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The Beacon Staff

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Over MLK day weekend, a video circulated on social media of an altercation between a group of boys from a Catholic school in Kentucky and a Native American elder on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The video sparked national outrage as people jumped to condemn what appeared to be clear-cut ignorance on the boys’ part. Wilson students were quick to repost the video on Instagram and denounce the boys’ racism, many firing off emails to their principal and region’s diocese.

As a staff we often debate the pros and cons of social media as a tool for social change, arguing about whether reposting something is at all meaningful. Do you really care about an issue if you just repost a video? Does the impetus for your post matter if your video amplifies an issue or message?

The emerging culture of social media vigilantism, however, is a force we are just beginning to understand, and it presented itself in its ugliest form following the video. Hours after the video emerged, many Wilson students jumped to attack the students who were involved. The goal seemed to be punishing the MAGA-hat-wearing kids rather than uplifting indigenous voices. The countless issues Native American people face were not addressed by this video, and all the energy that could have made change was instead harnessed to pursue the “perpetrators.”

After all, the goal of vigilantism is to place blame and deliver punishment. Nick Sandmann, the boy at the center of the video who conveniently fit the stereotype of MAGA America, has been singled out as the one to answer for the behavior of everyone in a crowd of 150. No one involved in the altercation can claim complete innocence, yet Sandmann is the one bearing full responsibility for what occurred, and now we know his name, his mother’s name, and his mother’s job.

With a person to blame, all hell broke loose in the form a sweeping extrajudicial social media tsunami. After the waves subsided and more details were released, we were forced to reckon with new facts and the gray area that we ignored before. For example, news reports later revealed that the incident started when a group of Hebrew Israelites began yelling racial epithets and verbal abuses at the high schoolers, which led the students to start their “school chants.” The kids were not the sole instigators. The disclosure of the full story shines new light on the behavior of everyone involved.

The new information did not change the fact that the boys’ actions were clearly racist, aggressive, and unjustifiable. At the same time, however, many of us realized that the blame may have been partially misplaced.

We do not wish to paint Sandmann and his peers as innocent children, especially considering that white teenagers are so often given the excuse of youth that kids of color are rarely granted. However, when videos like this are released in the future, we cannot scapegoat people without knowing the full story. Responding to an incident without knowing the facts undercuts any merit to that response—even the smallest inaccuracies can overshadow an argument’s legitimate points.   

The insensitive and racist behavior of the boys warranted criticism and provided an opportunity for valuable discourse. But because the story was initially circulated without the facts, dialogue about the incident has now shifted towards squabbles over misconceptions rather than a constructive conversation about the divisions that were magnified by the video. This is counterproductive.

It’s imperative we fully understand the real story, no matter how ugly the scene on our phone appears to be. If we rely on social media as our only source of information, this is impossible. We should seek out all the facts before we share a story, and when we do share one, we should try to keep the right intent in mind. Our focus needs to be the spread of knowledge, not the demonization of those with opposing views.

Over MLK day weekend, a video circulated on social media of an altercation between a group of boys from a Catholic school in Kentucky and a Native American elder on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The video sparked national outrage as people jumped to condemn what appeared to be clear-cut ignorance on the boys’ part. Wilson students were quick to repost the video on Instagram and denounce the boys’ racism, many firing off emails to their principal and region’s diocese.

As a staff we often debate the pros and cons of social media as a tool for social change, arguing about whether reposting something is at all meaningful. Do you really care about an issue if you just repost a video? Does the impetus for your post matter if your video amplifies an issue or message?

The emerging culture of social media vigilantism, however, is a force we are just beginning to understand, and it presented itself in its ugliest form following the video. Hours after the video emerged, many Wilson students jumped to attack the students who were involved. The goal seemed to be punishing the MAGA-hat-wearing kids rather than uplifting indigenous voices. The countless issues Native American people face were not addressed by this video, and all the energy that could have made change was instead harnessed to pursue the “perpetrators.”

After all, the goal of vigilantism is to place blame and deliver punishment. Nick Sandmann, the boy at the center of the video who conveniently fit the stereotype of MAGA America, has been singled out as the one to answer for the behavior of everyone in a crowd of 150. No one involved in the altercation can claim complete innocence, yet Sandmann is the one bearing full responsibility for what occurred, and now we know his name, his mother’s name, and his mother’s job.

With a person to blame, all hell broke loose in the form a sweeping extrajudicial social media tsunami. After the waves subsided and more details were released, we were forced to reckon with new facts and the gray area that we ignored before. For example, news reports later revealed that the incident started when a group of Hebrew Israelites began yelling racial epithets and verbal abuses at the high schoolers, which led the students to start their “school chants.” The kids were not the sole instigators. The disclosure of the full story shines new light on the behavior of everyone involved.

The new information did not change the fact that the boys’ actions were clearly racist, aggressive, and unjustifiable. At the same time, however, many of us realized that the blame may have been partially misplaced.

We do not wish to paint Sandmann and his peers as innocent children, especially considering that white teenagers are so often given the excuse of youth that kids of color are rarely granted. However, when videos like this are released in the future, we cannot scapegoat people without knowing the full story. Responding to an incident without knowing the facts undercuts any merit to that response—even the smallest inaccuracies can overshadow an argument’s legitimate points.   

The insensitive and racist behavior of the boys warranted criticism and provided an opportunity for valuable discourse. But because the story was initially circulated without the facts, dialogue about the incident has now shifted towards squabbles over misconceptions rather than a constructive conversation about the divisions that were magnified by the video. This is counterproductive.

It’s imperative we fully understand the real story, no matter how ugly the scene on our phone appears to be. If we rely on social media as our only source of information, this is impossible. We should seek out all the facts before we share a story, and when we do share one, we should try to keep the right intent in mind. Our focus needs to be the spread of knowledge, not the demonization of those with opposing views.