When people on the internet decide you’re guilty of being horrible, not even the facts can keep them from trying to destroy you. But one family managed to make some good come of their moment in the public’s crosshairs.
Saturday, January 19, 2019, started out like any other winter day in the tristate—gray and rainy with temperatures hovering just above freezing—but it was never going to be a normal day for Michael Hodge.
“Normal” to that point in Michael’s life looked something like this: 18 years living in the same suburban home with his family in northern Kentucky, eight years at St. Joseph School in Crescent Springs, and three and a half years so far at Covington Catholic, the all-boys high school where he was now a senior. Interspersed throughout all that were practices for track and field; meetings and events for his church youth group, CovCath’s Culture Club (a cultural and culinary diversity group), and the Drug Free Club of America; volunteer ski trips with Special Olympics kids; cooking family meals with his dad, John, president of a Northern Kentucky construction company; cooking and serving meals at the Ronald McDonald House and the Mary Rose Mission, a soup kitchen in Florence; and a future at Cincinnati State’s Midwest Culinary Institute, where he’d applied and been accepted.
Either way, in the Hodge household that Saturday, “normal” was supposed to be a happy sort of chaos in preparation for Michael’s brother’s wedding that evening, where Michael and his other brother, Andrew, would be groomsmen. His mom, Pamela, an attorney with a downtown Cincinnati law firm, was getting ready to head to the hair salon. The men of the house were watching pregame coverage for the Auburn–UK basketball game while assembling their tuxedos. And Michael was just learning that a social media storm with his name on it had been brewing overnight. Five hundred miles away, in Washington, D.C., a boy wearing a Make America Great Again hat had been filmed standing face-to-face with an American Indian man named Nathan Phillips after the March for Life the day before.
In the hasty, emotion-driven, and oftentimes inexplicable world of social media, this three minute, 44-second–long video clip would somehow captivate the imaginations of viewers worldwide. Within hours, the clip would go viral on social media and the boy in it would be labeled “appalling,” “disgusting,” “disturbing,” “entitled,” “worthless,” “disgraceful,” “disrespectful,” “ignorant,” “a punk,” “punchable,” a “rapist,” a “little s*** [who’s] been told he’s important and wonderful,” and “a vile racist.” That hat-wearing boy’s social media accounts would overflow with hate-filled messages from people he’d never met. He and his schoolmates would receive death threats. And, for days afterwards, a raging social media mob would identify him, wrongly, as Michael Hodge, instead of Nicholas Sandmann, a CovCath junior Hodge didn’t know.
Trying to find the origins of something that happened online is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Multiple media outlets point to an Arizona State University lecturer as being among the first people to incorrectly label the boy in the clip as Hodge, but even she claims to have been reposting something she’d seen somewhere else. Either way, the Facebook post read like this: “The name of the kid in front is Michael Hodge. He wants to be a chef and plans to go to Cincinnati State next year.” Beneath that was a list of names and contact information for administrators at Cincinnati State, Covington Catholic High School, and the Diocese of Covington.
As so often happens on social media channels, the information spread like wildfire, misidentified as gospel truth. But Michael, who’d pretty much been off-line because of the wedding festivities, knew nothing about the firestorm until he started getting texts from friends Saturday morning, saying “‘Hey! Have you checked Twitter? They’re saying it’s you,’” Michael remembers. “And I was like: ‘What’s me?’ I didn’t know what they were talking about.” A quick peek at his accounts filled him in on what had happened in D.C. What he didn’t understand was why people were saying the kid in the video was him. “I was just very confused,” says Michael.
Blindsided—“Michael doesn’t seek any attention at all, doesn’t like the limelight,” says Pamela—he didn’t reply publicly to or post anything online, but his friends immediately began rushing to his defense, telling anyone spreading false information that Michael wasn’t the guy in the video. Their replies and pleas were ridiculed and ignored; within hours, the story had gained social media traction the way a hurricane does just before hitting land.
Someone altered the CovCath Wikipedia page to read: “Covington Catholic White Male Entitlement High School.” Others presented “proof” of the school’s toxic culture by posting stories about a CovCath alum who’d recently been arrested for rape. Still others likened the boy in the video clip to Hazel Bryan, a white Arkansas woman photographed screaming at African-American Elizabeth Eckford in 1957 as they walked into a newly desegregated high school. Throughout it all, Michael’s was the name affiliated with the boy in the video.
While the other groomsmen were getting ready, says Michael, “I was just kinda always on my phone, checking to see if it was any better, any worse. Obviously, it only got worse.” On any other day, he might have told his parents right away; but, figuring a social media crisis was the last thing they wanted to hear about on the day of his brother’s wedding, Michael kept quiet.
It didn’t matter, though, because, while Pamela was at the salon, her friends began texting her as well, saying “something really horrible’s happening and they’re accusing Michael of being the person,” she says. When she got home, she, John, and Michael watched the video clip and read some of the posts that had misidentified the boy as Michael.
At this point, no one except the CovCath students and chaperones in D.C. really knew what had actually happened; still, the Hodges were confused about how Michael could have been blamed by so many for something he didn’t do. They were also “a little anxious,” says Pamela, about the increasingly hostile rhetoric online surrounding all of CovCath, and especially Michael. But after a short discussion, she told her youngest son, “This looks like a non-event, this will surely blow over.”
In retrospect, she adds, “How wrong we were.”
It used to be that teenagers used social media to cyberbully peers. Today, social justice warriors—like-minded adults, mostly—band together online to enforce their agendas and punish those who disagree. It’s become such a problem that Chris Wetherell, the man who built the “retweet” feature on Twitter (a function that allows users to instantly forward someone else’s post to their own followers), says he deeply regrets the impulsivity that feature promotes, likening it in a July BuzzFeed article to “hand[ing] a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”
In Michael’s case, that weapon was strapped to a bullet train, impossible to grasp or even control. Local restaurateur Jeff Ruby tried to help by inviting Michael to Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse before the wedding (a friend told Ruby about Michael’s plight and his culinary aspirations); they took a picture together, holding that day’s Cincinnati Enquirer, to prove Michael wasn’t in D.C. Ruby tweeted the photo out to his 71,500 followers Saturday at 3:22 p.m., hoping to inspire a viral correction, but it didn’t help. In fact, says Michael, as the day wore on, things “only got worse.”
Strangers messaged him relentlessly and posted comments demanding he either admit to being the boy in the video or release the name of whoever was. (“No way am I going to do that,” Pamela recalls Michael saying. “They’re just going to harass him like they’re harassing me.”) On the way over to the bride’s house to get ready, Pamela answered a cell phone call from an unknown number. “It was someone yelling at me and berating me about what a horrible child I had, what a horrible mother I was. I was just—” Pamela pauses when telling the story, because even now, months later, it still doesn’t make sense. “I was speechless, shocked. When I recovered, I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And [the person said] ‘you’re horrible’ and ‘you’re just trying to cover up for your [expletive] son.’ And I said, ‘My son is sitting next to me right now.’”
Determined not to let the incident ruin the wedding, the Hodges pressed on. But while they prepared for the ceremony at St. Henry’s in Elsmere and the steady January rain outside morphed into a torrential downpour, people on both traditional and social media nationwide went berserk.
Some labeled Michael a “piece of shit.” Some tagged Cincinnati State in posts, demanding the school “publicly retract” his acceptance. Others called for users to doxx everyone involved (i.e., release their personal information—addresses, phone numbers, bank accounts, etc.—on social media, presumably so people could harass and even physically confront them). At one point, #MichaelHodge was the number one trending hashtag on Twitter worldwide.
While the wedding guests celebrated in Devou Park’s Drees Pavilion, Michael and a cousin, who also attends CovCath, sat off to the side, keeping a close eye on what was happening online. Michael found himself getting more and more upset, but he’d promised his parents he wouldn’t respond to anyone on social media. One of the guests tried to tell Pamela things were getting out of control. She politely thanked them but said, “There’s nothing I can do about it right now.”
The torrential rains that had started before the reception grew into a raging blizzard by the time it was over; Ubers and Lyfts refused to come up the hill to pick up guests, so the Hodges spent over an hour shuttling them home; some even spent the night in the family’s basement. Finally, well after midnight, Pamela and John had time to review what had happened online. Capping off a day overflowing with so many different emotions, they were now devastated.
“People would be saying hateful things, like, ‘No one wants to eat his hate-filled food, let’s dash his career hopes,’” says Pamela. “Or ‘Life as you knew it, Bud, is over.’ And ‘Kiss all your aspirations goodbye.’ And then you would see, ‘Here’s his mom’s number and e-mail—let’s tell her what we think,’ and ‘Twitter, do your thing.’ And I’m thinking Twitter’s ‘thing’ must be to destroy people’s reputations and to cause heartache to people and try to destroy them.”
All of it was disturbing, she says, but the doxxing “literally made me sick, because you think Why are they publishing the home address? As you think about the implications of that, coupled with people who are threatening to harm or kill you—it was very frightening.”
From the very first minute, says Michael, the CovCath boys themselves rallied around each other. Michael says he reached out to Sandmann via Snapchat, saying, “Hey, sorry for all this.” In fact, he notes, “we were all just reaching out to him, supporting him.”
Unfortunately, administrators at both CovCath and the Archdiocese of Covington—barraged with threats, blindsided by the onslaught of media and social media attacks, and feeling pressured by the angry mob to do something—had released a letter almost immediately, saying, “We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students toward Nathan Phillips specifically and Native Americans in general,” and mentioning the possibility of expulsion for students involved.
Pamela slept for just a few hours; when she woke at 4 a.m., she found John on his iPad “just extremely, extremely upset,” she says through tears. “Michael is my child who has given us no problems and has really been just a great, well-behaved, loving, kind young man. Obviously we were concerned about his physical safety and the emotional impact. But the damage to his reputation really bothered us, and it about killed John.”
Five hours later, the local police were knocking on the Hodges’ front door, checking to be sure the family was all right, saying they’d be patrolling the neighborhood in case anyone tried to make good on their threats. A couple of hours after that, a houseful of guests arrived for a post-wedding brunch. Finally, at 3 p.m. on Sunday, “the minute the last guest left,” says Pamela, “we closed the door, exhausted, and I said to John, ‘What are we going to do?’”
Save for a few social media “thank-yous” to people who supported him early on, Michael made no public statements on social media or otherwise throughout the entire ordeal; neither did his parents. But by Sunday evening, Michael’s oldest brother, Andrew, had had enough. At 5:38 p.m., he published a string of nine tweets, summarizing every unbelievable thing that had happened to the family over the prior 41 hours. His final three read:
You reach out saying how “terrible” of a family we are, defame us, threaten us, and you know nothing about us. Yet you circulate the information and spam us like it is the only “truth” that has ever existed in your lives.
You condemned my parents for being horrible role models, yet you jumped to conclusions and were ready to string up an innocent dude? Is that what you are teaching your children/family? I sure hope not…
It saddens me people have nothing better to do on Saturday then scour the internet for drama & then dig up info on a family & rile up an army to attack them. Hold yourselves to a higher standard, set a better example for your sphere of influence, we will all be better off for it.
Andrew’s posts blew up, earning a combined total of 158,000 likes, 44,500 retweets, and more than 5,000 comments on Twitter alone. Still, the Hodges had a major mess on their hands.
John Hodge’s first call was to Bob Rowe, the CovCath principal, who by then knew Michael wasn’t in D.C. and said “come meet with us on Monday [Martin Luther King Day] and we’ll talk security. And call me any time of the day and night, whatever you need,” recalls Pamela. (Due to pending litigation, Rowe was unable to comment when contacted for this story.) The family was also fielding dozens of requests from major national media outlets asking for interviews. They were referred to a public relations specialist, who helped the Hodges navigate the unfamiliar waters of instant, unwanted notoriety.
By now, Sandmann had been clearly identified as the boy in question and a full-length (1 hour, 46 minute) video putting the smaller clip in context had begun circulating online. But the anger and judgment only grew. Locally, everyone from the Covington mayor to local opinion writers and even a freshman at a neighboring Catholic school jumped with gusto onto the CovCath-bashing bandwagon, penning public letters and op-eds against the students.
For days, Pamela continued receiving voicemails and e-mails, “ninety-nine percent of them hateful, harassing, just using horribly crude, nasty language, and some of them threatening violence against me or Michael or both of us personally. After I listened to two of them, I was sobbing.” (All told, she’d receive 100 such messages.) When John and Pamela asked Michael to go through his social media messages to see if there were any threats in those, he said he couldn’t. When they asked why, he said, “I have like 10,000 just [on] Instagram alone.” The fact that much of this happened after Sandmann had clearly been identified as the boy in the video and had spoken publicly about it on national television “was astonishing to me,” says Pamela.
School was out for Martin Luther King Day and was closed Tuesday because of threats. That same day, the diocese and school commissioned a full scale, independent investigation into what happened in D.C. Finally, on Wednesday, January 23, five days after the incident, CovCath re-opened. But Michael was still receiving so many threats he had to have a police escort to school every day that week. Pamela also enlisted the help of his older siblings so someone would be home at all times when Michael was there. “I didn’t want him going anywhere,” says Pamela. “I didn’t want him being alone. And he’s feeling, I think, penalized and punished for something he didn’t do.”
Michael, meantime, wasn’t scared of going places alone. He wasn’t worried about his standing with Cincinnati State, either, because he hadn’t done anything wrong. “I was mainly just angry the whole time,” he says, noting he also suddenly saw social media and news media alike in a new and highly disturbing light. For 96 harrowing hours, the family felt engulfed by a dark cloud. “It’s like you’re watching this horrible train wreck and you want to turn away and you can’t,” says Pamela. “People are constantly bringing your attention to it. It’s being discussed everywhere you go.”
The same day school re-opened, the Hodges hit rock bottom. With still no end in sight, says Pamela, “We were angry. We were upset. We were depressed. And we were worried.” But finally, on an hour-long drive to visit her parents, Pamela—praying for the strength “to get beyond this”—came up with an idea.
Pretty much the minute the e-mail came through from John Hodge, Cindy Carris picked up the phone and called him back. John’s company, Century Construction, had done extensive renovations on Carris’s Mary Rose Mission building—a Florence soup kitchen that serves dinner to food-insecure clients 365 days a year—and she knew his mother, a prominent figure in the local Catholic community, well. But those weren’t the only reasons she jumped. She, like just about everyone else in Northern Kentucky that week, was reeling from the seemingly endless social- and news-media attacks on CovCath.
“It was like a dark blanket over this area,” says Carris, who noted how devastated area Catholic school kids were, many of whom, like Michael, volunteered at the Mission. “And not only the kids, but the parents and the aunts and the uncles. And our priest. And the parochial vicar of CovCath. We’re so used to seeing things nationally on the news and not understanding that there are people behind those faces that hurt.”
While volunteers prepped for the day’s meal outside her office, Carris listened as John told her about the Hodge family’s plan. Turns out, when Andrew defended Michael in that string of tweets, some people suggested his parents set up a GoFundMe account so supporters could donate money for Michael’s culinary school tuition. He told his parents, but they said no. “It’s gratifying that people want to be helpful,” says Pamela, “but we’re fortunate, we can afford to pay for Michael’s education.” And besides, “that just feels wrong to us. We’re not going to benefit from this.”
But the idea of a fund-raiser in general stuck with her, so much so that when she uttered that prayer in the car on the way to her parents’ house, it suddenly all made sense. “I know this sounds Pollyanna-ish, but I think it was divinely inspired,” she says, “This idea of Can we do some fund-raiser to take the focus off all this hatred and try to change this dynamic?”
As soon as she got home, she told both Michael and John. “Michael loved the idea,” she says, “totally embraced it,” as did John. They first discussed having multiple beneficiaries but in the end settled on the Mary Rose Mission, not only because of the remodeling work John had done there, but also because of Michael’s volunteer work and the way the Mission spoke to his passion for cooking.
On the phone that day, John Hodge told Carris the family wanted to open a GoFundMe page to benefit the Mary Rose Mission. They weren’t certain of the details yet and had no idea how much money—if any—it would raise, but John wanted to know if she was OK with the plan. “I was sort of like Is this a trick question?” says Carris. “I kept on thinking Why wouldn’t I be? I would be honored. Anything we can do to help disintegrate this blanket of evil.”
“After the fact,” she notes, people asked if she was worried about “getting involved in the dirt” of the whole incident or suffering repercussions from the people who’d so viciously attacked Michael and CovCath. “This is God’s mission,” she replied without hesitation. “I dare ’em. You [want to] mess with God directly, go ahead—go right to the source, buddy. I wanna see how that turns out for you.”
On Friday, January 25—the day the GoFundMe was to go live—Pamela woke up in a panic, afraid it was the wrong thing to do. Would the family be reopening a festering wound that had not yet begun to heal? Would they be re-exposing themselves to even more hatred and anger? They’d spent the entire day before setting up the GoFundMe—something none of them had ever done before—but still, it wasn’t too late to back out.
Automatically, she checked her e-mail. This time, instead of threats from strangers, she found the Daily Reflection e-mail she’d subscribed to from Dynamic Catholic. In it was a quote from the book Holiness Revolution by Dan Dematte, typed over an image of a woman standing in utter darkness during a blizzard, save for a lone streetlight above her head. “At every moment of every day,” it read, “Jesus is calling his disciples to be a light in the darkness…he is calling you, and he is calling you today.”
The GoFundMe went live as planned. Their pie-in-the-sky goal was $15,000, but “it was entirely possible [the GoFundMe] wouldn’t receive a warm response,” says Pamela, or “that it would have been a nice gesture but nothing more than that.” Even so, they pressed forward, making a $250 donation of their own (and also committing to cover GoFundMe’s $600 operating cost, “so every penny donated would go to the Mary Rose Mission,” says Pamela). What happened next was straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Donations started rolling in right away: $50, $10, $30, $100. Some came from people they knew, some came from people they’d never met. Michael’s grade school art teacher donated; so did kids from CovCath. Dozens of people gave $100; multiple people gave $250. And they didn’t just donate money, either—a bunch of people left comments, too, like:
“Thank you for turning this into something positive for others”
“With a spirit that will not die” (CovCath’s motto)
“We are proud of the courage and faith of the Cov Catholic students”
“Wonderful cause, wonderful family!”
“God bless you, from one CCH family to another”
“Stick with love!”
“The world needs more compassion”
The Hodges found themselves checking the site almost constantly, texting each other, “saying Oh my gosh, go check it out and see what just happened!” says Pamela. “As much as the hateful messages impacted you, [the supportive comments] impacted you more.”
Without “any advertising at all,” says Pamela, 251 people donated $18,100 in just three days, surpassing the goal; even more donors came forward after the GoFundMe closed. Eleven days later, on February 8, John, Pamela, Michael, and his two older brothers presented a check for $21,170 to Carris at the Mary Rose mission—no pomp or circumstance, no audience, no media. Just the family, Carris, and a giant check. Someone took a photo with Pamela’s phone. The next day, The Cincinnati Enquirer published the photo along with a story about the family’s experience and the GoFundMe.
“I get choked up” thinking about it, says Carris, who, just like the Hodges, checked the page several times a day as the balance and comments grew. She says the money will be used to start up a shelter for people experiencing temporary or unexpected homelessness. “It was all the love and support you normally don’t get to see. To get to see the light in the darkness, that’s what it’s all about.”
For Michael’s part, even though he knew he’d always had the support of his community—“lots of people know what CovCath’s about; they always supported us through it and had our backs,” he says—“It felt a lot better to focus on this instead” of all the anger and attacks.
The same day the GoFundMe went live, Covington Bishop Roger Foys had learned enough to issue a letter to CovCath parents apologizing to Sandmann and “all CovCath families who have felt abandoned during this ordeal.” Three weeks later, Covington Catholic held an all-school mass. The chamber choir sang. The students, clad in oxfords, ties, and dress pants, were both “reverent” and “respectful,” says Pamela. Afterwards, Principal Rowe spoke. Despite all that had happened, she says he talked about still seeing the good in people, about turning the other cheek, about being proud of CovCath and about supporting each other like brothers, no matter what.
“And then he talked about forgiveness,” she says, “that it’s the natural inclination to want to lash out at people that hurt you, but that’s not who we are and that’s not what we’re about. ‘We’re going to take the high road,’” she recalls him saying. “‘We’re going to maintain our integrity. We are going to pray for the people who hate us—and there are people who hate us. And we’re not going to let them destroy us.’”
At the end, “you were just blown away,” says Pamela through tears. “Those boys gave him a standing ovation. All the adults were crying. It was a very, very beautiful thing.”
On February 11, the Covington Diocese announced the formal end of its independent investigation and issued a letter exonerating all CovCath students and noting that the young men’s “reaction to the situation was, given the circumstances, expected and one might even say laudatory.” Three months later, Michael graduated from CovCath and headed to the state track and field meet. He spent his summer doing construction work for his dad and going on a mission trip to Tampa, where his youth group helped with maintenance and repairs at a Catholic school. A few months ago, he began his studies at Cincinnati State, where he intends to double major in pastry and culinary studies.
When asked if he’s fully moved on from the doxxing, threats, and attacks, Michael says, “It sticks with me a little bit, but not really too much at all.” That said, it “has made me a lot more skeptical of social media. That, and the media, too. [It] just makes me look into facts behind different stories rather than just taking their word for it.”
Did the whole experience ruin his senior year of high school? “Even though all this happened, I would say this was probably my favorite year at CovCath,” he says, citing how the sense of brotherhood he’d always felt there somehow strengthened, in spite of everything.
Given all the Catholic undertones, there are lots of biblical stories that could speak to the lessons this whole event imparts. But maybe the moral of this particular story is better interpreted through the work of an extraordinary writer who lived and died long before the internet and social media were even invented. Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic, built a successful secular career writing fictional stories in the 1950s and ’60s about self-righteous people who ultimately became the very things they despised. O’Connor’s fiction was often misinterpreted as dark, for the tragic ends her characters almost always met, but in truth her overwhelming message was that healing and grace could, and often did, come from suffering and evil.
On Wednesday, January 23—the same day the Hodges hit rock bottom and Pamela came up with the idea to do a fund-raiser—the college lecturer who’d initially helped spread Michael’s name online posted a 252-word apology on her Facebook page that garnered little attention. Turns out, Andrew had reached out to her directly, explaining how the misinformation she’d helped spread had devastated the family. In the post, the lecturer took full responsibility for what she’d done, writing, “I am horrified at my own behavior as there is a child out there trying to live his life and was wrongly identified. I am now a party of the cause of his fear and misery…I am now guilty of behaviors I normally disdain. It is wrong. I did wrong to this young man.”
She is only one person of the thousands who rushed to condemn Hodge, Sandmann, and their peers. And yet, through O’Connor’s lens, maybe her bold example, paired with the GoFundMe and the way the CovCath boys grew so strong together, is nothing short of a beacon of hope.
Attorneys L. Lin Wood and Todd McMurty have pursued defamation lawsuits on behalf of Nicholas Sandmann and his parents against The Washington Post, CNN, and NBC. The Washington Post suit was initially dismissed, but was partially reopened in late October 2019; CNN and NBC have filed motions to dismiss those suits. In August, Ft. Mitchell attorney Kevin L. Murphy filed a defamation lawsuit on behalf of eight unnamed CovCath students against a dozen public figures in connection with the Washington, D.C., incident. The defendants include Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, New York Times Correspondent Maggie Haberman, author Reza Aslan, and comedian Kathy Griffin.
Editor’s Note: In early November 2019, a federal judge dismissed Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Debra Haaland from the defamation lawsuit filed by the eight unnamed CovCath students.