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How Speculation Dragged Dangerous Stereotypes into the Munich Mall Shooting

The ripple effect following a mass shooting is horrifying enough without uninformed people wading in, offering their unconfirmed opinions as fact.
July 23, 2016, 12:22pm

Wer als erster einen iranischen Schiiten mit einer sunnitischen Terrorgruppe in Verbindung bringt, kriegt 1000 Homeland-Punkte! — Grumpy Merkel (@GrumpyMerkel)July 23, 2016

This @GrumpyMerkel parody account tweet, translated: "The first to connect an Iranian Shiite with a Sunni terrorist group gets 1,000 Homeland points! #munich"

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

What exactly happened in Munich? This question hung in the air for hours after shots were fired at the Olympia mall in the southern German city on Friday night. At a press conference in the early hours of Saturday morning, the police were able to provide a few answers: nine people lost their lives and many more were injured. They no longer considered the threat active as the alleged shooter had committed suicide. The police said investigations so far showed the 18-year-old German-Iranian to be a lone perpetrator.

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But hours passed between the first tweets the Munich police sent about the events at the mall and the press conference. "The suspects are still on the run. Please avoid public places. #munich #oez #gunfire" said one early English-language tweet, while the account provided updates in German, English, Turkish and French. Still, the public knew very little about what was going on. While the police followed up on reports of further shots being fired in the city, rubberneckers, conspiracy theorists, and American presidential candidates came crawling out of the woodwork.

Fear causes people to become short-sighted and stupid. Being afraid is perfectly understandable. Sharing videos of the shooting on WhatsApp or firing off baseless theories on Twitter isn't. The only thing that's even less okay is abusing the victims and the chaos to further your own agenda.

Enter Christan Lüth, spokesman of the right-wing, Eurosceptic party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland or "Alternative for Germany"). His original tweet, saying: "Vote #AfD! Shots fired at Olympia mall: deaths in Munich – police call it acute terror" has since been deleted.

The regional AfD leader for the state of Saxony-Anhalt also felt compelled to explain things before the police could:

Merkel-Einheitspartei: danke für den Terror in Deutschland und Europa!

— André Poggenburg (@PoggenburgAndre)July 22, 2016

In English, the tweet loosely read: "To Merkel's Unity Party: Thanks for the terror in Germany and Europe!" Another one went further. "AfD Munich: Our sympathies for the bereaved and the injured," it read, "our disgust for the Merkelites and leftist idiots who have a share in the blame!"

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Even US presidential candidate Donald Trump seized the opportunity to tastelessly try and ramp up fear and uncertainty after the shooting, implying the perpetrator's motivations came from beyond the shores of "all civilised people".

One of CNN's journalists doesn't exactly deserve a gold star for their reaction either. Jake Tapper, a senior Washington correspondent, attributed a line about the "shooting suspects" having Islamist backgrounds to the Munich police, which was later found not to be accurate. Tapper then retracted the information shared in the original tweet.

But there were also journalists in Germany who didn't feel like waiting for information from the authorities. One local paper openly speculated if this was "a high price" the city had to pay "for the warm welcome it extended to refugees" but later retracted the piece.

In the middle of all of this, one person stood out as possibly the most composed and professional of all: Munich's police spokesman Marcus da Gloria Martins. Even under the exceptional circumstances, while being bombarded with tips about further attacks in Munich, he answered all questions, repeatedly if necessary. When asked for information he could not share with any certainty, he gave this reply: "I couldn't tell you that. I would have to guess, and that would be highly unprofessional." Exactly.