There’s a good chance you’ve already seen this story about Russian trolls behind a “Stop Islamization of Texas” protest in May 2016: “Organizers behind armed white supremacist protest in Houston revealed as Russian,” from ThinkProgress.
The original CNN story referred to in that piece is here (“Stoking Islamophobia and secession in Texas — from an office in Russia”); a link to a local Houston TV station’s video from the protest is here.
I read the original story last night (and the Twitterverse’s reaction to it), read it again this morning, and also took a look at the original CNN story and the video.
That’s when I thought something was off.
First, the lede to the ThinkProgress story:
Last May, nearly 100 demonstrators gathered around the Islamic Da’wah Center in downtown Houston, squaring off against one another in competing camps.
I can’t be the only person who quickly glanced at this story and immediately thought something like “wow, “the Russians” got 100 armed white supremacists out via one of these dumbass Facebook groups – that’s better than a dozen.” Actually, in chatting with a few other journos, I know I’m not.
But take a look at the lede to the original CNN story (emphasis mine):
On May 21 2016, a handful of people turned out to protest the opening of a library at an Islamic Center in Houston, Texas. Two held up a banner proclaiming #WhiteLivesMatter. A counter-protest began across the street; video shows a noisy but non-violent confrontation.
OK. Now take a look at the actual video from the protest. You can see the white supremacist protesters at around 0:12 and 0:13 in front of the brick building; the counter-protesters are the larger group across the street.
That’s a handful, not a hundred. And phrasing your lede in a way that many readers will interpret as ‘a hundred’ armed white supremacist protesters is….yeah.
Listen, the Kremlin (or ‘the Russians,’ however we want to obsequiously phrase it) meddled in the 2016 election, just as they have and continue to do in other countries. But there’s this wave of coverage coming out of the US these days that’s hard to stomach, a wave that either assumes every single little thing they did has had a real impact – or worse, conveniently never bothers to ask the question in the first place. We can sex up our stories to ride the Russia wave, but it’s not going to make any of us look cooler once we get back to shore.