Bitter divides are poisoning our politics. Divides which are constantly being reinforced. The trouble is that once a person is aligned with a particular heuristic, they can continue unswervingly down that path undisturbed by information which does not suit it or which might thwart it.
Opportunities for course-correction are dwindling. On social media, people follow only those with whom they agree. They ‘purge’ anyone they disagree with. We do this voluntarily, consciously. But there are other other factors in play about which people seem less aware. The ones that are being forced on them.
The aftermath of events in Portland, Oregon, provides a case-study for a trend which should really be disturbing us far more than it currently does. Last Saturday, the centre was again the scene of a rally by ‘Antifa’ – the protest group which presents itself as ‘anti-fascist’.
One of the claims which ‘Antifa’ and their supporters have tried to make stick is that there is something nefarious in anybody reporting on their activities. As their name suggests, ‘Antifa’ activists believe – or pretend to believe – that they are in a cosmic battle against rampant fascism. This is in one of the most liberal cities in America.
To stop this fascism, anything goes: including violence. But the root of their claim is essentially a ‘with us or against us’ one. If you are not on the side of the masked, violent, intimidatory thugs of ‘Antifa’, you are clearly yourself a fascist. Or ‘fascist-adjacent’, which is the only other category of human they appear to recognise.
One of the few people who has covered previous ‘Antifa’ protests in Portland is the young journalist Andy Ngo. For documenting the destruction and violence which the groups have been bringing to town, Ngo has been repeatedly targeted. Activists have harassed him, posted his home address online, repeatedly threatened violence against him and continuously made libellous claims about him.
Online and off, activists have tried to portray Ngo as either some kind of Right-wing extremist or at the very least someone who is sympathetic to far-Right extremism. Sympathetic, in particular, to white-supremacy movements. Of course, Ngo would be an unlikely supporter of any such movements. Not least because he is a young gay man of Asian descent (his parents immigrated to the USA from communist Vietnam).
Nevertheless, this is the world that ‘Antifa’ imagines exists. Which may or may not be surprising. But what is surprising is that the tactic has, in recent days, shown itself to work with more respectable media who are not meant to have imbibed such a warped and extreme heuristic.
Take the New York Times. The paper finally covered the events under the headline ‘In Portland, milkshakes, a punch and #HimToo refresh police criticism’. This is a woefully inadequate portrayal. Though the meme of ‘milkshaking’ has been promoted as some harmless occupation (so harmless that Burger King, among other corporations, has promoted it), in Portland activists are reported to have put quick drying cement, among other things, into the ‘shakes’ that they were throwing. This in order to cause nasty burns on those they are assaulting.
Suddenly Jo Brand’s call on the BBC for milkshaking to progress to acid attacks seems even less hilarious than it did at the time.
But the NYT headline was also inadequate because there was not ‘a punch’ in Portland last Saturday. Ngo was only one of a number of locals who were violently assaulted by ‘anti-fa’ that day. And as video of the events shows (and as the reporter’s head and facial injuries attest), Ngo alone was certainly punched more than once. He was repeatedly beaten, hit around the head and had projectiles thrown at him by an mob of masked activists. So already the headline at the NYT minimises what was an actual mob assault on a lone journalist into one single punch.
Then we get to the real problem though. In the body of the article its author (one Mike Baker, who was clearly nowhere near the scene of the events) had this to say about Ngo:
“He has a history of battling with anti-fascist groups, with the two sides sharing a mutual antipathy that dates back many months. The conservative journalist has built a prominent presence in part by going into situations where there may be conflict and then publicizing the results.“
Far from a ‘fair summary’, this is, in fact, an assault on the truth. And a further (admittedly this time non-violent) assault on Ngo.
Take that word “battling”. On the one hand is Ngo, a peaceful, young journalist simply doing the job of recording a law and order breakdown (a law and order breakdown that the NYT, incidentally, might once have covered). He has never ‘battled’ with ‘anti-fascist groups’. He has merely covered their protests, investigated them and reported on them.
The NYT then goes on to describe “the two sides sharing a mutual antipathy” as though Ngo’s attitude towards ‘anti-fa’ is basically equivalent to their dislike of him. Then there is that insinuation that Ngo is a ‘conservative’ journalist as opposed to just ‘a journalist’. This is no more nor less than the NYT’s attempt to put scare quotes around the very idea that Ngo is a journalist. For it suggests that Ngo himself is an ideologically driven journalist. Unlike, say, Mike Baker of the NYT.
Finally, there is that little burst of innuendo at the end of the paragraph. The idea that Ngo is in some way at fault for “going into situations where they may be conflict and then publicizing the results”.
But isn’t that one of the things that journalists are supposed to do? To go into situations which could be dangerous and report back to the general public. Is it such an unforgivable thing for a journalist to do? Especially if in doing so the journalist ends up building “a prominent presence”.
What matters about the NYT piece is not just that it is dishonest, but that it is so dishonest while pretending to be fair. The poison comes from assuming that there are two sides of the story in the case of a violent group assaulting a journalist and that the truth must lie ‘somewhere in the middle’.
It is pretty much impossible to imagine any other occasion on which the NYT covered an attack on a journalist in this way. But here they are happy for their readers to be led to a position of equidistance between a violent mob and a peaceful journalist. Must be both sides ‘battling’ each other, mustn’t it? Rather than one side sending a young reporter to hospital with a brain haemorrhage.
There’s a wider problem illustrated here, though. Any NYT reader absorbing this version of the news would find their world-view completely unchallenged. A violent assault on a ‘conservative journalist’ by an ‘anti-fascist’ mob has been neatly explained away enough for it not to bother the worldview of their readership. And this in what used to be the ‘paper of record’.
Meanwhile, online something else is happening with this story – something that offers a glimpse into the information equivalent of the Wild West. As Heather Heying has pointed out, in the immediate aftermath of the attack online supporters of ‘anti-fa’ did something that the Left has been decrying for the last three years. They pumped out wholly untrue claims, based on doctoring the headlines of reports in actual mainstream publications.
So supporters of ‘anti-fa’ (presumably aware that the optics of them hospitalising Ngo might not be so good for the brand) doctored a headline in the American Spectator, changing it from ‘Journalist Andy Ngo attacked by anti-fa at Portland protest’ into: ‘Journalist Andy Ngo staged attack by anti-fa at Portland protest’.
Elsewhere they took the headline from a story at Reason which read ‘Anti-fa mob viciously assaults journalist Andy Ngo at Portland rally’ and replaced it with ‘Andy Ngo hires Proud Boys to pose as anti-fa and attack him at Portland rally’.
This is a lie. It’s not just the headline that is a lie, though. The lie is far deeper, more sinister, more powerful. This headline was never published. This headline is a forgery, meant to sow hatred and distrust. Meant to further alienate us from one another. 1/11 pic.twitter.com/M47picMyUI
— Heather E Heying (@HeatherEHeying) July 2, 2019
This is surely terrifying. In the aftermath of elections in the past few years, there has been an increased concern about manipulated data and stories being spread online by hostile actors. But here is a case where this has actually happened. And in the past few days. False spin has been put on a distinctly cut-and-dry story in order, as Heying points out, to alienate us from one another.
As we bemoan the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ there seems little to no realisation of what is now actually happening, in real time. People always had their own way of looking at the world. But what should really concern us is that technology now has the capacity to alter the world so it reinforces their prejudices with a complimentary story. It’s hard to see this ending well. As the divisions deepen, we each hold our course.