While family mourned, left and right seized on Otto Warmbier

In Cincinnati, Otto Warmbier was known as a star student, a good friend and a beloved son.

But on social media and some news outlets, he became something entirely different.

Warmbier, who died after returning home from a year and a half in a North Korean prison, became a symbol for those on the far left and far right - a confirmation of indulgent narratives, real or imagined.

On the right, he became former President Obama's signature failure - a 22-year-old college student left to rot in a brutal nation.

On the left, he became an example of "white privilege." Just this past weekend, a University of Delaware adjunct professor was not rehired after posting on her Facebook page that Warmbier "got exactly what he deserved;" the professor lumped Warmbier in with "young, white, rich, clueless white males" who think they can get away with whatever they want.

Richard Harknett, professor and head of the Political Science Department at the University of Cincinnati, described this sort of activism on social media as "digital tribalism."

"What we’re finding in social media is not a larger act of civic consciousness. It’s hearing people agree with you where people have a social identity; 'You either agree with me or you disagree with me.' They're not seeking to change someone’s mind. It’s about reinforcing your own view," Harknett said.

What the far right said

Josh Caplan, Editor-In-Chief at newly founded Vessel News, published this on his personal Twitter account where it got 2,500 re-tweets.

Vessel News, a "news" website launched in March of 2016, describes itself as "a different kind of news destination, redefining the right-wing media narrative by combining America’s most transformative phenomenons–anti-establishment conservative politics and technological innovation."

Most Twitter posts were less prominent, widespread and far-reaching. 

 

What the far left said

Individuals on the extreme left chose to blame Warmbier for recklessness and supposedly thinking that he was above the law of the land he chose to visit.

Even in Cincinnati, some were vocal when the story was just breaking in the Greater Cincinnati Politics Facebook group page.

"Don't go to foreign countries and break laws and think you're somehow special because you're Christian and white," said one commenter.

"I hope he learned a lesson. Privilege does not exist in foreign countries," said another.

Before Warmbier was released, a 2016 Huffington Post article lambasting Warmbier for his alleged white male privilege was shared more than 6,400 times, drawing national attention.

"That kind of reckless gall is an unfortunate side effect of being socialized first as a white boy, and then as a white man in this country," wrote La Sha.

Larry Wilmore, before his show was canceled, aired a segment dubbed "Straight Outta Pyongyang" in which he criticized Warmbier for being a "frat boy" and said: "It's tough for me to have much sympathy for this guy and his crocodile tears."

Just this past month, Salon published an article "This might be America's biggest idiot frat boy: Meet the UVa student who thought he could pull a prank in North Korea," although it was effectively a write-up of Wilmore's segment. It has since been deleted.

Why do we feel the need to politicize such a sensitive issue to fit agendas and viewpoints?

"It's not to reach out to persuade, or debate because debate always holds the prospect of persuasion," Harknett said.

"Using high profile cases - it’s not about the substance of those cases - you use them as a reference point - a scoring point or an ideological point."

The Warmbier family's politics themselves are opaque. Hamilton County records show Fred Warmbier, Otto Warmbier's father, voted in Republican primaries in 2012 and 2016. But he also donated $2,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund in June of 2016. The fund was a joint fundraising committee that raised over $500 million in 2016, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Follow Monroe Trombly at @MonroeTrombly

Cincinnati Enquirer


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