Trust, but verify what you see on the internet

Doveryai, no proveryai. It’s an old Russian proverb. You may know it better as one of President Ronald Reagan’s popular phrases: “Trust, but verify.”

Most notably, he used it publicly when talking about agreed-upon inspection procedures concerning nuclear weapons. This was when the Russians — sorry, the Soviets — were our greatest geopolitical rival.

Maybe the phrase should come back in vogue.

There has been a lot written about last weekend’s viral video from Washington. In it, a group of Catholic high schoolers at a political march appear to be taunting and otherwise disrespecting an elderly Native American demonstrator. Priests, politicians, and partisans alike rushed to decry the students’ behavior. No two ways about it; the brief clip showed the kids were in the wrong.

Trust, but verify.

Some intrepid reporters decided to dive deeper into the controversy. These young men — some wearing President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” ball caps — had purportedly come to the nation’s capital as part of the “March for Life.” It presented an interesting dichotomy; they were protesting in favor of human life, yet ridiculing the person in front of them. The dynamics of race and religion added an additional twist.

In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 image made from video provided by the Survival Media Agency, a teenager wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

Trust, but verify.

But more context brought to light miles of gray. As longer videos emerged, it became clear the high schoolers themselves were being taunted, for quite a long period of time, by a fringe group calling themselves the “Black Hebrew Israelites.” They used some pretty strong terms, with racial, sexual, and religious connotations. The kids appeared to be somewhat stoic and composed standing against this abuse.

Trust, but verify.

The simple fact is the entire situation is complex, confused, and anything but clear. The students could have conducted themselves better, there is no doubt about that. But Nathan Phillips — the tribal member who approached them chanting and drumming — wasn’t announcing his intentions and assumedly had seen these young men be targeted by radicals for some time. What were they to make of this individual walking towards them? With the benefit of context, this was not something that should have risen to a national outcry.

But it did. Because of “trust.”

White kids with red “MAGA” hats smirking at an American Indian holding a drum. The picture was worth much more than a thousand words, embodying the fray occurring in our political and social discourse. So where did this “viral” video — with a undeniably political objective — originate? Who was “patient zero”?

We don’t know. It appears to have started with a Twitter account allegedly belonging to a California educator, with a tagline “Teacher & Advocate. Fighting for 2020.” But the user’s profile picture belonged to a Brazilian internet star who denied any involvement. And when CNN asked Twitter about the account? They suspended it.

It is hard to tell the identities (and nationalities) of social media users. The famous “New Yorker” cartoon — “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” — rings true. That is why a healthy skepticism is necessary when you read something online, and is particularly valuable when the information comes from an unknown source. And it is why it is especially important when the story — or picture, or video — agrees with your point of view; confirmation bias is a real thing.

There are geopolitical rivals who would love nothing more to watch America be torn apart from within. They are happy to help stoke the fire with false social media accounts and biased “reporting.” Our best defense is the simple advice offered by Reagan:

Doveryai. But verify.


Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.