What Van Attack Conspiracies Tell Us About the Internet's Darkest Corners
Several established conspiracy subcultures jumped at an opportunity to push media-discrediting agendas.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
As with any other event that dominates the news cycle, conspiracy theorists have spent hours upon hours attempting to distort the few facts that we know about the Toronto van attack.
On Monday, shortly after lunch, a man in a white rented van ran down pedestrians, killing ten and injuring 14. Alek Minassian was arrested and charged with ten counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder.
The vast majority of resulting conspiracies haven’t been birthed out of the theorist spotting something odd or out of place in the information about the attack. Instead, several established conspiracy subcultures are twisting facts, distorting narratives, or just making things up to push their agendas.
In the minutes and hours following the attack, much of the alt-right and alt-lite crowd rushed to incorrectly claim this was the result of Islamist terrorism. A headline on InfoWars still says the attacker was “Islamic.” When that narrative was proven false, well, some in this sphere decided to simply continue on with it.
One of the most popular Toronto van attack conspiracies pushing an anti-Islam agenda comes from Jihad Watch’s Robert Spencer. Spencer—an anti-Muslim activist with almost 100,000 Twitter followers—highlighted differences in a courtroom sketch of Minassian and a still of the alleged killer from a low-resolution video, implying the government may be covering up a jihad attack.
Spencer argued one image shows Minassian with hair, while in the other he appears bald. Spencer lays down the usual “I’m just asking questions” line. These questions include “Was Minassian supplied a toupee in court today? And “Was he wearing a bald wig [the day of the attack?]”
“Or are authorities once again not being honest with us?” he asks in his post.
“Again, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a jihad attack. But as oddities such as these court sketches multiply, we have to wonder what the Canadian authorities are trying to hide. And what else are authorities hiding when jihad attacks occur?”
The artist behind this particular sketch, Alexandra Newbould, wrote in an email that she is aware of the conspiracy and explained that Minassian only appeared in court for four to five minutes.
“I have a very short time to add the color, finalize, and send the sketch to the client. This work was particularly rushed due to the enormity of the story,” said Newbould. ”The first version came across as having too much hair as opposed to a buzz cut, so changes were made and an amended copy was sent out.” Newbould added that while she has sketched several high-profile court cases, a conspiracy like this is a first for her.
Spencer’s idea spawned many, many copycat theories.
A Facebook post by Minassian has tentatively linked him to the misogynist online community known as the incels (short for involuntary celibates). One genre of false theories suggests the attack was orchestrated to disenfranchise the group of angry men. This furthers the victim narrative that is at the core of the group.
“Until Toronto, I had not heard any incel ‘violence’ as related to Incel. I'm sure somebody who identifies as an incel has done something stupid at some point,” reads one Reddit theory calling the attack a “Trojan Horse.” “[The powers that be] are setting up incel as a hate group. Incel hates women! Once that is secure, the overlap from incel to 4chan to neckbeard to mom's basement is heavy, and this overlap will be used to silence all the above.”
Social media videos used to bolster this theory argue there wasn’t a mass of blood around the van when Minassian was arrested and that Minassian faked drawing a weapon twice.
Many other theorists are focused on the cryptic post that appeared on a Facebook page associated with Minassian shortly before the attack which mentioned an “incel rebellion;” they claim the post was the work of 4chan in an attempt to discredit the media.
It’s incredibly important to be skeptical regarding anything relating to 4chan (essentially a troll factory) during a breaking news cycle. Reporters covering the case did their due diligence, first getting confirmation from Facebook that the post was indeed real and on the page associated with Minassian, then, as the Toronto Star broke, confirming that the cryptic sequence of numbers was indeed Minassian’s service number with the Canadian military. The number, similar to a social insurance number, would be immensely difficult for a civilian to find, the Star reports.
Police have not released any information regarding Minassian’s motive.
Conspiracists point to the Facebook post as proof that media got duped by 4chan. A tweet by an alt-right figure named Millennial Matt (known for trolling public figures with the statement “Hitler did nothing wrong”) states that the highlighted text under the post, “Visualizza traduzione,” is the name of a troll army. In reality, “visualizza traduzione” means “view translation” in Italian.
Even the Pizzagate crowd floated conspiracies in an attempt to attack Hillary Clinton. In this one, which you can find on Twitter and 4chan, the theorists show that because Alek Minassian shares a last name with a communications officer at the Clinton Foundation, the NGO is responsible for the attack.
As has been shown less than a week removed from the death of ten people on a north Toronto street, it is important to view conspiracies not just as funny sideshows, but also as legitimate tools to push agendas. And it’s clear that these theories are not disappearing in the face of contrary evidence.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.