Disinformation literacy
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Westlake High School – To Russia and Back

Why is Russia Today so interested in Rob Astorino’s alma mater?

During the opening week of classes, a teacher at Westlake High School gave students a Document Based Question (DBQ) exercise. The purpose of this type of exercise is to elicit discussion. It is common for DBQ’s to be based on current social events, and the topic of this one was police brutality. The teacher chose an illustration that depicted a history of white supremacy in the United States, with the last image evoking the recent George Floyd killing.

This was an exercise designed to elicit discussion for high school students. Why are right-wing trolls and the authors of Russia Today so interested in this story?

Some parents of Westlake students were irate when they saw the illustration. They brought their anger to a Board meeting and interrogated the school as to whether the teacher had a specific Black Lives Matter agenda.
A public Facebook group was started, ostensibly made up of parents united in anger against the teacher. Within days the group had close to 550 members. There are only 552 students in the entire school.

Then the dots lining up to be connected started appearing…as the story took a short trip across the world.

The Facebook group was started by Steve Kardian, a Fox News commentator who is also on the Donald Trump Advisory Committee.

The Westlake High School story was covered by the New York Post, and notably includes comments from a Trump ally, Rob Astorino, who lives in a nearby town and is a current candidate for a New York State Senate representing Westchester. In the New York Post article, Astorino is quoted as saying, “Parents don’t send their children to school to learn to hate America and our police.” Astorino has made unequivocal support for police one of his key platform issues in a bitter race he is waging against an incumbent State Senator. This is a talking point we hear regularly from Trump.

What Astorino did not make clear in the interview is that he had attended Westlake High School and still lives in the township.

To Florida. After publishing, the New York Post article was quickly amplified on Twitter by right wing influencers. One influencer was Chuck Callesto, a former Congressional candidate from Florida’s 3rd district. Callesto takes the argument one step further saying the exercise likened the police to the KKK. Why was Callesto so interested in Westchester County?

Whatever his interest, Callesto’s tweets were a source of amplification, although the Hoaxy analysis diagram shows that many of the retweets were likely bots (in red).

To Russia. That’s a lot of bots springing into automated action for the Westlake High School story. Was it the trolls that attracted the attention of Russia Today to this story? Or the other way around? On September 14, Russia Today dedicated a full story to Westlake High School, pushing the angle that the police were being likened to the KKK and featured that in the article’s title, Parents are outraged over NY high school’s use of ‘cops=KKK’ cartoon – but the indoctrination it promotes is more sinister.

The Russia Today article also included a tweet by a well-known right-wing, highly prolific and provocative anti-Islamic troll, Amy Mek. Of all of the coverage the story has gotten, why Amy Mek? The Russian agenda of furthering America’s divisions appears very much intact.

To Washington DC. The use of educator as another factor in an agenda of division was also being championed by Trump. On September 17, Trump signed an Executive Order that calls for creating a committee to promote patriotic education and “defend history from the left.” While he didn’t cite Westlake directly, he verbalized his outrage citing a “liberal agenda of teaching hate.”

Is this to imply that teaching students to examine different aspects of current events or examining cultural byproducts and artifacts – even controversial ones is unpatriotic? Certainly in a democracy educators would want to stimulate discussion about different points of view? Isn’t it necessary for members of a democratic society to be able to talk about points of disagreement, and even some of society’s flaws? Isn’t this part of learning?

Back to Westchester. Trump’s calls for patriotic education were not lost on some of the members of the Facebook group that had been organized to protest the teacher who had introduced the curriculum. A post from the White House quickly found its way to the Facebook group’s stream, where it found further traction among the members.

Is this a string of coincidences? Or is there a connection that explains the escalation of Westlake High School around the world and then into the Oval Office?

Is it a coincidence that Rob Astorino also attended this high school?

Postscript –

What is it about Westchester? Three incidents in one week, all targeting racial division. Civil rights protests are blamed for violence and unrest in a narrative that promotes an agenda that seeks to stir up division. These are the themes as we head into the most divisive election of our lifetimes.

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