the dead girl in the coffin. This effect of filmic editing has been called the Kuleshov effect, and it’s had an enormous influence on filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Francis Ford Coppola. It also forms the backbone of reality television, where the meaning is almost entirely produced in the editing room.

From Sandmann’s statement to the Times’s walk-back, follow-up to the incident has focused on the larger circumstances, which are assumed to provide clarity. Sandmann claimed to offer a “factual account of what happened.” The Times admitted that the video excerpt had “obscured the larger context.” But there’s a problem: Understanding the larger context doesn’t really produce a factual account of what happened, as depicted in the original video.

Kuleshov’s disciple Sergei Eisenstein would eventually call editing, and montage in particular, the key formal property of cinema (the famous Odessa steps sequence in his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin is the canonical example). These traits allow film to link together seemingly unrelated images, relying on the viewer’s brain to make connections that aren’t present in the source material, let alone the cinematic composition.

The power of editing comes from condensation, from film’s ability to compress events that unfold over a long period of time into one that takes place over mere moments. Today’s online video still relies on editing, of course, but even clips that appear uncut still participate in a version of the Soviet formalist project. Now the cameras inside the smartphones everyone carries produce a swarm of videos, many of which spread on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other venues. The result is a seemingly infinite set of possible perspectives, real or faked, truthful or manipulative, all clamoring to present their edited rendition of events in front of the eyes and minds that that would gestalt meaning from them. Now, the process of selection is collective—all those thousands and millions of video cameras in everyone’s pockets scrabbling for the first or best attention.

Watching the almost two-hour video of the Black Hebrew Israelites only drives the point home—there are piquant moments of conflict, but mostly expanses of empty time, marked by moments of incoherence or inaudible exchanges. If this counts as broader context, it certainly doesn’t explain the events of the Covington student and the Omaha elder. Instead, it just provides the raw material out of which that moment is forged.

It’s tempting to think that the short video at the Lincoln Memorial shows the truth, and then that the longer video revises or corrects that truth. But the truth on film is more complicated: Video can capture narratives that people take as truths, offering evidence that feels incontrovertible. But the fact that those visceral certainties can so easily be called into question offers a good reason to trust video less, rather than more. Good answers just don’t come this fast and this easily.

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Ian Bogost is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His latest book is Play Anything.