Thursday, April 5, 2018

A Reminder: (Mis)Information Spreads Fast

Melissa Jeltsen at Huffington Post has written a piece about the prosecution of Noor Salman, the widow of Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen. In it, she notes, "Every mass tragedy begets a frantic search for answers, for a common understanding of what happened, for a narrative, and the 2016 Pulse massacre was no different."

This happens very, very fast on Twitter, in particular.

People first learn of an event, then they immediately begin crafting a narrative based on initial news reports that are not always accurate, and then the narratives start going viral. Information and misinformation spreads much more quickly than investigations occur offline. Narratives get even more complicated when the situation involves victims and perpetrators who are all members of different marginalized groups.

I'm thinking most recently of the tragedy of the Hart family, all of whom are believed to be dead after their car was found crashed off the Pacific Coast Highway, and in which the Twitter consensus seems to be that two women hatched a Thelma & Louise conspiracy to murder their family, even though - as just one of several other possible explanations - one of them could also be a victim of spousal abuse and/or murder.

Jeltsen continues, regarding the Pulse shooting:
"A Muslim woman who by her family’s account was beaten by Mateen, Salman might have been a sympathetic figure in a different context. But I think now of Bob Kunst’s sign. A longtime human rights activist, Kunst was protesting outside the federal courthouse, just two miles from the nightclub where the tragedy occurred, as Salman’s trial began. 'FRY’ HER,' his sign read, 'TILL SHE HAS NO ‘PULSE.'  It didn’t seem to occur to many people that Noor Salman might have been a victim of Mateen, too.
Salman’s trial cast doubt on everything we thought we knew about Mateen. There was no evidence he was a closeted gay man, no evidence that he was ever on Grindr. He looked at porn involving older women, but investigators who scoured Mateen’s electronic devices couldn’t find any internet history related to homosexuality. (There were daily, obsessive searches about ISIS, however.) Mateen had extramarital affairs with women, two of whom testified during the trial about his duplicitous ways.
Mateen may very well have been homophobic. He supported ISIS, after all, and his father, an FBI informant currently under criminal investigation, told NBC that his son once got angry after seeing two men kissing. But whatever his personal feelings, the overwhelming evidence suggests his attack was not motivated by it.

As far as investigators could tell, Mateen had never been to Pulse before, whether as a patron or to case the nightclub. Even prosecutors acknowledged in their closing statement that Pulse was not his original target; it was the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex. They presented evidence demonstrating that Mateen chose Pulse randomly less than an hour before the attack. It is not clear he even knew it was a gay bar. A security guard recalled Mateen asking where all the women were, apparently in earnest, in the minutes before he began his slaughter."
I want to be clear that I see queer people's terror (including my own) in response to the Pulse shooting as entirely legitimate. All narratives aside, the facts at hand in the immediate aftermath were that Mateen did indeed slaughter people at a gay bar, and living in a society that constantly tells you that you are less than for being queer, this type of tragedy is horrifying and seems very obviously targeted at you.

Yet, Jeltsen documents the swift carelessness with which mainstream media outlets began linking Salman to the crime (Sample New York Post headline: "She could have saved them all"). Here, how might have implicit and explicit biases against Muslims informed the widely-believed narrative that Mateen and his wife were co-conspirators in a targeted hate crime against gays?

How many people have been misinformed about a myriad of facts in the two years since the tragedy occurred? How many people will ever have their perceptions or knowledge of this tragedy corrected?

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