The website known as “Breitbart” published an article entitled “Wave of Fake ‘Hate Crimes’ Sweeps Anti-Trump Social Media” that can send educators and well-meaning state legislators reeling.
Fake reports of ‘hate crimes’ committed by fans of President-elect Donald Trump are sweeping the nation. Meanwhile, real crimes continue to be committed by anti-Trump rioters in dozens of cities across America.
And what we have in the story is a series of events across America, most of them involving high schools or college campuses, that are either verified or not by local police.
For example, they say one “hate crime” that was reported by CNN was middle school students shouting, “Build the wall!” during lunch. “That’s not a crime,” the site writes. “It is juvenile behavior by boorish 12- and 13-year-olds.”
Breitbart is simply wrong about this call. It may not constitute a hate crime, but in many states, thanks to the diligent actions of state legislatures, bullying and cyberbullying in particular is actually a crime. We’re not going to spend the valuable time of the courts to prosecute a bunch of middle schoolers for actions that are better dealt with in the principal’s office, but chanting like this is a mass form of bullying.
It goes both ways, of course. Trump supporters are being bullied as well, and some people on both sides are being physically harmed. Credible news sources feature reports of Muslim women whose hijabs are being pulled off and of other students whose “Make America Great Again” caps are being taken from their owners and thrown in the trash. These are crimes under most of our state laws, and Breitbart does its usual thorough job of feeding misinformation so that people can pass it along on Facebook.
Donald Trump announced his choice for chief strategist in the White House on Sunday, and it is Stephen Bannon, who ran the Breitbart News Network at one point. It is largely considered now an alt-right website that often features bigoted and fear-mongering headlines. Mr Trump’s choice says little about his support for hate-filled speech, but I can assure you, whenever entire groups of kids know something’s up, something’s usually up.
But let’s set the record and Mr Bannon’s site straight about one thing: Bullying is against the law, so it is a crime; it’s not “fake” as Breitbart claims, but calling it a “hate crime” is, at the moment, an accusation that we haven’t prosecuted, not a proven fact. Accusations get out of control at times like this. The fact that only “sticks and stones” can “break my bones” makes our government less likely to invest resources in prosecuting that crime, but that doesn’t make hate speech protected. It just means bullies in our schools can escape the long arm of the law.
- Is spray painting “Heil Trump” on a wall you don’t own a crime? CNN reports.
- Do we show heart and conviction or are we showing hate? the New York Times asks.
- Should we be surprised? Delegate Eric Luedtke of Maryland considers.
- When should we stop using social media? a teacher wonders.
Keep it in perspective, though. There has been an uptick in bullying, at least in reported bullying, since the election. Trump supporters and opponents are being physically and psychologically harmed. Some kids are standing up for their classmates in acts of fortitude and bravery, but some who join in the abuse like it’s some sort of mob action aren’t.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has received more than 430 reports of bullying, harassment, and racist displays around the country. “We haven’t seen this volume in the United States in decades, with the exception of the wave of anti-Muslim incidents that followed 9/11,” the Times quoted Ryan Lenz, a spokesman for the center, as saying.
A word about media literacy
Most importantly, stop blindly believing everything you read on the internet. It’s called media literacy, and how we evaluate sources of information has changed in our digital age.
Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College, says she has received “hundreds and hundreds” of emails about her list of unreliable news sites, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports. She created the list to help students research their work.
She told the Chronicle, “If you find yourself on these websites, and many others, you should make sure that you know what these websites are, and understand that all media has a different frame and has different standards for newsworthiness. So it was basically to encourage them to always read multiple sources of information.”
The debunking site Snopes.com also has a list of disreputable websites. Some of these sites are good, but mostly what they do is provide clickbait so sites like Facebook can generate advertising dollars from people who view or share the stories.
Ms Zimdars classified the sites into four broad categories:
- decontextualized or dubious information
- misleading or unreliable
- clickbait-style headlines or social-media descriptions
- false news for purpose of humor or satire
Sites like Breitbart fall into categories 2 and 3, while sites like The Onion and ClickHole fall into category 4. She makes no judgment as to the value or appropriateness of these sites but wants her students to be aware of what they’re reading when they’re on these sites.