The viral video of a homeless man’s belongings being burned in a protest sparked an outpouring of support and highlights the embattled media environment of our current moment

The viral video incited anger over who was responsible for the fire, given that it was posted by conspiracy theory outlet InfoWars.

Joseph Wayne Nicholas became a viral star after a heart-wrenching video of his mattress being burned went viral. Screenshot Twitter/@gregreese, TikTok/@uncorked

@JessicaHuseman on Twitter :

Thank you to the people who were concerned about Cale. Someone has mailed a mattress, which I will deliver to him. You are all very kind.


More than 25 million people have viewed a 27-second clip of two men, who are currently experiencing homelessness, having their property set on fire by unknown agitators.

The video was filmed in Austin, Texas, in the midst of protests over the killing of George Floyd. Viral videos are at the core of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Not only was the police brutality of Floyd caught on camera, but recorded moments from protests — including police brutalizing protesters — have dominated the online conversation.

But videos used by both the Black Lives Matter supporters as well as their detractors are often removed from context and used to substantiate posters’ political leanings. This video was no exception.

In this case, the video of the man’s mattress burning was posted by an employee of InfoWars. InfoWars is a popular conspiracy theory website based in Austin and is directed by Alex Jones, who is probably best known for supporting the false theory that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax. In August, InfoWars was deplatformed from nearly every major form of social media. Today, it promotes elements of QAnon, including Pizzagate. Numerous reports detail the dangerous and harmful fake news created and amplified by InfoWars — which led some initial viewers of the mattress burning video to doubt its veracity.

However, ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman confirmed on Twitter that she knew one of the two men whose belongings were burnt featured in the video. She wrote that the man who steps onto the mattress in an attempt to stifle the flames is named Cale, and that he lives in front of her building in Austin.

“The thing that’s troubled me most about these protests is that they are happening on top of a homeless encampment. People’s actual homes have been destroyed. I spoke to Cale this morning, and he was covered in vomit and ash,” Huseman wrote on Twitter. “Is this infowars? Yes. Did this happen as depicted? Yes.”

Huseman then clarified that neither she nor Cale knew who filmed the video or who started the fire, or what their motivations were. But viewers quickly jumped to their own conclusions.

The InfoWars employee’s original tweet contained a clear political motivation, calling the person who burned the mattress a “communist,” seemingly without any evidence. The claim was quickly picked up by other conservative personalities, driving more rage toward the “alt-left” and “antifa” — rage that has been amplified by the president but has yet to be substantiated by any evidence of widespread “antifa” activity.

“Antifa” and “communists” are not organizations like Black Lives Matter. They don’t have leadership and they don’t operate as a group outside of local chapters like New York City Antifa. Furthermore, it’s unclear if the people burning the mattress in Austin have any political leanings or were even incited by political leanings to commit the act.

At the same time that conservatives blamed the “alt-left,” “leftists,” “protesters,” etc., for the burning, liberals blamed InfoWars. The theory that InfoWars employees started the fire and recorded it to make protesters and the Black Lives Matter movement look bad quickly spread, and was amplified by a Twitter-verified surrogate of the Joe Biden presidential campaign. Given the original post, it seems clear that InfoWars was attempting to disparage left-leaning protesters (or “communists”), but there’s currently no concrete evidence that InfoWars actually started the fire or was responsible for filming the video.

Regardless of bad actors amplifying the video, it resulted in an outpouring of support for the men in the video
The clip’s virality resulted in community action for the two men in the video, Cale and his friend, Joseph Wayne Nicholas, who was the man featured in most of the video and who was identified in a GoFundMe that raised more than $5,500. The California-based organizer of that GoFundMe was able to locate Nicholas and included a video response from him, which was filmed in a hotel room where Nicholas was staying.

Huseman also tweeted that a new mattress was mailed to be delivered to Cale.

A TikTok that is now gaining traction shows both men back under the bridge where the video was initially taken, but they now appear to have a new mattress, a tent, clothes, money, and additional new belongings. In the new TikTok, Nicholas thanks his supporters.

“They left me a tent, a new mattress, an air mattress, they brought me food, they brought me clothes, money, you can testify to that. Thank you Austin, I love you Austin, you’re the best,” Nicholas says in the video. “I got no hard feelings at all, it was a bad place at a bad time.”

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