As the horror of last Sunday evening’s terror attack on congregants at a mosque in Quebec City was unfolding, it was accompanied, as is now expected, by online ugliness. As six Muslim worshippers were massacred, scavengers pursued the bread crumbs offered up by the media.
Among those were eyewitness reports, still unexplained, of shouts of Allah-u-Akbar, and that one of those in custody was of Moroccan origin. The usual chatter coursed through the echo chamber of social media. Posts went viral about the attackers (it was presumed in the early hours there were more than one), that these were Syrian refugees: In fact, two names were mentioned. This was one ideology at play. Another, fed by a fake Reuters Twitter handle, vomited out two other identities; very French Quebecois in origin. Again, these spread like an infectious fever. The digital vultures preying on the corpses appeared to be practising for the time when jumping to conclusions and rushing to judgement are made Olympic sports. Meanwhile, the scant details that were emerging at intervals indicated a rapidly evolving tale.
Those that shouted White nationalist are probably preening as it was established that the terrorist was a 27-year-old student of Universite Laval, Alexandre Bissonnette. When that name was first flashed, various profiles sharing it were fouled with fulminations.
Bissonnette is certainly a Caucasian, and his Facebook likes for the pages of extreme-Right French leader Marine Le Pen or American President Donald Trump have fed the frenzy. But the manner of his nationalism, beyond an apparently obvious perverted loathing of Muslims, is an unsettled fact as investigators still haven’t divulged a motive. After all, he also liked the Leftist party, the New Democrats, and the separatist party of the Canadian province Parti Quebecois. That party is the standard-bearer of chauvinism native to the place.
That relates not just to a Quebec nation but also the French language. When that party was in power in the province between 2012 and 2014, it sought to impose a provincial charter of values, barring government employees from donning the niqab, Sikh turbans or Jewish kippahs. This is nationalism, certainly, but it occupies a grey region of nuance where the kneejerk Neanderthals of social media refuse to tread since black and white determinations are delicious.
But the trend of online vigilantism also creates its own victims. In March 2013, following the bombing at the Boston Marathon, social media platforms went into hyper-drive attempting to identify the terrorist. One Reddit stream pinpointed a perpetrator as Sunil Tripathi, a youth who had gone missing prior to the attack. The media took the clues of the cyber sleuths and called the family’s numbers through that night. A Facebook page to help the Tripathis find Sunil had to be pulled due to the volume of vicious traffic. Two years after that rampage, I met his mother Judy and she wept as she recalled that trauma: “It was devastating. I try not to think of that night.” Sunil, who suffered from depression, had committed suicide and his body was recovered from Providence river in late April.
In November 2015, as the Friday the 13th terror strikes crippled Paris, a photo on social media supposedly showed a terrorist with a jerry-rigged suicide vest and was featured in European news reports. Except that image had been manipulated and was that of a Toronto youth Veerender Jubbal. He had to post: “Let us start with basics. Never been to Paris. Am a Sikh dude with a turban. Lives in Canada.” The abuse flung with abandonment towards him on social media by trolls must have taken its toll.
Months later, with another attack in Nice, it resurfaced.
This is now a global phenomenon; of attaching convenient causes to an atrocity. This cyber lynch mob mentality takes divisiveness and multiplies it. It comes with impunity, as those hiding behind handles face no consequences. That’s the reality even if the baying bloodhounds cause collateral damage. As Judy Tripathi said of her experience, “It was an obscenity”.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal