This post originally appeared in citationsneeded.com
Our neighbors to the north have undergone a very frightening last few days. Yesterday's shooting in Ottawa by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau on Parliament Hill occurred just two days after another man, Martin Rouleau-Couture ran over two Canadian soldiers with his car in Quebec — killing one and wounding the other. In all this confusion, however, a terrible and pernicious meme has subtly emerged over the past 36 hours that the second killer, Bibeau, was identified by a photo released by ISIS - thus creating a material connection between the Islamic State and the shooting in Ottawa yesterday afternoon. This is the story of this meme, how it got started, how it is entirely bogus, and how it was ultimately corrected.
THE ORIGINS OF AN ISIS CONSPIRACY THEORY
Heavy.com was the first news outlet to report the story of how the picture came to light in its hot-off-the-presses "Michael Zehaf-Bibeau: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know". The primary source they reference is @armedresearch, a faceless, anonymous Twitter account from a supposed "military historian" who provides "the latest updates" about military-related matters. When I asked @armedresearch who, in IRL, runs the account (they list no other information but have quite the following), the disembodied Twitter account responded, "a meat popsicle". This "meat popsicle", as it turns out, was a good enough source for Heavy.com and thus all the subsequent media outlets citing Heavy.com. Their original piece read as follows:
Just after Bibeau's name was reported, an ISIS Twitter account posted the above picture claiming it was the Ottawa shooter. An hour later, the account was suspended.
Military Studies [@armedresearch] told Heavy.com that the same Twitter account was followed by Martin Couture-Rouleau
The above section contains two very significant claims:
- That both Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau followed the same obscure jihadist account on Twitter, which given it had only 1,400 followers, would be a material connection, not only between the two terrorists but also ISIS writ large.
- An ISIS account being the first to "publish" a picture of the killer would be an even greater material connection. An obscure ("since deleted") "ISIS Twitter account" posting the photo before any other source, by definition, implies foreknowledge and thus participation in Bibeau's killings.
The Daily Beast, in a post by Eli Lake, Jacob Seigel, and Tim Mack at roughly the same time allowed former Canadian Minister of Public Safety, Stockwell Day, to casually float the same unsubstantiated ISIS conspiracy theory:
"It is likely there is a digital trail that suggests they accessed some of the same internet chat rooms and websites," he told The Daily Beast. "It appears the [Parliament Hill shooter] was using some of the same networks as the killer [from earlier this week], who killed an Army officer… And it was interesting that ISIS apparently, or a source identifying themselves as ISIS, had a photo out of this guy in pretty short order."
BUT THERE'S ONLY ONE PROBLEM: THIS ACCOUNT IS ENTIRELY INCONSISTENT WITH THE ORIGINS OF THE NOW INFAMOUS PHOTO.
Both Heavy.com's report and the Daily Beast's source were going off of a sensationalist tweet from @armedresearch that, absent any context, was not technically untrue but was wildly misleading:
An alleged "ISIS Twitter account", @V_IMS, did post the picture of the shooter but they were simply RE-posting a picture that had already been floating around on the web. The source that posted it first, a French Canadian blogger who tweets @Breaking3zero, had in fact explained in some detail how exactly he came about the photo. It was sent to him anonymously by someone responding to the Ottawa police asking the public for any information on the killer and after verifying it independently, Breaking3zero tweeted the picture for the first time at 4:16pm EST. @armedresearch tweeted 7 minutes later claiming it was posted by ISIS (he provided no link to the alleged tweet). By the time Breaking3zero's detailed explanation (in English and French) was posted, however, @armedresearch and Heavy.com's misinformation that ISIS had originally posted the photo had already cemented and taken off, even being repeated (and retweeted dozens of times) by Toronto Star's national security reporter Michelle Shepard.
RETRACTING THE ISIS-OTTAWA CONNECTIONS
I first suspected the mysterious picture being leaked by an "ISIS account" was bullshit because, well, most "ISIS posting things on social media" stories are usually bullshit. When tracing the origins of these alleged posts it's typically some nobody in the UK claiming to be ISIS or someone from a "terrorist monitoring" organization (or the State Department/VOA) that claims they found it somewhere on a "jihadi forum" or social media that's just Too Dangerous™ to actually link to. Rarely, if ever, is a picture or video or any material information initially discovered by a verifiable ISIS account on Twitter. The whole concept of ISIS actively posting their news on Twitter, while perhaps true some months ago, is largely a media myth. So, I pestered Heavy.com's source, @armedresearch and he made clear that the picture did not first come from an ISIS account.
Well this certainly seems a bit inconsistent with this initial tweet (since retweeted 1,123 times), no?
How can one read this and not assume that said posting was the first posting of the picture? To @armedresearch's credit they would, a few hours later, go on to clarify the origin of the photo but by then it was too late - rumor had become truth.
After I pointed this incongruous out to Heavy.com, they subtly changed the text of their story (without noting the change) to read:
After Bibeau's name was released, this picture, widely reported to be Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was circulated on Twitter by the account @Breaking3Zero.
Military Studies told Heavy.com Martin Couture-Rouleau followed the same Canadian-based pro-ISIS Twitter account.
This, of course, has an entirely different implication. Which is to say that there was, in fact, no connection regarding the photo to ISIS and Bibeau.
The Daily Beast, upon my pointing out this mistake, to their credit, acknowledged it and did a very clear and professional add-on to counter Stockwell Day's glib conspiracy theory (sincerely, I've mocked Eli Lake quite a bit in the past but his core journalistic ethics are unimpeachable):
The story initially read:
At around 5pm today, the Daily Beast's Jacob Seigel acknowledgedthe omission and updated the post with an entire new paragraph countering Day's claims:
In fact, a Canadian journalist says that he was the first to post the photo of Zehaf-Bibeau that was later linked by the ISIS affiliated Twitter account. In an article written in French by journalist William Reymond, he writes that the photo of Zehaf-Bibeau posing with a gun was first posted anonymously in response to a Tweet from the Ottawa police asking for any information about the shooter. According to Reymond, he took a screenshot of the photo before the anonymous poster deleted it and was the first to publish the image, later picked up by the jihadist account. If that chronology is correct, it could mean the ISIS account that later posted the photo was trying to falsely suggest a formal affiliation between Zehaf-Bibeau and the terrorist group.
This now takes on an entirely different meaning. While there very well may be a connection between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and the Islamic State, as of now any such indication is purely speculation. Indeed, even Pentagon stenographers and terror-hysterical CNN went out of their way this afternoon to clarify that there existed no such "foreign link" to the Bibeau killings, limiting the threat to domestic "jihadists":
However, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that there is "no evidence at this stage" that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was linked to a wider group, or network, of jihadists.
The effect, however, of connecting ISIS to the "lone wolf" attacks - even though no such evidence exists - are of tremendous consquence:
Vice's Ben Makuch makes clear that the two recent "lone wolf" attacks are providing a boost to Canada's existing attempts to massively expand the power of its surveillance apparatus and provide greater public support for the newly-minted wars in Iraq and Syria:
Ironically, a new amendment meant to empower intelligence services tracking terror suspects was expected to be tabled in parliament this week. Though the Tories have a majority in the House, the latest events in Ottawa might ease the tensions with the public surrounding the passing of any amendments, as a new anti-terror agenda seems on the horizon. Meanwhile, CF-18 fighters are poised to begin bombing campaigns in Iraq against ISIS forces, which counts Canadian jihadists among them.
The fact that as of now no connection between Bibeau and ISIS has been shown by anyone wasn't going to stop the media from making the connection either through innuendo or the uncritical echoing of spurious claims of ISIS "releasing photos" of the killer. The reality, as with most ISIS stories thus far, is that the press has a pre-existing narrative - fed by a torrent of previous media accounts (both real and dubious) that paint ISIS's scope and purpose as an all-encompassing and menacing force of evil. And in this fever pitch of ISIS-panic, random Twitter accounts like @armedresearch - though an entirely anonymous profile run by a self-described "meat popsicle" - rise to the level of trusted, primary source. Not because they're credible or have insight or any track record of being right - but rather, of course, because they tell the press and our panicked leaders exactly what they want to hear: ISIS is coming for you and you better beware.
UPDATE 2:05PM 10/26/14
It turns out the other tenuous "ISIS link" - that Bibeau, "according to his mother", was "planning to travel to Syria" (you know, the country we're presently bombing) —
Turned out to be a whole-cloth fabrication by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police:
Not sure how the RCMP could confuse Syria and Saudi Arabia, but I'll assume it's just a coincidence that the one country, out of 195 countries in the world, the RCMP "misidentified" is the one the right-wing Canadian government is currently bombing. Bibeau's mother would tell Postmedia:
"I want to correct the statement of the RCMP," wrote Bibeau, who is deputy chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. "I never said he wanted to go to Syria, I speciﬁcally said Saudi Arabia.
"They taped my conversation, so there can be little doubt about the accuracy of what I said."
So the two main Bibeau "connections" to ISIS -though already vague, thin, and conspiratorial - don't stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. But whatever you do, don't call these "mistakes" a coordinated effort to rally a traditionally isolationist public around a dubious war effort and its corollary surveillance legislation. This, of course, would make you a "conspiracy theorist".
An illustration of just how bad the media wants there to be a connetion: now we're in "meta-story-about-the-story backtrack mode" with fudging headlines when we should be in "we were totally wrong retraction mode":