Navigating a cryptic post and dark corners of the internet after Toronto's van attack
A tricky time-stamp and little-known term made it difficult to verify an image of an odd Facebook post
In the hours immediately after a van attack in Toronto left 10 dead and many more badly injured in hospital, a Facebook post began to make the rounds among some local journalists.
In fact, it was a photo of a status update that appeared to come from the account of 25-year-old Alek Minassian.
Minassian is the man who is now accused of driving a rental truck down Toronto's Yonge Street on Monday, apparently with the intent of hitting as many people as he could.
The photo raised a host of questions but primarily: Was the post real?
Because it was a screenshot of a post, it was harder to verify.
And what did it even mean? The text appeared to be a cryptic mix of military jargon and obscure internet references.
CBC News technology reporter Matthew Braga was one of the journalists assigned to the first task of trying to determine if the post was fake. In the wake of deadly events, it's a grotesque reality that some will try to intentionally mislead journalists and police by producing fake leads.
"This is, I think, why a lot of us were on high alert," says Braga. "You basically have a photo of someone holding a phone — and so how do we know this photo is even real? How do we know that someone hasn't modified the text? Has made it to look like it was actually his profile?"
The Facebook profile photo is the same as one that appears on Minassian's LinkedIn account, so it wouldn't have been difficult for someone to create a fake post.
A simple search for Minassian's Facebook page could have provided some proof, but those searches produced nothing.
"By the time, I think, a lot of us were looking for that proof, the Facebook page had already been taken down, which only fuelled speculation that perhaps this was just one big hoax," Braga says.
An archived version of the page was eventually obtained, suggesting it had previously existed. In addition to information being collected by other journalists in the newsroom, Braga says that helped build up a "body of evidence that suggested this post was indeed real."
But there was still the question of the time-stamp on the post: 5:27 p.m.
That was well after the attack took place and after Minassian had been arrested, local time, meaning it was highly unlikely he could have sent it.
Braga believes the confusion sprang from the format of the time-stamp: it was in UTC time, or Coordinated Universal Time, not Eastern Time.
"When you did the conversion, what we got was 1:27 [p.m.]," he says.
By that point, other CBC journalists working on the story had learned Toronto police had also seen the post — and it would be forming part of their investigation.
That alone made it newsworthy.
Facebook later confirmed to Braga that the post came from a real account registered to an Alek Minassian. Police have since confirmed it was sent just minutes before the attack.
While the veracity of the post was being assessed, other journalists were trying to figure out what it meant.
The post doesn't specifically reference an attack but a "rebellion" and makes no mention of Yonge Street, Toronto or impending violence. And it makes mention of "incel" — a term many journalists conceded they'd never heard.
But Mack Lamoureux had. He's previously reported on the existence of the so-called incel sites for Vice News.
"Essentially, incel is an online subculture, you could call them. They exist within this thing that is colloquially referred to as 'the manosphere'," he says. "You can't really view this group as monolithic, but what they all have at the centre is extreme misogyny."
Incel, many of us have since learned, is a term used predominantly by men who identify as "involuntarily celibate" because no one is willing to have sex with them. Though it can't be said everyone in the online community advocates violence against women, much of what's found on relevant sites does.
"You go in there thinking it's a support group for men," says Lamoureux. "But then you're faced with virulently misogynistic anti-women [posts] … advocating rape, advocating violence."
That produced the next hard question for journalists: Would reporting on the nature of incel propel the obscure and disturbing websites into a much larger public sphere?
"It's a really tricky thing to balance," says Lamoureux.
"I've done reporting on, say, militia groups and other groups, where I've seen their numbers bloom after my stories have come out — after my investigations have come out. And it's kind of difficult to watch that," he says.
"We don't want to keep the information from the public because we're worried that their community is going to grow. But you also don't want to share their ideas. And it's a difficult balancing act."
For journalists trying to make sense of what happened in the immediate aftermath of Monday's attack, nothing about reporting on the story was easy. As more details emerge in the case, it's unlikely that will change.
Diana Swain and University of Toronto professor Judith Taylor answer questions about the online world of the "involuntarily celibate" below:
Matthew Braga and Mack Lamoureux were both interviewed for this week's episode of The Investigators with Diana Swain. The show also features the CBC's Eric Rankin on his investigation into two foreign-trained doctors who lost their B.C. medical licences after repeatedly failing their qualifying exams.