Open to Interpretation: How an 18-second video landed one local in President Trump's crosshairs

Andy Downing

The whole video lasts just 18 seconds.

Recorded on Saturday, May 30, near the intersection of High and Russell streets in the Short North, it shows a bearded man as he makes arrangements of some kind. When the video opens, he can be seen handing a group of cyclists a small wad of cash. “We’re building a barricade. Go get us everything you can find,” he says, adding, “These are the boys right here. This is the team.” The man, who is dressed in dark jeans, a denim jacket and a black stocking cap, then turns his attention back to others standing nearby. “There’s more stuff we can put out here,” he says. “Hey, there’s three picnic tables up here.”

The video then ends. Nothing else happens. No crimes are committed. It’s not even clear what the viewer has actually witnessed, other than a disconnected fragment from a single chaotic scene in a week-plus of global protests filled with them. And yet this particular video quickly captured the attention of the right wing on social media, whose members labeled the man Antifa, breaking down the video frame by frame in Zapruder-like detail. They said the money paid out in the video was enticement for others to riot. They hypothesized that the picnic tables were going to be used to start fires, and that the barricade was part of a front being constructed from which to attack police.

As with any viral video, things started small. The clip was uploaded to YouTube and shared on Reddit, Facebook and 4chan. Twitter users with middling numbers of followers posted the fragment, which was soon picked up by aggregate accounts that collect videos and images useful to advance a discredited right wing narrative that the violence that had erupted at protests nationwide could be traced to Antifa, a loose-knit political protest movement that has become the most recent conservative bogeyman. 

By Sunday morning, the video, which had circulated among Twitter accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers, had been shared by the Columbus Division of Police, which cited the man as “a person of interest” in posts made on Twitter and Facebook

In requesting the public’s assistance in identifying the man, CPD shared a Twitter post made by the account @DeepSouthProud, whose online bio identifies them as a member of the far-right militia group the Three Percenters, and who has a history of making racist and transphobic posts on the platform. In sharing the tweet, CPD helped advance the unverifiable claim made by @DeepSouthProud that the man in question had been observed “paying people to riot and destroy public property.” CPD declined comment via email, writing, “All we can say at this point is the case is under investigation.” A records request made by Alive, which included a request for access to internal emails related to the individual in the video, was similarly denied, with CPD again citing the information as part of an ongoing investigation.

"This is a common tactic used by the Columbus Division of Police and other police departments across the country to find out more information about various incidents," said a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office. "We’ve found that some people are more comfortable reaching out via social media than in person. ... Sources are not immediately taken at their word; every claim of information is investigated."

On Monday, June 1, public interest around the video reached a fever pitch when President Donald Trump posted it on his Twitter account, adding the caption: “Anarchists, we see you!”

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Of course, Nathan Caraway, the 32-year-old Columbus native who appears in the video, didn’t immediately catch the mention, having previously deactivated all of his social media accounts and gone into hiding after being inundated with threats to his safety.

“When I finally saw [Trump’s tweet], I was hit with a flood of emotions,” said Caraway, seated in the East Side office of his attorney (Caraway has not been formally charged with anything by CPD). “Most of them being fear-related … due to the uncertainty of what comes after. I also became charged with the purpose to clear my name, as well as to get the message out that this kind of misinformation is powerful and you must seek to understand before you share these kinds of things.”

Caraway said his actions in the viral video have been greatly misrepresented. He said the picnic tables discussed were used to create a barrier for an eye wash station, behind which medics could attend to protesters who had been pepper sprayed or shot by police with rubber or wooden projectiles. And Caraway said the money given to the cyclists, around $60, was intended to purchase supplies such as bottled water, baby wipes, milk and dish soap, which can be used to break down pepper spray once it’s on the skin. Caraway said he knew he was being filmed at the time, but he had no qualms about it, believing his intentions were clear. 

“I looked the [cameraman] right in the face and I didn’t feel any threat because I thought it was obvious I was trying to help,” said Caraway, who works as the lead extractor at a medical marijuana facility. “I didn’t realize 18 seconds of video could be taken so far out of context.”

Joan Donovan, a social scientist, faculty member at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, researches media manipulation and disinformation campaigns, and said that footage taken at protests can provide particularly ripe source material.

“At protests, you’re going to see a lot of contradiction, you’re going to see a lot of confusion, you’re going to see a lot of things that don’t make sense together, but that’s a normal part of social upheaval,” Donovan said. “It’s very, very important at this stage for us to understand that when the president is propagating rumors like this, we become attuned to how problematic it is. It’s also very dangerous for the people who get named in these situations because they don’t have the voice to speak back. They don’t have 50 million followers on Twitter to say, ‘Wait, there’s an explanation for this!’”

In the days leading to Trump’s tweet, Caraway had already been unsettled by internet sleuths who spent hours trying to suss out his identity, combing internet forums, attempting to analyze his accent and comparing still frames with photos from online databases. Initially, some incorrectly pegged Caraway as Aaron Dessner, guitarist for Brooklyn indie rock band the National, a rumor that picked up so much steam that Dessner actually responded to it via Instagram from the mountainous rural home where he said he has lived in isolation with his family for the last three months. “This morning I've woken up to the unpleasant and surprising news that I've been misidentified by some social media users as someone seen encouraging rioting in Columbus, Ohio,” Dessner wrote. “I am not the person some are suggesting I am. Nor have I been in Ohio since June 2019.”

Caraway said he was also recognized and followed in public, and people have attempted to contact everyone from his employer to his mother. “A lot of people are certainly looking deep into my life,” he said. “I’ve even received some death threats, non-directly, because I’ve done a pretty decent job of protecting myself and removing my identity [online]. … I’ve been running for the hills, but with a smile on my face and courage in my heart.”

These searches also subsequently turned up a second, more damning video of Caraway, too, in which he appears alongside individuals filmed smashing windows while walking south along a darkened High Street in the Short North. In the video, which lasts around two minutes, the vandals are confronted by people exiting one business near Mike’s Grill, at which point Caraway intervenes. “You guys are inciting something way bigger,” Caraway says to the patrons in the clip. “Get the fuck back in there and shut the fuck up. You’ve got 600 people out here ready to bust your fucking head. … Go inside and shut the fuck up. You don’t understand what’s happening. … Chill.”

Despite his admittedly harsh language, Caraway said he was attempting to de-escalate the situation by any means necessary, heading off what he viewed as a potentially violent conflict. Regardless, the exchange has done little to dissuade those determined to label Caraway a violent instigator, further complicating an already messy narrative.

Donovan said that these complications can be part of what draws online aggregators to these types of stories, which are naturally controversial and can be used to advance a particular narrative. In recent days, for example, Donovan has tracked aggregate Twitter accounts dedicated to documenting out-of-context instances of “black violence” during the protests, fishing for imagery that will entice larger, more influential accounts to share the content. 

“And in doing so, what they’re really trying desperately to do is maintain this narrative that these night marches and fires are the result of Black Lives Matter instead of what they actually are, which is part of a multi-racial uprising,” Donavan said. “So there are a lot of accounts online that do the work of collecting highly contentious images, which are then traded up the chain slowly to other influencers. … Something like [Caraway’s] video can be very convincing. It’s short, it’s real and it’s not been manipulated in any deep-fake sense, even if you can question the context of it.”

Columbus resident Nate Oliver first encountered Caraway’s video on Instagram, so when he later encountered CPD’s Facebook post requesting information on “a person of interest,” he shared it on his personal page. A couple of days later, Oliver read an interview Caraway conducted with news website The Grio, in which he explained his actions. Oliver subsequently deleted his earlier post, replacing it with a public apology. “There were some people who [commented] like, ‘Whoa, this is not your fault. It’s the Columbus police’s fault. It’s Trump’s fault,’” Oliver said. “And I was like, 'I don’t care who shared it. I’m going to at least take care of my piece in it.'”

In addition, Oliver said he would question social media posts made by CPD in the future, independently vetting the information rather than accepting it as truth.

In Caraway’s instance, CPD’s sourcing deserves further scrutiny. In addition to validating Three Percenter @DeepSouthProud, CPD linked to a YouTube video of Caraway in the comments of its initial Facebook post. The video, which has now been viewed more than 119,000 times, is titled “Columbus Antifa paying people to do tasks in riots” and was uploaded by the user “Steve Kirsch,” who in recent days has linked to videos denigrating Black Lives Matter and pushing debunked conspiracies such as Pizzagate, which posited that high-ranking Democrats were running a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. 

“Part of it has to do with the fact that people are now messaging the police with dangerous speculation, with things out of context. Most of the time people would never call the police with these details … but in the situation of social media we do see people trying to nudge the police in certain directions,” Donovan said. “It’s crucial, especially if police are choosing to retweet certain people, that they do a little bit of investigation to make sure that account is who they say they are, as well as someone who has firsthand, eyewitness information instead of just re-contextualizing what someone else has posted. If they’re going to take action on that information, they need to know where it’s coming from.”

Caraway, for his part, has tried to make the best of his designation as “a person of interest,” joking, “I’m glad the Columbus Police Department thinks I’m an interesting person.”

“Seeing that they shared @DeepSouthProud, a social media [user] who is not an accredited news outlet, did concern me, but I also recognize they want to keep the community safe, and you see something like that where you’re not sure what it is, and you reach out to the community to try and find answers,” he said. “It’s just very, very unfortunate that it put me in danger. … I don’t think it was done with a total disregard for my safety, but I don’t think that it was really ever taken into consideration, either.”

Since Trump’s tweet, Caraway has done his best to lay low, attempting to ignore the maelstrom that has surrounded him for more than a week now. “I’ve spent most of my time meditating and exhibiting my faith through prayer, just trying to sharpen the sword in my spirit and making sure the shield of my faith stays thick,” he said. “The more I look at the internet, the more daunting things can become, so I’m trying to steer clear of it.”

At the same time, Caraway expressed regret that his story has in any way distracted from the current protests and the necessary calls for racial justice emanating from within the black community. “We’re here because Black Lives Matter, not because Nathan’s life matters,” he said. “It saddened me to realize that my name was being attached to something that could draw momentum from this other thing, which is where we need to be focusing our attention.”

For now, at least, Caraway has to focus his attention on clearing his name, which Donovan noted can be a heavy lift for anyone caught up in a viral scandal, since the initial controversy always generates more clicks and coverage than any subsequent updates and corrections.

“The moral is often that people remember the rumor, they don’t really remember the debunk, or the entire context,” she said. “In this case, [Caraway’s name] is going to be forever linked with this idea that he was paying people to riot. … The internet is that kind of place … It can be difficult to shed an identifier, especially when your name and location are attached, and not have it affect you, whether it’s true or not.”

Nathan Caraway