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A Media Note on the Toronto Suspect’s Facebook Page

BBC News reports:

A van driver accused of killing 10 people in Toronto posted to Facebook minutes before the attack to praise killer Elliot Rodger and refer to the misogynistic “incel” Reddit group.

Alek Minassian, 25, was charged on Tuesday with 10 counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted murder.

…Mr Minassian’s Facebook post, which the social network has confirmed as real, praised Elliott Rodger, a 22 year old from California who killed six people in a shooting rampage through Isla Vista, California in 2014 before turning the gun on himself.

Tom Winter of NBC News announced on Monday evening that “Multiple law enforcement officials in Canada and the U.S. say the preliminary theory is that Minassian may have had mental health issues and had an online discussion about Eliot Rodger”; the Facebook page was posted to Twitter just over an hour later by Catherine McDonald, a crime reporter with Global News Toronto. McDonald said “We’ve just obtained this Facebook post from the accused Alek Minassian”, and an accompanying photo (taken in daylight) showed the post as displayed on a mobile device. However, it was not clear whether reporters had accessed the Facebook page for themselves, and it appears that the photo was cropped from a larger version that had already appeared on social media.

McDonald received a number of replies cautioning that the Facebook profile may be fake: this was reasonable, given that fake profiles do sometimes appear in these situations (I discussed a previous example here). One potential flag was that the Facebook page was somewhat sparse – an archived copy of his page shows that he had no banner image, and his photo and educational details were already publicly available on LinkedIn. The profile photo had apparently been uploaded on 10 March, but the date could have been manipulated.  No friends were visible in this saved version either, although a screenshot published by ABC News shows that he had 11 Facebook friends.

It seems that McDonald did not initially consider the possibility of a fake profile – thus, several hours after her first Tweet on the subject, she gave “thanks for the feedback”, and belatedly announced that “We are working on verifying this facebook post to confirm if it was written by the Alek Minassian or by someone else trying to mislead the public.” Some hours after that she was able to announce that “Facebook has confirmed to @globalnewsto that the post I tweeted last night allegedly written by Alek Minassian was authentic.”

So – no harm done, but the initial information ought to have been flagged as provisional, and the confirmation ought to have been sought from the beginning. It would also be useful to know the basis on which Facebook has formed its assessment of authenticity. In this instance, it may be obvious and clear-cut, but the methodology ought to be transparent.

The Facebook post is discussed further by another Global News reporter, Patrick Cain, who explains its military references and “incel” jargon. He also notes:

The archived copy includes a non-operative “see more recent stories” fold at the foot of the page.

Inevitably, however, some of the responses to McDonald’s initial Tweet were scathing rather than just doubtful, especially from those invested in the idea that the attack must have been an instance of Jihadist terror. The mainstream media usually waits until some facts have been established before attributing motive; this leaves open a space for anti-Islam activists to pronounce that the media is engaged in a “cover up” (some prominent social media figures who pronounced prematurely in this instance are discussed here on Zelo Street). If in due course a Jihadist motive is confirmed, such activists then crow that the media has been forced to concede the truth; but if it turns out that their guess was incorrect, they simply move on without consequences.

The most egregious allegation was probably made by Rebel Media’s Ezra Levant, who in a now-deleted Tweet suggested that McDonald may have deliberately cropped out the mobile device’s clock in the photo in order to hide evidence showing that the profile had been concocted after the suspect had been apprehended. Levant wrote:

Here’s the full version of your photo, from @4chan: http://i.4cdn.org/pol/1524522652750.png … The time on the phone is 3:15 p.m. The attack was at ~1:30 p.m. So this would have been posted after he was arrested. Is that why you cropped the picture? #FakeNews

It appears that Levant had failed to understand the latitude involved when Facebook marks a post as having been made “1 hr” ago. But the allegation was obviously wild: a mainstream journalist resorting to such a trick in these circumstances would very quickly have come unstuck. However, his contemptuous suggestion is worth noting for what it tells us about his own mindset.

UPDATE: The National Post notes some “jihad” conspiracy theorising on the subject. Alex Jones has insisted that “Minassian” is a Turkish/Iranian name (true insofar as those countries have historic communities of ethnic Armenians, but that’s also the case for a number of other nations), while Robert Spencer has seized on the vagaries of court sketches to suggest that the van driver may have been someone other than the person who was charged in court (“we have to wonder what the Canadian authorities are trying to hide”).

New Bible Edition Aims to Encourage Christians to Support Israel

From the Religion News Service:

 A new Hebrew-English Bible with a distinctly Israeli flavor will be published in honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary.

…The Israel Bible “is the world’s first Bible centered around the Land of Israel, the People of Israel and the unique relationship between them,” according to Israel365, the organization that produced it in conjunction with Menorah Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

…Maayan Hoffman, vice president of marketing and brand strategy at Israel365, wrote in The Jerusalem Post that the aim of the new Bible is “to convince a divided Jewish people, Christian Zionists and what sometimes seems like an anti-Israel world that Israel belongs to the Jewish people.”

The director of Israel365 is Rabbi Tuly Weisz, who founded the Breaking Israel News website (previously blogged here). The site acts as a conduit by which news stories that supposedly relate to the End Times from a Jewish perspective find their way onto Christian Right and conservative US websites (1): the site is frequently quoted on Charisma News and WND, and WND‘s CEO Joseph Farah – infamous for his promotion of anti-Obama birther conspiracy theories, among much else – appears on the Israel Bible‘s website endorsing the product.

Charisma News has also reported on the new Bible:

For nearly 2000 years, an undeniable tension between Christians and Jews has pierced the religious landscape. While some factions have followed paths that resulted in in the expansion of the gap—replacement theology—others have spent efforts to bridge the gap between the two groups.

…Rabbi Tuly Weisz, founder and director of Israel365 and publisher of Breaking News Israel, says that with the publishing of The Israel Bible, the Bible is “no longer source of disunity but unity between Jews and Christians.”

“We’re certainly living in critical times where support for Israel is more divisive than ever, and solidifying biblical support for Israel among the Christian Zionist community is more important than ever,” Weisz said. “The writers of the New Testament left us with a text that is not anti-Semitic. It does not put forth a replacement position. It’s amazing how that text became more misrepresented by some once the church became more Gentile.”

The Israel Bible, of course, does not contain the New Testament, and Weisz is not a believer in Jesus.

Anyone with a serious interest in the text traditionally known to Christians as the Old Testament ought to have a Jewish edition of the Bible, such as the Jewish Study Bible published by Oxford University Press. It’s also important that Christians should have a proper appreciation of Judaism, both as it existed during the Biblical period and afterwards. However, an edition of the Bible specifically pitched to Christians by a non-Christian with a view to influencing Christian theology seems to be a rather curious endeavour.

Christianity is not distinct from Judaism just because of “replacement theology” – the idea that Christianity has superseded Judaism – but because Judaism (with the exception of Messianic Judaism) does not accept that Jesus was the Messiah, and regards the idea of the Incarnation as incompatible with Judaism’s concept of God. US Evangelicalism, however, seems to have developed a compromise in which Judaism and Christianity are somehow essentially different perspectives on the same religion. In practical terms, this means there is no urgent need to evangelise Jews about Jesus – indeed, it seems to be more important for Jews to evangelise Christians about why they should identify with the modern State of Israel.

The Israel Bible comes with a slip-cover that shows David Ben-Gurion announcing the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall in 1967, and an image of the Jerusalem Temple. It contains “commentaries that highlight verses that relate to Israel, including relevant quotes and perspectives from prime ministers”, as well as “contemporary commentary highlight[ing] the role of the modern State of Israel in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy”.

Note

1. Prophecy articles on Breaking Israel News include “End of Days Yellowstone Volcano Prophesied in Zechariah“; “Disaster Comet Nibiru Coming to Cleanse the World, Says Jewish Academic“; “Global Warming Prophesied as Punishment for Not Building Temple“; “The World is Facing the Final War of Gog and Magog Says Rabbinic Scholar“; and “Bible Codes Reflect What Brexit Wrought for Europe“. Its most recent contribution – inevitably – is “An End-Of-Days Guide to the Current Conflict in Syria“.

The Times Highlights “SyriaHoax” Academics

Satuday’s front-page splash at The Times:

Apologists for Assad working in British universities

Top academics claim chemical attacks were fake

Senior British academics are spreading pro-Assad disinformation and conspiracy theories promoted by Russia, The Times can reveal.

They are founders of a self-styled Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (SPM) and hold posts at universities including Edinburgh, Sheffield and Leicester.

Members of the group, which includes four professors, have been spreading the slur, repeated by the Russian ambassador to Britain yesterday, that the White Helmets civilian volunteer force has fabricated video evidence of attacks by President Assad, who is backed by the Kremlin…

The Times has here “revealed” the the existence of a group that publicises itself via its own website, and which was subjected to effective critical scrutiny by Brian Whitaker on Medium in February. The group is certainly of journalistic interest, but the decision to make it the lead item seems to me to be to be overkill, and to describe the “four professors” as “top academics” is sensationalising.

Given that the article was published on Friday night, just as western airstrikes on Syria were about to get underway, one has to suspect that the intention was not so much to “reveal” the group as to set up a contrast between support for the strikes and dubious and invalid reasons for opposing (or being wary of) them. Thus a follow-up item was headlined “Academics accused of speaking for Assad condemn Syria raids”, and consisted mainly of Tweets and blog posts by members of the group.

The academics highlighted by the Times coverage are Dr Tara McCormack, a lecturer in international relations at Leicester University; Piers Robinson, professor of politics, society and political journalism at Sheffield University; Paul McKeigue, a professor of genetic epidemiology and statistical genetics at Edinburgh University; and Tim Hayward, professor of environmental political theory and also at Edinburgh University. The quotes provided in both Times articles (and a third) are not to their authors’ credit: Hayward has promoted a claim by Vanessa Beeley that the White Helmets had kidnapped and drugged children in order to fabricate the earlier gas attack on eastern Ghouta, while McCormack described the White Helmets as “basically Al [Qaeda]”. However, the print edition of the newspaper apparently contained one quote from another member, Louis Allday, that Allday has credibly shown to have been a misattribution.

Overall, the group comes across as dismissive and smug rather than critical and enquiring, and it is unlikely that any evidence of Assad’s culpability for gas attacks would be sufficient.This impression is strengthened in particular by Hayward’s uncritical use of the “SyriaHoax” hashtag (1), and by the group’s enthusiasm for Vanessa Beeley; as The Times notes:

Professor Hayward has written for the alternative news website 21st Century Wire, whose associate editor is Vanessa Beeley, daughter of the late British diplomat Sir Harold Beeley. She claims that the White Helmets are al-Qaeda-affiliated and, as “terrorists”, are a “legit target” for Assad’s forces.

Beeley, as I’ve noted previously, has attacked the White Helmets in the US on Infowars and in the UK on Brian Gerrish’s UK Column and the David Icke-affiliated Richie Allen Show.

The SPM’s advisory board includes “Mark Crispin Miller, who was said to have called the US government’s account of the 9/11 attacks a ‘conspiracy theory'”, and “David Blackall, an Australian academic who tweeted ‘CIA stages gas attack pretext for Syria escalation’ with a link to a blog article”.

The group’s activities appear to be extra-curricular, although participants use their academic credentials to promote their credibility. However, as Whitaker notes:

Last November the group set up a non-profit company called Organisation for Propaganda Studies (OPS)… The group also operates a website – propagandastudies.ac.uk – which is registered in the name of Sheffield University and is hosted on the university’s servers.

Note

1. According to The Times, the hashtag “went viral after being used by alt-right figures in the US, including Mike Cernovich, a main proponent of the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory… [and] was said to have been promoted by a Russian cyberoperation”. This seems to me to be stretching a point – most people use hashtags without delving into their origins. More on Cernovich and Pizzagate here.

A Note on US Evangelical Support for Efraín Ríos Montt

From the New York Times obituary of Efraín Ríos Montt:

In the panoply of commanders who turned much of Central America into a killing field in the 1980s, General Ríos Montt was one of the most murderous. He was convicted in 2013 of trying to exterminate the Ixil ethnic group, a Mayan Indian community whose villages were wiped out by his forces.

…In the late 1970s, after returning to Guatemala, General Ríos Montt reinvented himself. He took a Dale Carnegie course in human relations, abandoned Roman Catholicism, became a preacher in the California-based Church of the Word, and struck up friendships with American evangelists, including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Ríos Montt’s links to Christian Right figures has long been notorious; here’s a discussion by Virginia Garrard-Burnett, as published in her 2010 book Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala Under General Efrain Ríos Montt (p. 161-162):

…Mere days after the March 23 [1982] coup, Pat Robertson lauded Ríos Montt on The 700 Club as an anointed man of God for whom Americans should pray “day and night without ceasing.” Robertson also pledged that American evangelicals would donate $1 billion to his fledgling government, a contribution which, had it materialized (it did not) would have directly helped to circumvent the federal ban on U.S. military aid to Guatemala.

North American evangelicals who were outside the inner circle of the Moral Majority, in the thrall of new emerging evangelical news media, regarded Ríos Montt from afar with wide-eyed and naive optimism. (“Terrorists fear ‘New Source of Intelligence'” boasted one evangelical tabloid, “Holy Spirit Reveals Whereabouts of Guerilla [sic] Forces.”) This sector of true believers refused to be dissuaded by news of human rights violations, which many evangelical U.S. Christians dismissed, as one evangelical magazine put it, as “either totally wrong or totally perverted.” This media-victim perspective runs like a rich vein throughout Joseph Anfuso and David Sczepanski’s fawning 1983 biography of Ríos Montt, a work in English published by an evangelical press before it was translated into Spanish.

Meanwhile, one Church of the Word (“Verbo”) pastor allegedly told some visiting Pentecostals from California:

“The Army doesn’t massacre Indians. It massacres demons, and Indians are demons possessed; they are communists. We hold Brother Efrain Ríos Montt like King David of the Old Testament. He is the king of the New Testament”

The “evangelical tabloid” referenced above was The Forerunner, which was produced by the controversial Maranatha Campus Ministries; and after Ríos Montt was ousted in 1983, he was a keynote speaker at a conference sponsored by Maranatha’s Dennis Peacocke. Ríos Montt also held a speaking tour in the USA, organised by Ben Armstrong of the National Religious Broadcasters, which included appearances on Robertson’s 700 Club and on Jimmy Swaggart’s TV programme (1).

A little more can be said about the “fawning 1983 biography”, titled Efrain Rios Montt: Servant or Dictator?, for which Robertson provided the foreword. It was published by Vision House, of Ventura in California. The imprint was “a division of GL Publications” – “GL” here stood for “Gospel Light”, a company that was started by Henrietta Mears in 1933 specialising in Sunday School curricula. Mears also created GLINT (Gospel Literature International), which translates GL books and other evangelical works into other languages.

The book’s authors were members of Gospel Outreach in Eureka, California, which was the Church of the Word’s umbrella body. The two men featured in a 1983 New York Times profile of Gospel Outreach, which explained that the group had emerged out of the Jesus Movement; apparently “hundreds of ex-hippies” formed an initial commune in the town under the direction of one James Durkin, “now 58 years old, a real estate agent who had had an off-and-on career as a part- time minister for the Assembly of God Pentecostal church”.

Anfuso was the son of  Victor L. Anfuso, who was Democratic Congressman from Brooklyn in the 1950s, and he told the New York Times reporter that “he found a meaning to his life after climbing the Himalayas and discussing Eastern religion with Indian gurus.” In 2010, he published a memoir, Message in a Body, which came with a cover blurb by William Paul Young, author of the The Shack, and endorsements from the likes of James Goll and the president of World Vision US. A foreword was provided by Kevin Palau, son of the Argentinian-born evangelist Luis Palau.

Sczepanski, meanwhile, is the pastor of Durkin’s old church, now called the Gospel Outreach Reformational Church.

Note

1. Some details here are from Sara Diamond’s 1990 book Spiritual Warfare. This book is also cited by Garrard-Burnett as the source for the “Army doesn’t massacre Indians” quote, referring in turn to Sectas y religiosidad en America Latina, October 1984, produced by the Instituto Latinamericano de Estudios Transnationales. Diamond and Garrard-Burnett also both refer to support for Ríos Montt in Christianity Today.

Diamond further mentions the work of “Gospel Outreach, the Wycliffe Bible Translators/Summer Institute of Linguistics… and the Berhorst Foundation” among the Ixil; a PBS documentary called “The Gospel in Guatemala”, produced by Steve Talbot and Elizabeth Farmsworth; and, a few years later, Ríos Montt’s “Operation Whole Armor”, in which he and a Verbo missionary named Ronny Gilmore partnered with Bible Literature International of Ohio to distribute copies of the New Testament in Guatemala (pp. 167-168).

A Note on the Oldham “Trojan Horse” Libel Claim Outcome

From the website of Rahman Lowe Solicitors:

Rahman Lowe Solicitors have represented Mr [Nasim] Ashraf and Mrs [Hafizan] Zaman in their defamation claim against Associated Newspapers Ltd over MailOnline articles, which has been concluded successfully today.

MailOnline published a number of articles which falsely suggested that the couple were involved an Islamist campaign of intimidation to take over Clarksfield primary school in Oldham with the aim of imposing an aggressive and separatist Islamic agenda on the school. They now accept that such allegations are wholly unfounded and have apologised to Mr Ashraf and Mrs Zaman and have agreed to pay substantial damages and costs.

…Zillur Rahman of Rahman Lowe Solicitors and Mark Henderson of Doughty Street Chambers acted for the Claimants in this case. They have also acted for the Claimants in defamation claims against News Group Newspapers (“NGN”), Mirror Group Newspapers (“MGN”), and Telegraph Media Group (“TMG”) which have already concluded with payment of damages and published retractions and apologies for similar articles in The Sun, Daily Telegraph, and Mirror. Claims continue with respect to articles in The Express, The Times, and Sunday Times.

The articles were published on 19 and 20 February 2017, and the story originated with two pieces by Andrew Gilligan in the Sunday Times. The ST headlined one of its articles as “a new ‘Trojan Horse’ plot”, recalling allegations that emerged in March 2014 in relation to schools in Birmingham. The two stories, though, are quite separate, and should not be conflated. The term “Trojan Horse” was given in quote marks because the comparison had been drawn by the school’s headteacher, Trish O’Donnell.

Gilligan’s story was based on a confidential council report produced a couple of weeks earlier, which actually rejected any comparison with the Birmingham “Trojan Horse” claims. This is acknowledged in Gilligan’s reporting, but downplayed in relation to promoting O’Donnell’s view that the situations were comparable.

Ashraf gave an interview to the Guardian in September, in which he said that “he and his wife were accused of being at the centre of the conspiracy after they raised concerns about teaching and safeguarding issues.” According to the article:

Trish O’Donnell, who is on long-term sick leave, complained she was being subjected to “harassment and intimidation” in the form of “aggressive verbal abuse” from people allegedly pushing conservative Muslim values.

…However, the documents stated that while council officers believed Ashraf and his wife Hafizan Zaman were trying to undermine the headteacher, there was no evidence of a Trojan-horse-style plot. They added that Ashraf was not an extremist and “not part of any wider conspiracy”.

This, though, sidesteps the claim as reported by Gilligan that the same documents specifically refer to Ashraf as having been “extremely problematic”. Perhaps the documents were wrong to make this assessment, but if they are going to be cited in his favour then readers surely ought to have been given the full picture. Other specific claims in Gilligan’s report are unaddressed.

Gilligan referred to a 2014 Ofsted report which noted the “strong leadership” of the headmistress; by contrast, the Guardian reported Ashraf’s claim to have been vindicated by a 2017 report that found the school to be inadequate. Both Ofsted reports can be seen here.

Note

Gilligan’s articles are still online, although with a note added stating “This article is the subject of a legal complaint from Mr Nasim Ashraf and Mrs Hafizan Zaman”. For potential liability reasons I am not providing a direct link at this time.