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”).

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