Toronto

Toronto imam who was face of 'completely false' Harvey story calls out 'industry of hate'

Toronto imam Ibrahim Hindy says he awoke to the sound of his phone buzzing Saturday and learned someone had put a photo of him in a story claiming a mosque outside Houston had refused help to hundreds displaced by Hurricane Harvey. Now he's speaking out.

Site says its content is fiction but it's 'proud to present it to those who will have called it real anyway'

A picture of a Toronto imam was used by a fake news website for a false story about a mosque in Houston refusing entry to non-Muslims in the wake of Harvey 2:11

Toronto imam Ibrahim Hindy set out to perform the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca in Saudi Arabia this week knowing it would be one of the most memorable experiences of his life, but he had no idea when he was away that he would become the face of a disturbing online story that would be shared thousands of times.

On Saturday, Hindy said he awoke to the sound of his phone buzzing incessantly and learned someone had put a photo of him front and centre in a story claiming that a mosque outside flood-ravaged Houston had refused help to hundreds displaced by tropical storm Harvey.

Screenshots of his face under the article titled "Hurricane victims storm and occupy Texas mosque who refused To help Christians" filled his social media feed. The problem, said Hindy, was he had never heard of the mosque or even been to Texas. 

'The whole thing was kind of surreal'

"The whole thing was kind of surreal," Hindy told CBC News. "I'm in the middle of a desert, just minding my own business, and somehow I get dragged into this thing out of nowhere."

'It's getting people riled up on the basis of things that are completely false and completely made up,' Toronto imam Ibrahim Hindy says about why he chose to speak out against an online article, featuring a photo of him, that claims a mosque outside Houston had refused help to hundreds displaced by tropical storm Harvey. (Facebook)

At first, Hindy decided to ignore the article. It was so outlandish, he said, there's no way anyone would believe it.

"But as I thought about it more, I thought this is the kind of thing that can actually be dangerous," he said. "It's going out there, it's inflaming emotions, it's getting people riled up on the basis of things that are completely false and completely made up. And frankly, someone could see my image there and think that I'm this terrible person and come after me."

The article was posted on TheLastLineOfDefense.org, whose about section reads: "While everything on this site is a satirical work of fiction, we are proud to present it to those who will have called it real anyway."

If the numbers are any indication, they did. By Sunday, the article had been shared over 1,800 times and picked up by at least two other sites, where it gained more than 2,500 more shares. 

Staying power due to 'emotional content'

The story is a followup to one posted a day earlier claiming the "Ramashan Mosque" turned away hundreds of Harvey victims "because it's against their religion." A search on Google Maps turns up no such building.

TheLastLineofDefense told CBC News on Monday they sometime use "random images" that may be recognized. They say they won't stop writing fake articles but are "taking even more steps to label it exactly as what it is."

"We also file DMCA notices to the hosting companies of any sites that steal our material," they wrote in an email.

The site say they've removed Hindy's image as a courtesy and issued a personal apology to the imam.

But Hindy says he's received no apology. 

Earlier Monday morning the site issued an article acknowledging the story was fake and accusing Canadian media of having inflated it into a bigger one.

"The site is fictitious and run by liberal trolls, who turn around and expose the people who respond as racists after they share the post," it claimed, adding "the imam from Toronto is a fine man." 

"His religion is one of peace; his brothers and sisters opened their holy places and their homes before the storm," the response said.

Many of the fears that fake or hoax stories play on are white America's racial fears.- Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at Snopes.com

But real or not, Hindy said, the episode highlights how anti-Muslim sentiment, and hate in general, sells. 

"People will read them and they'll buy it because it exploits their fear of Muslims, it exploits their prejudice and so they'll click their links and they'll go to their websites and these people will make money off them — but in doing so, they're really sowing discord," he said. "This really shows you this industry of hatred and the way that it operates."

Hindy's photo was used on the story posted to TheLastLineofDefense.org. He says he has never heard of the mosque or even been to Texas. (CBC)

Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of Snopes.com, agrees, saying one of the telltale signs of fake news is emotional content. 

"Many of the fears that fake or hoax stories play on are white America's racial fears," Binkowski told CBC News, saying the story about Hindy "was clearly intended to stoke racial animosity in general and fear against Muslim people — who get  coded as 'other' automatically — in particular. We see a ton of that in the U.S. right now.

"These stories have staying power because of that emotional content. Either they are helping people reinforce their views of the world, or they are providing a narrative structure that nudges people down a road of being open to more anger or fear-inducing stories."

'A fine line between reality and falsehood'

Jane Lytvynenko, a reporter with Buzzfeed News who writes a regular column debunking fake news stories, said that when false stories are picked up by other sites, it's sometimes accidental. But often, the reasons are financial. 

"Essentially what happens when you click on a story is you're bombarded by all kinds of ads and this is bringing in really good money for a lot of them."

In the wake of the flooding in Houston, Lytvynenko said she kept a running tally of fake news stories and found everything from insurance scams to false photos and even fake weather reports. All, she said, get in the way of the stream of legitimate information, especially when they're so easily shared on Facebook and other social media. 

"A lot of the time, the fake news walks such a fine line between reality and falsehood that these platforms don't necessarily want to be the arbitrators of what's real and what's fake," Lytvynenko said. 

Earlier this year, Google and Facebook announced they were introducing tools to help users identify credible information to Canadians in an effort to crack down on fake news. 

An opportunity to shine a light

Part of that effort, Binkowski said, can involve adjusting platforms' algorithms to put labels on items that aren't credible and show related links to fact-checking websites. Snopes, Binkowski said, is working with Facebook and Twitter on exactly that. 

For his part, Hindy said he's considering legal options to have his photo taken down. But he remains concerned about the larger problem of misinformation vilifying specific communities. 
TheLastLineOfDefense.org says: 'While everything on this site is a satirical work of fiction, we are proud to present it to those who will have called it real anyway." (CBC)

Nevertheless, he said, the experience is an opportunity to shine a light on powerful stories of communities coming together in the wake of tragedy to help one another.

An example of that, he said, are the numerous mosques in Houston that have opened their doors to storm evacuees, and the joint effort by the non-profit Islamic Relief USA and the Red Cross to set up a shelter for 5,000 people in Dallas.

"These are beautiful stories that people really need to know about and understand that there are so many good people in different communities, and we can work together and we can have a society where people are different and yet have mutual respect for each other."

About the Author

Shanifa Nasser

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Shanifa Nasser is an investigative journalist interested in national security and stories with a heartbeat. Before coming to CBC News, she was a Munk Fellow in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto. She also holds a Master's degree in Islamic Studies. shanifa.nasser@cbc.ca

With files from Adrian Cheung