Does it matter whether a particular battle in the culture war is caused by a real person, or a fake one—an online sock-puppet account, say, or automated bot? That we have to ask means that it’s getting harder to tell them apart. So what, really, is the difference to the warring parties or their victims?
This is the question, posed in slightly different terms, underlying the case of the viral video and the smirking MAGA boys that reached Congress on Tuesday. Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees questioned representatives of Twitter about how a short video clip of red-hatted, Trump-supporting Covington Catholic students squaring off with an older Native American man beating a drum had spread across the internet so quickly, taking on, in a matter of hours, the superficial characteristics of a matter of grave importance. The initial clip, which was tweeted by an account with the handle @2020fight, had been captioned: “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the Indigenous Peoples March.” The tweet was “viewed at least 2.5 million times and retweeted at least 14,400 times before the account was removed,” The New York Times, reported.
The investigation was fueled as well by the subsequent release of a second longer video of the incident that substantially contradicted the narrative of the first one. Whoever had been tweeting from @2020fight for the past two years has claimed to be a schoolteacher named Talia from the San Francisco area whose bio read: “Teacher & Advocate. Fighting for 2020.”
But soon after the Covington video exploded, a reporter for CNN discovered that ‘Talia’s’ photograph was actually a Brazilian social media celebrity. The account of the self-identified teacher exhibited other unusual characteristics, like tweeting, on average, more than 130 times daily in 2019. When the reporter asked Twitter about the account, the company promptly suspended it and tentatively asserted that it appeared to be run within the United States. Regardless, its volume was more suggestive of a political-influence campaign than a real person with a full-time job and a life. With one detail proven fake and other questionable aspects surfacing, the outline of a deliberate disinformation operation began to take shape.
Those suggestions bypassed a critical detail about the cultural and political influence of @2020fight: The American media actively helped build it. Over the past year, publications on both the left and the right, and ranging from establishment news sources to viral aggregators, participated in building the name recognition and viral power of the Twitter account that they are now investigating. That’s part of how the account amassed around 30,000 users, even before the Lincoln Memorial incident. As it turns out, @2020fight, in addition to being a supposed schoolteacher involved in classroom fundraising efforts, was also able to present as a particular sort of modern political activist—the kind who tweets and memes the political slogans that provide the content to the media outlets who use it to produce stories about the tweets and memes that keep the culture war raging.
On July 30, 2017, The Washington Post featured one of @2020fight’s tweets in a story aggregating Twitter effluvium under the headline, “‘Rick and Morty’ creator gets his Szechuan sauce; Outback Steakhouse jokes about unlikely conspiracy.” Beneath tweets about Outback Steakhouse conspiracies and Trump administration-Game of Thrones allegories, was this well-calibrated jibe at a right-wing media personality :
@TomiLahren is still on her parents’ insurance. After all this hatred towards Obamacare and she benefits handily from it.
— Talia (@2020fight) July 30, 2017
It was a near perfect tweet for an aggregated social media story: hostile toward someone with name recognition who is popular among supporters but despised by the other side, snide but not too vulgar.
It didn’t end there, of course. The account kept up a high volume of tweets, providing daily free entertainment content. It also kept getting signal-boosted by other Twitter users and in mainstream outlets. There was a 2017 retweet by congressional Democrat Eric Swalwell, from California, according to The New York Times. An August 2018 @2020fight tweet about President Trump coloring a flag wrong got almost 130,000 retweets and was included in a roundup on the right-wing site The Daily Caller. Other posts by “Talia” made it into USA Today and Russia Today.
By the time the Covington video was posted last Saturday, the account had reach and was positioned, with the right content, to go viral.
What’s notable now, is how in every instance where “Talia’s” tweets were included in news stories it was as if they represented the opinion of an ordinary American citizen. There is no suggestion that someone tweeting more than 100 times a day might not be representative of most people, or that a tweet might be something different from an opinion, or a Twitter account rather distinct from a person. The kinds of disruption tactics in which anonymous actors use false identities to sow discord by spreading panic and disinformation, a recurring motif in Trump-era political discourse, are undoubtedly a real feature of the new landscape. But they are the weapons of the weak, used to exploit the vulnerabilities of an already fractured society. The problem of a brittle social fabric that easily bursts into flames is not the brand on the match used to start the fire.
The power of social media platforms is in the way they rapidly create network effects, a process in which natural human impulsions and emotional patterns are only another data point. If you want to crowdfund the hospital bills for someone who is sick and in need of financial help, this can be a miracle. But if you are trying to understand incomplete information that will likely inform your own behavior, it’s unfortunate—and if the “you” in question is a huge number of people, it’s a societal disaster.
The response to the Covington video consolidated almost instantaneously. By the time competing information arrived in the form of the nearly two-hour video released the next day—which showed the original incitement not from the Covington boys but from members of the fringe, cult-like Black Hebrew Israelites, who called the mostly white Catholic students “crackers” and “faggots” and told one Native American protester, “You’re not supposed to worship eagles buffaloes, lambs, all types of animals. This is the reason why the Lord took away your land”—it was already up against decided minds fortified against the intrusion of new information by an interlocking latticework of social connection. (Or, put another way, if your tweet expressing outrage based on the initial interpretation was retweeted by hundreds or thousands of people—especially your peers or people you care about—you will have become emotionally and psychologically attached to it, and less likely to be persuaded that the thing that created all of that connection for you was wrong or amendable.) That left the possibility only for meaningful counterpositions that could operate on a comparable scale, offering their own adherents the reassurance and mutual defense built into a large group.
Which is why it didn’t really matter whether this particular account was actually an activist schoolteacher, a bot, or a sock puppet in a clandestine disruption network. None of the verifiably real people, who receive real paychecks from real institutions, whose real faces appear on real television screens, and who aggregated its tweets, cared to ask before Saturday, and it makes little difference now.
Reaction to the video of the red-hatted boy and Native American elder was not, as some observers have suggested, an ideological litmus test. It was a Turing test, the kind designed to distinguish between human and machine intelligence. Normally the test is used to detect artificial intelligence impersonating humans. We now know that it also works in reverse.
In fact, after a number of initial stories suggesting hidden intrigue behind the “shadowy account” responsible for making the Covington video go viral, a new report from NBC indicates that it may be operated by a California schoolteacher named Talia after all. That leaves, at least the possibility, that there is no nefarious network to hold responsible—only the ones operating in plain sight.
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Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.