The Right Wing

Canadian Mosque Shooter Is Proof of the Dangers of Right-Wing Online Trolls

Trolling is not harmless; it empowers right-wing terrorists.

Photo Credit: Thomas Fedra / Flickr Creative Commons

It’s not true that the accused gunman who entered the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City on Sunday night and opened fire on dozens of defenseless worshippers was “of Moroccan origin.” And it’s also not true that the gunman, who was later apprehended with two rifles in his Mitsubishi, was part of a “false flag” operation, connected to a larger, Muslim-led “insurrection” movement.

Instead, the gunman who killed six Muslims and wounded many more over the weekend in an "unprecedented" (for Canada) attack on a place of worship is named Alexandre Bissonnette. He’s white. He’s 27 years old. He was born in Canada. And he’s a poster boy for today’s dangerous "alt-right" movement: a radicalized extremist whose hate apparently sparked a barbaric gun rampage.

He’s been charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an act of terror against Muslims.

The accused killer’s connection to the far right is not a tangential one. Bissonnette is a white nationalist who, according to Canadian press accounts, has been described by friends and acquaintances as:

And then there was this description, from a Canadian refugee activist (emphasis added):

"He was someone who made frequent extreme comments in social media denigrating refugees and feminism. It wasn’t outright hate, rather part of this new nationalist conservative identity movement that is more intolerant than hateful.”

In other words, he’s not a “lone wolf” gunman. He’s an "alt-right" assassin who seemingly became deeply immersed in a radical movement in search of cultural and ethnic purity. (One family member thinks Bissonnette “fell under the influence” of someone who radicalized him.)

In the wake of the deadly attack, Fox News viewers were told virtually none of that about the gunman. In fact, they were fed misinformation about the identity of the shooter, thanks to the network's claim on Twitter that a second gunman on the scene was “of Moroccan origin.” (Though police initially arrested two suspects, including one who is of Moroccan descent, they quickly realized he was a witness to the attack and that there was only one shooter, the Canadian native Bissonnette. Fox did not correct its tweet for more than 24 hours, until a spokesperson for the Canadian prime minister called on the network to "either retract or update" its false claim.) "Alt-right" outlet Breitbart.com did the same thing, hyping the Morocco angle, and then limply updating the incorrect report.

During all of Fox News’ prime-time coverage on Monday night, the Quebec massacre came up exactly twice, according to a transcript search via Nexis.

One of those references came from Bill O’Reilly, who, rather than acknowledge the shooter’s "alt-right" roots, instead tried to portray the massacre as part the larger war on terror narrative: “Continuing now with our lead story, extreme vetting to prevent terrorism in the USA. As you know may know, six people are dead, 17 others hurt after a college student allegedly shot up a mosque in Quebec, Canada.”

O’Reilly never explained how “extreme vetting” would have stopped a homegrown white nationalist gunman from killing Muslims.

Fox News’ hands-off Quebec coverage fits the channel’s long-established pattern of downplaying acts of right-wing, white supremacist violence, and treating them as rogue, isolated events. This, while Fox News hypes beyond proportion and common sense attacks by Muslims in America.

In terms of the timing of Quebec’s "alt-right" massacre, it’s difficult to separate the targeted, and likely political, killings from the hotbed of international controversy set off by President Donald Trump’s decision to sign an executive order temporarily barring individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.

Having been elected after running an openly Islamophobic campaign, Trump has repeatedly defended the ban as a way to protect American from “bad dudes” coming into the country and committing acts of terror in the name of radical Islam. It’s a deeply white nationalist message.

Using that context, White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to politicize the Quebec massacre by weirdly suggesting it proves the need for the president’s get-tough-on-terror agenda (emphasis added):

We condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms. 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.

To repeat, the arrested gunman is reportedly a white nationalist Trump supporter.

Meanwhile, as Media Matters has noted, white nationalists in the press are “ecstatic” over Trump’s travel ban, and they are expressing their glee in openly hateful and bigoted ways: “These virulently racist writers are praising Trump for stopping 'these disgusting animals' and 'sneaky sand-people' from entering the country and are also calling on Trump to arrest or impeach federal judges who oppose the ban. A neo-Nazi writer even suggested killing those protesting the ban.”

For the extreme "alt-right" movement, Trump has arrived as its Oval Office savior, as the two sides team join forces to wage war on jihadists supposedly pouring across America’s borders.

Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity have also joined the on-air pep rallies to tout the anti-Muslim ban. This is the same Fox News that has advocated for bugging mosques and eliminating other constitutional rights, the same Fox News that once told its viewers, "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims."

For years, Fox News and other conservative media have stoked dangerous Islamophic fires with runaway hate rhetoric. (See the mob they whipped into a frenzy during the so-called “9/11 mosque” hysteria in 2010.)

Trump is now trying to harness that hate to push his anti-Muslim agenda. What’s new and different is the emergence of the international "alt-right," white nationalist movement and the violence, or the threat of violence, that never seems to be far from the surface.

Tragically, Quebec witnessed that violence this week. The pressing question going forward: How high can Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media dial up their Muslim disdain during the Trump era, without inspiring gun rampages?

 

Eric Boehlert is is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. He's the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, 2006) and Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press (Free Press, 2009). He worked for five years as a senior writer for Salon.com, where he wrote extensively about media and politics.
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