Media’s Baltimore ‘Teen Purge’ Narrative is Falling Apart

News & Politics

Early Monday afternoon, the Baltimore Sun (4/27/15) reported on a mass police presence that had descended on Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall. The reason for this military-like occupation, pinning in high schoolers? A flier advocating a “purge”—a term based on the 2013 dystopian film The Purge, supposedly signifying an outbreak of lawlessness—was, according to the Sun, “widely circulated” among the students.

Surely the police had to come down hard because “teens” on “social media” had planned on doing something that in the past had turned out to be a hoax. Nevertheless, the Sun would do most of the PR heavy lifting, reporting on the “purge” as if it was an existential threat—pinning the incident entirely on this mysterious flier:

The incident stemmed from a flier that circulated widely among city school students via social media about a “purge” to take place at 3 p.m., starting at Mondawmin Mall and ending downtown.

The real-world, non-social media evidence of this purge?

When 3 p.m. came, 75 to 100 students heading to Mondawmin Mall were greeted by dozens of police officers in riot gear. The mall is a transportation hub for students from several nearby schools.

So the students left class (at they always do at 3 p.m.) and headed to Mondawmin Mall (as they always do at 3 p.m.) and were met with hundreds of police in riot rear. That’s not what you’d call a smoking gun.

"purge" flier

As for the evidence of this “purge” spreading on social media? It’s murky at best. After getting vague responses from the Baltimore Sunreporters in question as to the actual, linked evidence that the flier had gone viral, I took to Twitter asking for evidence that evidence that the flier was spread by high school students before theSun tweeted it out.

After a few hours and a lot of searching, all that came back were two tweets (one of which is now deleted)—neither of which were from high schoolers, and both of which were upset by the idea of a “purge,” not promoting it. Even if one assumes that the flier actually did go viral on other social media (which it may well have–it’s more difficult to search Instagram andFacebook), the social media activity we could observe was sharing the flier in disgust—not to promote the “purge” at all.

The sharing of content is not, in itself, an indication of intent or support. (Indeed, if it were, we could assume CNN and other outlets that splash ISIS propaganda on their Twitter timelines are ISIS’s No. 1 fans.) So when theBaltimore Sun breathlessly observes that “the incident stemmed from a flier that circulated widely among city school students via social media about a ‘purge’ to take place at 3 p.m.,” it’s important to know whether the flier was being “circulated widely” by supporters or opponents. This is why, when reporting on social media trends, providing actual social media screengrabs and links is entirely helpful.

It’s unclear, though, whether the Baltimore Sun had any links to the original social media activity that its report centered on. Sun reporter Carrie Wells, who seems to be the first from the paper to tweet the photo after the Sun‘s story went live, told me she heard about the “purge” image because “a friend onFacebook said it was circulating around Instagram.”

“It’s been widely circulating”…“got word of it”…“other reports”: The murkiness and lack of identified primary source strips the story of context and, in doing so, creates a perception of actual danger that the proffered evidence doesn’t substantiate. Instead, our biases are allowed provide confirmation: Each time the story is told, assumptions about a certain class of high schooler (*cough* black *cough*) fill in the blanks, and the reader is ultimately left with the impression that a torrent of anarchist black youths were about to descended on Mondawmin Mall—thus justifying the police’s martial response.

Baltimore's WMAR reporting on the supposed "purge"

But follow-up reports in Mother Jones and Gawker yesterday would further expose the “purge” fraud. As Meg Gibson, a Baltimore City school teacher at Belmont Elementary School, said in a Facebook conversation with Gawker (4/28/15):

I was at a stoplight in front of Frederick Douglass High School and directly across from Mondawmin Mall. It was exactly 3 p.m. The mall was on lockdown. There were police helicopters flying overhead. The riot police were already at the bus stop on the other side of the mall, turning buses that transport the students away, not allowing students to board.They were waiting for the kids. As I sat at the intersection of Gwynns Falls, I saw several police cars arriving at the scene. I saw the armored police vehicle arrive. Those kids were set up, they were treated like criminals before the first brick was thrown.

In a piece headlined “Eyewitnesses: The Baltimore Riots Didn’t Start the Way You Think,” Mother Jones (4/28/15) would provide further context, interviewing several of the parents and teachers that were there:

After Baltimore police and a crowd of teens clashed near the Mondawmin Mall in northwest Baltimore on Monday afternoon, news reports described the violence as a riot triggered by kids who had been itching for a fight all day. But in interviews with Mother Jones and other media outlets, teachers and parents maintain that police actions inflamed a tense-but-stable situation….

Said one Douglass High School teacher:

“When school was winding down, many students were leaving early with their parents or of their own accord.” Those who didn’t depart early, she says, were stranded. Many of the students still at school at that point, she notes, wanted to get out of the area and avoid any Purge-like violence. Some were requesting rides home from teachers. But by now, it was difficult to leave the neighborhood. “I rode with another teacher home,” this teacher recalls, “and we had to route our travel around the police in riot gear blocking the road.… The majority of my students thought what was going to happen was stupid or were frightened at the idea.

Had the Baltimore Sun sought out and published the actual social media sources, instead of cutting and pasting a screengrab from a friend onFacebook with “word” of a panic, they could have demonstrated whether the flier was being spread more in support or in disgust. Alas, in rushing to justify the police crackdown and to prop up the “both sides” parity our corporate media pathologically seek, they made assumptions about a viral orgy of violence and pinned the mid-afternoon clash entirely on the students and a barely readable “purge” flier of unknown origin.

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