Employees leave YouTube headquarters after being allowed to briefly enter the building in San Bruno, Calif. on Wednesday, April 4, 2018. On Tuesday, disgruntled video maker Nasim Aghdam shot and wounded three YouTube employees before turning the gun on herself.
In the moments following a shooting at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, a report circulated that the assailant was wearing a “headscarf.”
Almost immediately, and to the despair of Muslim Americans and others, speculation on social media ignited — with some conservatives asking why the shooter would be wearing a scarf in the sunny weather.
Others were more pointed, with one posting pictures of Muslim women wearing the hijab on Twittter while saying he was “trying to find Google images of the active shooter.”
Another user simply added a hashtag to the shooting report: #islam.
Hours later, the speculation reached a pitch, when police released the shooter’s name.
“Oh the irony,” one person wrote on Twitter. “Jihadi Nasim Aghdam decided to attack YouTube on #LoveAMuslim day!? PS — DO NOT BELIEVE THE MEDIA — This was NOT a domestic dispute and the “Religion of Peace” is not Peaceful!”
The tweet was shared more than 1,500 times and included responses with memes calling for Muslims to be kicked out of the country. Another user simply said: “Called it!”
In the end, investigators said the shooter, Nasim Aghdam, was angry about YouTube’s “policies and practices” — a message echoed by her family. And her videos reportedly included messages describing herself as of the Baha’i faith — a religious minority in Iran.
The same pattern has often emerged following mass violence — a wave of presumptions that the incident is linked to a perpetrator’s religious practices, assumed to be Islam. Muslim Americans, and others, see a profoundly unsettling routine.
“It’s sad to see how some people are literally giddy rather than somber after a shooting when they can exploit the tragedy to further their racist agenda,” said Dalia Mogahed, research director for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that seeks to empower American Muslims.
“Blaming someone’s perceived religious or cultural background for bad behavior for no other reason except that they aren’t white and Christian,” she said, “is the definition of bigotry.”
Karen North, a professor at the University of Southern California and an expert in social media and psychology, said people have long been drawn to simple generalizations about threatening phenomenons to make themselves feel safer.
“People like the world to be predictable and understandable to them,” she said. “If they categorize it as someone doing something in a manner that makes it understandable, then it segregates it from them and the people around them, and it makes the world seem more predictable.”
North said what’s changed is the means of broadcasting these opinions broadly. What’s more, she said, people tend to push online for “confirmatory evidence” of their beliefs.
“We all do that,” she said, “for things we like and things we dislike.”
Steven Weber, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, said, “This to me is one of those instances where social media is a loudspeaker for things that people would think and say otherwise, not the source of those things per se.”
After Aghdam’s bizarre videos circulated across the internet, some commenters swam against the tide of connecting her motives to Islam.
One right-wing commentator said he didn’t see a connection between the shooter and “radical Islam,” before adding, “She seems to be your standard unhinged entitled liberal who went homicidally nuts when she didn’t get her way.”