As one of the worst mass shootings in Canada unfolded Sunday evening in Quebec City, news outlets around the world struggled to get a handle on the facts. Hours before names of suspects were made public, media reported that at least two masked gunman stormed the mosque that was the scene of the carnage, one of whom was said to be a Muslim man. That man would eventually be revealed to be an innocent bystander who got caught up in the chaos.
That was just one part of the misinformation that would take hold. Fox News and others circulated false statements about the attack, and White House press secretary Sean Spicer even used it to justify President Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations. We trace how a narrative morphed and was exploited to suit right-wing interests at a time when there are heightened fears around Islamophobia and the credibility of journalism is at stake.
Gunmen and deaths
Even hours after the initial social media and local French news reports of the mosque shooting, there was very little clarity and many contradicting facts, particularly among English media.
The mosque’s president told Quebec reporters that five worshippers had been killed, and it was around 9:30 p.m. that police confirmed multiple deaths, but wouldn’t say how many or what weapon was used. Local French outlets reported, based on anonymous sources, that there were at least two and maybe three suspects in the shooting involving an AK-47. Reuters reported there were three gunmen. Police had not officially confirmed any of this at the time.
It would still be hours before most English-language Canadian television news stations picked up on the story at all. And when they did, the story was given a cursory treatment. The Globe and Mail’s John Doyle wrote a scathing article the following day about this lack of response, calling it a “catastrophic broadcast failure and, in particular, a disgraceful showing by CBC-TV news,” the nation’s taxpayer funded broadcaster.
Fox news and fake news
By Sunday night and into the next morning, right-wing trolls were almost gleefully fueling false rumors that the shooting was an act of jihadism, possibly carried out by a Syrian refugee. Right-wing groups and Reddit users quoted a fake “police radio” report naming two random individuals who “entered Canada as refugees last week.” None of this is based in reality.
Quebec police eventually confirmed they had arrested two suspects, but did not release their names. A witness told CBC’s French language service Radio-Canada that two masked people came into the mosque, one with a Quebecois accent. The witness said this person yelled “Allahu akbar” before shooting, which further inflamed the anti-Muslim rhetoric going around.
Richard Spencer, the notorious white nationalist and self-proclaimed leader of the so-called American “alt-right” movement, also jumped on the bandwagon with his own racist tweets.
After 10:30 p.m., a fake Reuters Twitter account began tweeting photos of white men with the caption that authorities had identified two “white supremacists” as the suspects. Again, none of this was true. Even so, it was retweeted by American commentator Pamela Geller, known for her staunchly anti-Islam views, who said Reuters was lying and that the attacker must be Muslim.
The Daily Beast also ran a story with the fake names from the fake Reuters account:
President Donald Trump’s trusted advisor Kellyanne Conway followed suit in a Tweet that remains live, seemingly unable to compute how such an act could, in fact, be perpetrated by white people:
Police held a press conference on Monday morning confirming they were holding two suspects in custody, and they were not looking for anyone else. All officers would say is that the pair were in their late 20s or early 30s. They wouldn’t publicly confirm their names, although French media reported that they were Alexandre Bissonnette and Mohamed Khadir. The Associated Press reported that the second man’s last name was spelled “el Khadir,” citing Quebec City court workers. Other reports said he was of Moroccan descent.
Fox News, the Daily Mail, and the like, ran with this. The incorrect information is still floating around social media.
Un des deux suspects de l’attentat contre la mosquée de Sainte-Foy est d’origine marocaine, a appris La Presse
Once the suspects were named, Spencer meekly backpedaled, though left his original tweets untouched.
Geller wrote a blog post that morning citing the Fox News report, and declared: “the shooters in the Quebec mosque attack are Muslim…it’s safe to say Alexandre Bissonnette is a Muslim convert. They should be using his real name, his Arabic name.” None of these falsehoods have been corrected.
At noon, Quebec police tweeted that only one of the two people they originally said were suspects was still being treated as a suspect. The other, still unnamed, was now considered a witness. Neither the police nor the crown attorney would say what charges were being pursued either.
Some biographical information about Alexandre Bissonnette started to emerge, including that he may have espoused right-wing ideology, based on interviews with friends and acquaintances. His now deleted Facebook page showed he “liked” far-right French leader Marine Le Pen’s Facebook page, as well as President Trump’s.
Trumped up facts
After Donald Trump phoned Justin Trudeau to offer condolences and assistance in the wake of the shooting, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer took the opportunity to use the attack to justify the President’s new policies. Although he didn’t specify which ones, he likely was referring to Trump’s sweeping executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.
“It’s a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant, and why the president is taking steps to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to our nation’s safety and security,” Spicer said during his press briefing. All of this despite the fact that police had already clarified only one shooter was involved, with reports circulating widely alleging it was Bissonnette, a Quebecer with far right sympathies.
The truth comes out
It was finally confirmed by reporters at the Quebec City courthouse around 5 p.m. that 27-year-old Bissonnette was the lone suspect in the shooting at the mosque in his hometown. He faces six counts of first-degree murder, and five counts of attempted murder with a restricted firearm.
Shortly after that, Khadir, whose real last name was then revealed to be Belkhadir, told reporters from his home about his harrowing journey the night before: going from an innocent man helping fellow worshippers who had been shot at the mosque, to being accused of terrorism by the world’s media and spending a night in jail.
The 29-year-old said he was at the mosque when the shooting erupted, and was giving first aid to a friend when police approached him. “I didn’t know it was a police officer. I thought it was a shooter who had come back,” he said. Terrified, he tried to run away toward the parking lot. “When they saw me running they thought I was a suspect,” he said.
Throughout the night in jail, he thought his dreams and reputation would be sullied. “I thought I couldn’t be able to work, that I would no longer be able to go to university, that I no longer would be able to do what I’ve always dreamed of,” he said.