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Mar 24, 2023, 4:33pm EDT
politics

The right’s new viral video fixation

A screengrab of a tweet from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
Twitter/Benjy Sarlin
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The News

On Feb. 24, an account with a quarter of a million followers posted two videos of a Black man harassing Asian passersby in New York. Armour Cards, a Twitter user with fewer than 700 followers, responded with an undated video of the same man insulting a white man on a subway train, babbling about his “emaciated, attenuated, tenuous body.”

Armour Cards, who spoke with Semafor but chose to remain anonymous, was surprised by what happened next. The video had been recorded in 2019, “on the 1 train between 42nd and 50th St,” but was re-posted by thousands of users as evidence of anti-white harassment in today’s New York, and of racist ideology run amok — garnering hundreds of thousands of views along the way.

“Congratulations Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi,” tweeted the managing editor of the conservative satire site The Babylon Bee while sharing the footage.

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Armour Cards, a self-described “DeSantis conservative” who has a baseball signed by the Florida governor, was unsure what the authors of “White Fragility” and “How to Be An Anti-Racist” had to do with a disturbed man ranting on the subway, a year before the George Floyd protests made them household names.

But the broader arc of the video was unsurprising if you’ve been on Twitter lately. Contextless video clips of fights, anti-white harassment, and general urban decay appear to be flooding conservative corners of social media, where they’re shared with commentary blaming liberal prosecutors for an unchecked crime wave and progressives for racial division.

On Twitter, short footage can grab millions of views, sometimes helped along by accounts that have been restored under Elon Musk’s ownership after being banned under the previous regime for violating hate and harassment rules. Anti-hate groups are worried that the new social media environment is giving extremists a wedge into the mainstream political conversation, including with viral videos. The version of the subway video shared by the Babylon Bee editor, for example, came from an account almost exclusively devoted to curating similar clips alongside openly white supremacist commentary.

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At least one prominent conservative user who has been harshly critical of the left’s take on crime and race is unnerved by what he sees as a steady stream of vaguely sourced rage-bait.

“Videos like this have been making it to everybody’s timeline,” said Ian Miles Cheong, a Malaysia-based journalist who covers culture and technology, referring to one recent viral clip as “garbage from four years ago.”

Cheong is a popular figure on the right for his own online commentary skewering left-wing activists, which includes sharing viral footage of violence and provocations. But he says he’s personally urged Musk, who sometimes interacts with him on Twitter, to identify inflammatory videos, limit their reach, and add more context via the site’s “Community Notes” feature.

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“I think it’s something that they really need to cut down on,” he said. “I don’t want to watch fights every time that I log on to Twitter.”

Musk, who relishes weighing in on hot topics among the site’s “anti-woke” users, has so far been an active consumer. “Even though this clip is from 2005, it is still a super messed up thing to say,” he replied on Twitter this week, after a far-right commentator shared an old C-SPAN clip of a Black bookstore owner’s call for the “extermination” of white people. The embedded tweet that caught Musk’s eye, which called the rant evidence of a “coordinated plot” by the left, did not include the date.

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David’s view

In the 21st century, viral footage is political currency for both the left and right. Videos of brutal arrests or protester crackdowns have fueled reform campaigns in liberal cities; videos of shoplifting sprees and obnoxious protestors have fueled conservative calls for a crackdown on crime and a rejection of activist demands.

And if you want a story of panic about a context-free video going wildly wrong, remember what happened when the progressive Twitter-sphere got furious at a video of a Native American activist chanting at a teenager with a MAGA hat.

But there’s something especially familiar about the recent imagery on the right, which has popped up in different formats for many decades.

After President Obama’s election, brawls featuring Black teenagers were cited by some right-leaning media as signs of “race war” and civilizational collapse. “In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering,” the late Rush Limbaugh famously declared while discussing a then-viral clip of a fight on a school bus that had been featured on Drudge Report.

That kind of race-baiting language has been returning again around the current wave of videos, pictures, and anecdotes now crashing through social media. Watching them take off in real time, each viral incident is a nexus where large extremist accounts try to win over more mainstream conservatives in replies and quote tweets.

Take a clip that went viral this week showcasing a weekend brawl between teenagers at the Stonestown Galleria, a mall not far from San Francisco State University.

Stew Peters, a far right commentator, garnered over 2 million views with a tweet promoting the footage as part of a “war on Whites” that parents should respond to by “packin’ HEAT!”

By the end of the evening, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah had shared Peters’ video to his own followers while endorsing “attempted murder” charges for violent teens, who he called criminals “without civilization” who proved “why we can’t turn our backs on the Second Amendment.”

Many conservatives see videos of individual incidents as a counter to progressive denial about anti-social behavior and unsafe public spaces after the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea that cities are devolving into war zones is potent on the right; a popular reaction to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s expected indictment of Donald Trump was that the Democrat was distracted by anti-GOP politics as he let crime rage across his city.

This type of footage has also long been standard fare on local news. Videos, like the San Francisco brawl get media attention, and promises of help, from city leaders — who are often Democrats.

But the trend comes as farther out fringes of the right, including some figures with major followings, are using their reach to call for open prejudice toward Black Americans. These two streams are now constantly linking up on social media. It would be wrong to pretend not to see what’s going on.

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The View From Twitter

Twitter does not have an active press department, but has rebutted accusations that hate speech is becoming more common on the site, citing an independent study they commissioned.

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Notable

  • McKay Coppins talked to contemporary and future conservative influencers in 2012 about why similar isolated videos were worth covering, back when cable news played a larger role in the conversation. One top defender of the practice: Tucker Carlson.
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