If one ever needed a handy reminder of the disturbing connection between right-wing punditry and the possible radicalization of a troubled mind, look no further than the man who shot and killed six innocent men in a Canadian mosque in January.
Last month in Quebec, 28-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and now faces up to 150 years in prison for the deadly attack in which 19 people were injured. The sentencing hearing, currently underway in Quebec City, has exposed Bissonnette’s penchant for right-wing media and raised questions about if and how his fascination with that propaganda influenced his murderous rampage.
Included in the evidence shown to reporters covering the sentencing was a list of the Twitter accounts Bissonnette checked obsessively in the month leading up to his attack on the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre on Jan. 29. A 45-page document presented in court detailed the contents of his laptop and his extensive internet-search history. It shows a man consuming a steady diet of predominantly U.S. pundits and conspiracy theorists, most of whom are right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.
Canada has its own French- and English-language right-wing pundits, and Quebec-City has its own French-language radio shock jocks, who are commonly referred to here as “radio poubelle” (“trash radio”). But Bissonnette seems to have been much more interested in ― and potentially influenced by ― pundits and politicians outside of the country.
The court evidence showed Bissonnette searched the internet over 800 times for U.S. President Donald Trump from Jan. 1 to Jan. 29. He agreed with Trump’s Muslim travel ban, was against immigration to Quebec and was inspired by French far-right politician Marine Le Pen. But the report suggests he was obsessed with U.S. right-wing pundits and professional alt-right trolls.
“The report shows a man consuming a steady diet of predominantly U.S. pundits and conspiracy theorists, most of whom are anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.”
Bissonnette did not have his own Twitter account, but at the very top of the list of accounts he checked the most was that of Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator, columnist, TV host, editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire and former editor-at-large of Breitbart News. Bissonnette checked Shapiro’s site a staggering 93 times in the month preceding the murders. Shapiro is known for routinely making anti-Arab and anti-Muslim comments online and on his websites, a habit that has placed him on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch.
Among the many questionable statements Shapiro has made is his claim that most Muslims in the world and in the U.S. are radicalized. “We’re above 800 million Muslims radicalized, more than half the Muslims on Earth. That’s not a minority. That’s now a majority,” he said in 2014, a claim the nonpartisan fact-checking website Politifact concluded was false. In 2016, Shapiro promoted an article on The Daily Wire that called the Muslim presence in Europe a “disease.”
Some of the other right-wing pundits and trolls included on the list are Breitbart editor and Daily Wire writer John Nolte, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Infowars host Alex Jones, white nationalist Richard Spencer, conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, alt-right YouTube personality Paul Joseph Watson, former KKK leader David Duke and former White House strategist Stephen Bannon.
Many of these pundits have a well-deserved reputation for spreading fake news and dangerous conspiracy theories. Jones, known as much for his viral tantrum-like meltdowns as he is for his over-the-top conspiracy theories, has accused the U.S. government of being involved in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and of faking moon landings. A staunch gun-control opponent, Jones calls the Sandy Hook school massacre a “giant hoax.” Three parents whose children were killed in the shooting recently sued him for defamation.
Cernovich is one of America’s most prolific alt-right provocateurs; he once tweeted that “diversity is code for white genocide.” In 2017, he joined forces with Jones to co-host a show on Infowars. Paul Joseph Watson is an English YouTube personality, radio host and the British editor of Infowars. According to him, moderate Islam does not exist because “Islam is a violent, intolerant religion which, in its current form, has no place in liberal Western democracies.” He often shares bizarre and untrue stories that are then regurgitated by anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sites. Watson is also critical of feminism and believes there’s a war on men and masculinity. His videos carry headlines like “Why Are Feminists Fat and Ugly?” Nolte is the editor-at-large of Breitbart, a website that routinely publishes anti-Muslim, misogynistic and bigoted claims. Discussing the Academy Awards on Breitbart Radio, Nolte said, “All of a sudden all these black people are getting awards.” Bissonnette checked Nolte’s Twitter account 76 times in the month leading up to the assault on the mosque.
Despite their differences in style, chosen media format and levels of extremism in their messages, what most of these pundits and conspiracy theorists have in common is hatred of Muslims and a general distrust of immigrants and anyone who isn’t white.
“What these pundits have in common is hatred of Muslims and a general distrust of immigrants and anyone who isn’t white.”
With this hateful rhetoric, Shapiro and his ilk teach their audiences that Muslim radicalism is far more dangerous and pervasive than it is and that all Muslims are suspect simply by association. It’s ultimately a message that Bissonnette, who was obsessed with “saving people” from Muslim terrorist attacks, latched on to. The dark irony, of course, is that in order to “save” people from terrorist attacks, he carried out one himself.
Did a steady diet of American right-wing punditry turn Bissonnette into a coldblooded murderer? No one can say for sure; there are too many factors at play. His internet search history shows a troubled man suffering from anxiety and depression who maniacally searched mass shootings, large-scale attacks, images of guns and general information about feminism and Islam. But the evidence in court also clearly demonstrates that the killer was heavily preoccupied by the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric of these far-right pundits, who shaped his world view and fueled his fears.
Bissonnette’s case is in many ways eerily similar to that of Darren Osborne, the man who drove a van into a crowd of Muslim worshippers in England last year after obsessing over social media posts by far-right groups. This week, three right-wing extremists were found guilty of attempting to slaughter Muslim refugees living in an apartment complex in Kansas ― they too were radicalized by online anti-Muslim memes, online propaganda masquerading as news and conspiracy theories of the kind Bissonnette consumed.
Now the very same pundits who told Bissonnette that all Muslims are violent extremists who must be stopped are loath to acknowledge any role they might have played in radicalizing and motivating him. Shapiro, whom many are understandably pointing to as having influenced Bissonnette, angrily denied that he had anything to do with the killer’s actions. Described by one Twitter user as having “blood on [his] hands,” Shapiro shot back, “The shooter is a deranged POS who should burn in hell. If you think I’m responsible for his evil, GFY.”
The same far-right pundits who so often justify hateful rhetoric by citing the importance of “free speech” are quick to argue that it is inconsequential and irrelevant if that same speech motivates someone to carry out acts of violence. It is the height of hypocrisy: To them, speech is a right that carries no responsibility.
While Islamic radicalization is treated as the threat that it is, most right-wing pundits are given a pass. They’re seen as objectionable but ultimately harmless. Look at their base and it’s easy to see that many right-wing sites have become breeding and recruiting grounds for angry, disillusioned and scared white young men. Those men have become convinced that those who don’t look like them or pray like them are their enemy. It’s time we start treating the sources of white radicalization as the dangers that they are. We must do so before these terrorists kill even more innocent people.
Toula Drimonis is a Montreal-based freelance writer, editor and columnist.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the headline on a previous version of this column referred to the mosque’s location as Montreal. It is in Quebec City.