New Zealanders are being urged to be cautious reading online about the Christchurch mosque massacre, as conspiracy theories about the shootings have mushroomed.
Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor at the University of Miami who has studied similar information-mutations following mass shooting in the United States – including wild and viral claims that entire massacres were staged by paid “crisis actors” – said readers needed to rely on reputable sources.
“I use a simple rule – I listen to the knowledge-building authorities who collect data and then make it available for scrutiny. So, generally I listen to people who are trained at gathering evidence and analysing evidence,” he said.
The problem is, says Uscinski, is social media and the fact “people believe what they want to believe.”
One common thread has seen clusters of people on social media claim the operation was a “false flag” – with the accused’s manifesto being seen as an elaborate ruse intended to harm far-right causes – co-ordinated by some foreign power.
Many theories circulated in New Zealand over the past few days use erroneous early reports filed in the chaotic hours after the event to leap to conclusions that range from ridiculous to malicious.
For example, an early – and incorrect – report of a mosque attendee firing back at the accused murderer was picked up to sow two wildly different narratives that have persisted long after reliable sources have since corrected the record.
The first hot take, predominantly coming from the United States, hailed the incident of an example of “a good guy with a gun,” arguing for wider gun ownership including them to be put into places of worship.
The second, and fair more sinister, claim has used that brief and incorrect report to argue the mosque was being used to store guns and is at the core of a repugnant claim the place of worship was therefore a legitimate military target.
After spending the weekend covering the shootings I can offer my opinion that these theories are all complete and utter nonsense.
The source of that original erroneous report were initially garbled reports of the heroic actions of Abdul Aziz, who – armed only with an eftpos machine – distracted the attacker at the Linwood mosque, then recovered one of the accused murderer’s empty weapons and hurled it through the windscreen of his getaway vehicle to force their rapid retreat.
There were no guns in the mosque, and I doubt New Zealand is presently receptive to NRA lobbying arguments.
The accused murderer’s manifesto has also helped to sow confusion. Expert reading of the rambling document by the University of Canterbury’s Ben Elley concludes “it is clear that he was a member of the pro-fascist alt-right” and his actions were those of an “ethno-nationalist”.
The accused is, in short, a white supremacist.
But the inclusion of what Elley describes numerous “references to niche internet humour that [are] designed to shock” has muddied the waters considerably. Ironic references to being inspired by the videogame Fortnite or motivated by ecological concerns have been taken literally by some commentators.
Uscinski says support for conspiracy theories was usually related to confirming existing prejudices. “People are going to interpret things in the way they want: When news events happen they tend to blame people they already dislike,” he said.
“I’m sure [the accused’s] attitudes are incredibly extreme, but attitudes similar to that are not that uncommon. The good thing, though is that violence in this way is uncommon.”
It should be no surprise, given the alt-right’s hostility to both Islam and Judaism, that the most-prevalent false-flag conspiracy theory being circulated about the mosque attacks blames – with absolutely no evidence – Israel.