Friday's horror rampage through the Melbourne CBD was quickly -- and incorrectly -- put down to two simple words by many: Islamic terrorism.
Within minutes of the first reports filtering through that there had been a terrible incident on Bourke Street, social media and blogs went into overdrive, immediately branding it an act of religiously-motivated terror.
The seemingly random nature of the attack, and the style of incident -- a car driven into a busy pedestrian area, akin to attacks in Berlin, Nantes and Nice -- saw many jumping to conclusions before any official information had been released by police. Within hours, it was confirmed the alleged attacker was not Middle Eastern but of Greek and Tongan heritage, with "an extensive family violence history" and "mental health and drug-related issues" according to police.
The Muslim terror angle, however, kept spreading.
"There are people out there looking for this stuff. Any time there's a crime incident when there are Muslims involved, they pick it up and say 'this is how Muslims operate'," Dr Andre Oboler, CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute, told The Huffington Post Australia. He watched the online discussion unfolding around the Bourke Street attack, and witnessed the "fake news" that quickly spread.
Police have asked me take down this video of man speaking to journos at scene.They're concerned it makes ppl believe it was a terror event. pic.twitter.com/2ZITIqRaD9— Andrea Hamblin (@AndieHamblin) January 20, 2017
A video tweeted by a journalist, later deleted at the request of police, helped send the theories viral. In it, a man claiming to have witnessed the driver of the car yelling "allahu Akbar".
No other witnesses reported hearing this, police were quick to assure that the incident was not terrorism-related, but despite -- or perhaps because of -- the journalist deleting the video, the claims were soon spread far and wide, mostly through a series of blogs and social media accounts researchers refer to as the "counter jihad movement".
Even Senator Pauline Hanson, who was holding a press conference around the time of the attack and was told of the incident by her adviser, immediately labelled it as a "terrorist attack".
Conservative blogs and social media lit up, convinced of a cover-up. An Australian conservative website claimed it was evidence of "Police and Mainstream Media Covering Up Melbourne CBD Mall Ram-Raid Terror Attack". The far-right United Patriots Group broadcast a live video on Facebook from Flinders Street Station, titled "what the media is hiding from you", in which UPF leader Blair Cottrell called out what he saw as a "bullshit and corrupt narrative".
Oboler is putting together a report for the Online Hate Prevention Institute around how news of the Melbourne attack spread. He said the claims of an Islamic terrorist attack circulated worldwide, ending up on right-wing and anti-Muslim blogs in many different countries.
The information continued to spread even after it was revealed the alleged offender was James Gargasoulas, also known as Dimitrious, a 26-year-old with Greek heritage who was out on bail for multiple offences and who police quickly advised had "an extensive family violence history" and "mental health and drug-related issues".
"Some of them [the blogs], as soon as they heard of an attack with a car killing people, they started looking for an angle. The initial impression was it looked like a terrorist attack, like recent ones where cars were used to target the public, then they went looking for things to support that," Oboler said.
He said "amateur sleuths" soon tracked down Gargasoulas' Facebook profiles. Social media users found two profiles allegedly belonging to the man, and among a series of garbled and confusing posts, soon uncovered and spread one post in particular.
On one of the profiles, which bore the name but no photos of Gargasoulas (and which now appears to have disappeared from Facebook), the owner of the page claimed he was an "Greek Islamic Kurdish ANGEL OF CULT". The same comment also makes reference to Yazdânism, a pre-Islamic religion whose Yazidi followers have actually been targeted by ISIS forces. He also mentions Freemasonry, Scientology and the Illuminati in his posts.
"There is exactly one reference with Islam in it, it mentions Islam but what he's saying is not that he is Muslim. He's talking about belonging to this older religion, nothing to do with Islam, and his posts after show he doesn't follow that religion either," Oboler said.
"That comment was also picked up by internet sleuths, taken out of context for a short quote, but anyone who looks into it will see it doesn't make sense."
Oboler said it was becoming common for regular citizens to track down alleged perpetrators of high-profile crimes online -- many did in this case, judging from the thousands of negative and threatening comments left on pages bearing Gargasoulas' name -- but that such activity could actually do more harm than good.
"People are trying to do something and make a contribution, but these sort of things really need to be left to professionals. The media does this [investigation] as well but they know where the line is, they know what to say when it's before the courts, they know the rules and the reasons for it," Oboler said.
"The amateur approach doesn't recognise it can cause devastating harm and disrupt the justice system."
Oboler said police and journalists worked well to quickly dispel fears of an Islamic terrorism attack, but that the "counter jihad movement" seemed to latch onto the story even more after the denials and the tweet was deleted.
"This talk of hiding the story, it's a stock narrative from alternative media from two angles. First, it's being used to promote themselves, and being pushed by this movement to say they're joining up all the dots," he said.
"There is no big picture, they're putting together all these random things. It's a case of presenting and selecting facts, intentionally constructed to create a negative narrative about Muslims."
Oboler's full report will be available on the OPHI's website in coming days.