Fake news can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
The coverage of Sunday night’s tragic mass killing at a Quebec City mosque is a case study of the traditional right-wing media’s and the so-called alt-right’s bigoted campaigns of disinformation.
Earlier today, Quebec police corrected reports that there were two suspects in the shooting, stating that one of the two men previously reported to be a suspect was in fact a witness. For hours, the man’s name as well as his alleged Moroccan background had been circulating on social media as a description of one of two shooters.
The only suspect, it turned out, was Alexander Bissonnette, a young, white conservative man who was born and raised in Quebec.
Even after the police issued this clarification, Fox News continued to circulate incorrect information on social media.
This circulation of misinformation from Fox, a major U.S. network, was just the tip of the iceberg. Within minutes of the first reports of the shooting, which killed six and left several in critical condition, dozens of Twitter accounts and websites were spreading false reports that the shooters had been identified as Syrian refugees. Tweets like this one from user Bikers for Liberty, which was retweeted over 900 times, reported “breaking news” that the two shooters had been identified as Syrian refugees.
Late Sunday night, La Presse reported that one of the suspects was of Moroccan origin. This news, which today we learned to be false, was picked up and disseminated by many of the same alt-right and white supremacist social media accounts and websites. Needless to say, few of these sources noted that the alleged ethnic background of the suspect contradicted their earlier false reports involving Syrian refugees.
Whoever leaked the name and background of the presumed suspects last night caused a great deal of confusion. And it’s no wonder the alt-right and white supremacists on social media ran with the false report. Instead of an attack on a mosque potentially motivated by anti-Muslim bigotry, it looked more likely to be an Islamist attack of some sort. (Note: As of publication, police have still not released any information on the suspect’s motivation.)
For right-wing ideologues, nothing would have been more timely and welcoming than the news that the shooting was a violent inter-Muslim affair. Not only would something like this have absolved them of their own responsibility in stoking anti-Muslim sentiment in Quebec and in North America in general, but it would have served as another pretext to point more fingers at the minority Muslim community. Those who reported the suspect-who-turned-out-to-be-a-witness’ name and background were either consciously racist or highly incompetent and ill-equipped to handle such a sensitive piece of unconfirmed information.
For those who prefer to deal with facts, a clearer picture is now emerging. The prime suspect’s name is Alexandre Bissonnette. He’s a 27-year-old Quebecer. More facts will emerge in the hours and days ahead. Meanwhile, thanks to racists on social media and grossly irresponsible media outlets such as Fox News, many lies have travelled halfway around the world and then some.