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People outraged by a confrontation in front of the Lincoln Memorial had help in getting outraged. Nobody was harmed as a Native American drummer faced a group of primarily white Catholic school students. But the incident spread on social media, and it was boosted by a single Twitter account that has since been suspended. NPR's Laura Sydell reports Twitter says the account was using misleading information to manipulate the public conversation.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: The video went viral in a number of different ways, but a major player was an account with the handle @2020fight. The video shows a Native American elder banging on a small hand-held drum surrounded by a group of high school boys, some of whom are wearing Make America Great Again hats. One of the boys stands a few feet from the man's face, staring at him with a slight smile. It's a brief moment in a much longer, more complicated situation. The @2020fight account has been in the sights of Rob McDonagh with Storyful, a firm that analyzes social media conversations.
ROB MCDONAGH: And I had spotted it before tweeting out very hyperpartisan views very much in Democratic talking points.
SYDELL: While that in itself didn't necessarily mean anything was wrong, there were other signs.
MCDONAGH: What made this account stand out is its high rate of tweets and highly political tweets. You're talking 130-plus tweets a day. And it had a fake profile pic. It was using the profile photo of a Brazilian blogger.
SYDELL: McDonagh says the account also had over 40,000 followers, but it wasn't verified by Twitter. He says that's unusual for an account with so many followers. According to McDonagh, CNN pointed out the account to Twitter, and it was taken down. Twitter has not disclosed who it believes might be behind the @2020fight account. But Molly McKew thinks it bears the hallmarks of an account designed to spread discord.
MOLLY MCKEW: I think this little bit of video content really hit a nerve with a lot of people, and I think that's exactly what it was intended to do.
SYDELL: McKew is a researcher who's worked for the governments of the countries of Georgia and Moldova, consulting on how to fight Russian disinformation. She says the video hit a nerve with progressives because it looked like a member of a minority group, a Native American elder, was being attacked by a group of white boys with MAGA hats.
MCKEW: Everybody rushes to their polls (ph) as quickly as possible.
SYDELL: McKew says she also noticed that @2020fight is followed by accounts she thinks are suspicious. Those accounts retweeted the video and sent it out to more people. Whitney Phillips, a professor at Syracuse University, has studied the way stories like this blow up on social media. Phillips says this situation is a near-perfect model of how social media and the news media end up working together to heighten conflicts between Americans.
WHITNEY PHILLIPS: You basically throw a match into some kindling, and then the American people supply the oxygen.
SYDELL: Then it rises to the top on Twitter, and the professional media notices it.
PHILLIPS: And so you have this race to cover the story first, and then once the story has been covered, every publication needs to, you know, publish their own take.
SYDELL: Including NPR. Phillips says the end result is that a small group that wants to keep Americans fighting amongst themselves is able to leverage social media and manipulate the traditional media. Unfortunately, she says, social media companies like Twitter are ultimately not prioritizing the good of society.
PHILLIPS: Sometimes it takes down really offensive content and sometimes it keeps that content up because it is good for their bottom line.
SYDELL: Phillips says divisions in our society are real, and the video may have taken off without fake accounts. But she would like to see people look at the source of the information before retweeting. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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