How misinformation and ambiguity reinforced social media bubbles
On Sunday, Jan. 29, the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City was attacked by a lone gunman. In what was later called a “terrorist attack” by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, six men were killed, and 19 others injured, all of whom were in the midst of evening prayers.
Along with immediate reactions of shock and fear, and subsequent heartening examples of tolerance and inclusivity — including events across the country promoting solidarity against Islamophobia—the Quebec City attack generated a massive amount of misinformation.
In the immediate aftermath, The Daily Beast falsely reported that two white supremacists were responsible, unwittingly citing a parody Reuters account. They later corrected the story, adding an editor’s note acknowledging the mistake, but not before being accused of publishing ‘fake news’ by right-wing websites such as Breitbart.
That same evening, an anonymous witness called in to Radio-Canada and reported that two gunmen were involved, and that as they opened fire, “God is great” was shouted in Arabic. The following morning, on Monday, Jan. 30, police confirmed that two suspects were taken into custody, and a police report labelled one of those men as being of “Moroccan descent.”
News outlets throughout the United States and Canada jumped on this information immediately, with Fox News tweeting “Suspect in Quebec mosque terror attack was of Moroccan origin,” and Montreal Newspaper La Presse tweeting, “Un des deux suspects de l’attentat contra la mosquée de Sainte-Foy est d’origine marocaine.”
— Sûreté du Québec (@sureteduquebec) January 30, 2017
At 1:15 p.m. that same day, Quebec police tweeted that only one of the original two suspects was still being treated as such, and that the other was now considered a witness. But which of the pair — the man of Moroccan origin or the Quebecer—was a witness wasn’t clarified until around four hours later, when the name of the lone gunman, Alexandre Bissonnette, was released, along with documents showing he was being charged with six counts of first degree murder and five counts of attempted murder.
During the few hours of uncertainty between the police announcement and the revelation of the shooter’s identity, numerous news websites updated their stories to reflect the new single-shooter narrative.
However, several news outlets were much slower to correct their stories when Bissonnette’s name was finally confirmed. The previous, incorrect tweets from Fox News and La Presse remained undeleted and unedited well into Tuesday afternoon, being retweeted over 900 and 500 times, respectively. And though Fox News tweeted an updated version of their website’s story on the attack, it wasn’t until the Canadian federal government contacted Fox News directly that action was taken in regards to the original, misleading tweet.
Kate Purchase, director of communications for the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada, sent an email to Fox News, denouncing their tweet as “dishonour(ing) the memory of the six victims and their families by spreading misinformation, playing identity politics, and perpetuating fear and division within our communities.”
— Kate Purchase (@katepurchase) January 31, 2017
The tweet in question was deleted shortly afterward, as was La Presse’s, and Refet Kaplan, managing editor of FoxNews.com, issued an apology. Canada’s intervention went viral on mainstream social media, with stories of Fox News’ capitulation shared and liked thousands of times. Anyone in the “bubble” of liberal social media likely saw the event as another heavy blow to Fox News’ reputation. But for followers of conservative media, the story was as invisible as the deleted tweet. Kaplan’s apology spread through many mainstream news outlets, but his comments and the controversy surrounding them are nowhere to be found on Fox News’ Twitter feed, their Facebook page, or FoxNews.com.
Similarly, on Breitbart.com, the original article on the Quebec attack was only updated so far as to convey that there was a single shooter, rather than two, and their tweet naming Mohammed Khadir (the man of Moroccan origin) and Bissonnette as suspects remains online as of the time of writing. On more radical right-wing websites, such as Infowars and Rebel Media, the change from two shooters to one has been framed as a conspiracy to denigrate Trump supporters.
So despite the impression among liberals that Fox News came clean about their mistake, for anyone in the ‘bubble’ of conservative media, the motives behind the Quebec City attack could still seem ambiguous. And as such, the divide between the two sides of the political spectrum remains as wide—and perhaps as treacherous—as ever.