Case Study 2: Tracking back the origin of a critical piece of evidence from the #OttawaShooting
“Fear has big eyes,” goes an old Russian folk saying. “What it sees is what is not there.”
This is a story about fear’s big eyes and the things that were not there.
At approximately 9:50 a.m. on Oct. 22, 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed a soldier guarding the Canadian War Memorial in Ottawa. In a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood thriller, Zehaf-Bibeau then charged into the halls of parliament, where he was eventually shot and killed.
Two days earlier, a Canadian soldier was killed when he was deliberately hit by a car driven by a man who had previously drawn the attention of Canadian security agencies. The ensuing shootout on Parliament Hill had Canadians on edge. Was this a terrorist attack? What motivated the attacker? Was ISIS involved?
The speculation reached fever pitch when a photo of the assailant, taken at the very moment of his attack, was posted by a Twitter account claiming affiliation with ISIS. Other Twitter accounts, and eventually Canadian journalists and the Canadian public, rapidly used the photo and the ISIS account that posted it to draw a completely imaginary connection between the assailant and ISIS.
All of this speculation, however, was based on fundamentally incorrect source attribution. The story of the photo’s actual provenance is a remarkable example of the new normal for modern journalism.
The photo was first posted by an unknown user to an Ottawa Police tweet, which asked for any information about the assailant. This occurred sometime before 2 p.m., when Montreal journalist William Reymond located the photo and took a screen capture (Reymond, who has reported extensively on his scoop, has not provided a link to the tweet from Ottawa Police. The time and content he describes suggest it was this tweet). The photo and the account that posted it were deleted almost instantly.
With this exceptional photo in his hands, and to his considerable credit, Reymond took a full two hours to verify its authenticity before posting it to his Twitter account, @Breaking3zero, at 4:16 p.m.
Reymond’s process of verification, which he describes here in detail, included comparing the facial features, clothes and weapon of the man in the photo with surveillance footage, as well as comparing it with details that emerged as witnesses and officials shared details of the attack.
Along with the rifle, two other key pieces of evidence were the fact that the man in the photo was wearing a keffieh, which witness had described, and the fact that he was carrying an umbrella. The shooter used an umbrella to conceal his weapon as he approached the War Memorial, according to reports.
Here is what Reymond tweeted:
It translates to, “After two hours of verification, a source confirmed to me that ‘it looks like the shooter.’ Proceed with caution.”
It was only after Reymond's tweet that an ISIS-related Twitter account, “Islamic Media” (@V_IMS), posted the photo, at approximately 4:45 p.m. This account too has since been suspended and deleted.
“Just twenty minutes after I published it, a French-language feed supporting the Islamic State picks up the photo and posts it,” wrote Reymond. “And that is how some media start to spread the wrong idea that ISIS is at the origin of the photo.”
Within minutes, another Twitter account, @ArmedResearch, posted the photo stating that, “#ISIS Media account posts picture claiming to be Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, dead #OttawaShooting suspect. #Canada.”
In spite of its failure to substantiate this claim or provide appropriate credit to @Breaking3zero, Canadian journalists seized upon @ArmedResearch’s claim, reporting the photo was “tweeted from an ISIS account,” with all the implications that accompany such an assertion.
But as the saying goes, facts are stubborn things. Technical data from @V_IMS’s Twitter page, captured before the account was suspended, show that @V_IMS sourced the photo from @Breaking3zero. The text in grey below shows the original source URL, from twitter.com/Breaking3zero:
The claim that the photo of Zehaf-Bibeau originated with an ISIS account is categorically false. The ISIS account that circulated the photo acquired it hours after it was originally posted to Twitter.
SecDev’s independent monitoring of ISIS’ social media shows that prominent ISIS accounts were reacting to events in Ottawa in much the same way that Ottawans and others were — posting contradictory and often incorrect information about the attack. There is no indication in social media that ISIS had prior knowledge of the attack, or that they were in any way directly affiliated with Zehaf-Bibeau.
Indeed, there is still no evidence to indicate ISIS involvement in the October attack in Ottawa. There is, however, a remarkable photo taken at an incredible moment, a testament to the game-changing power of mobile technology and social media.
The temptation to draw a connection between vivid photos like this one and our worst fears is enormous. Avoiding this temptation is one of the chief responsibilities of 21st century journalists.