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Why the media is quick to identify the YouTube shooter as vegan

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Mainstream media outlets have been quick to identify the YouTube shooter as a militant vegan activist, despite no indication of this being a cause for the incident.

Nasim Aghdam is the woman believed to be responsible for this week’s shooting at the YouTube headquarters which left three employees seriously injured and Aghdam dead, after she turned the gun on herself. Aghdam posted vegan and fitness related YouTube videos, as well as kept a blog where she often wrote about veganism and occasionally wrote pieces criticizing YouTube for “censoring” her videos. Despite this, it’s not entirely clear what motivated Aghdam to commit the shooting or what influenced her – and there’s no indication that her being vegan had anything to do with the shooting at all.

The mainstream media’s regular jump to connect violence with social justice movements is not only largely inaccurate but also harmful. It paints the false narrative that veganism is anything but inherently anti-violence when the entire premise of veganism stems from respecting the lives and rights of living beings.

Though there’s a common misconception that vegans don’t care about human rights or lives since the movement focuses on non-human animals, the reality is that veganism simply respects non-human lives and rights as much as it respects human lives and rights. Respecting the lives and autonomy of human and non-human animals means it’s morally wrong to kill either.

Aghdam spoke often of veganism online but she was by no means known to be active in vegan communities or activist groups. The apparent extent of her advocacy doesn’t go far beyond her attending a few PETA protests nearly ten years ago. Still, PETA nor any other vegan activist group have not claimed Aghdam as a member. For media outlets to assume she was an extremist or even to describe her as an activist, is a reach.

As one article in Gizmodo says, “Aghdam was also a vegan, of Middle Eastern heritage, and a bodybuilder. That information may tell us something worth knowing about the shooter, yet—unlike something actually informative like a tie to a radical ideology—it tells us nothing about vegans, Middle Easterners, or bodybuilders in general.”

The choice to include this information is strategic. Media outlets know a story about a shooting will be popular at a time where gun violence and gun control are some of the most topical conversations in North America. Painting this shooting as being fuelled by any particular ideology or belief system when we know so little about the shooting or shooter at all is sensationalism at it’s finest.

To capitalize on a tragic incident like this, creating the narrative of a militant extremist for the sake of page views instead of reporting the facts, is irresponsible journalism. Not only is it harmful and inaccurate to spread an unproven theory, but it’s also disrespectful to the victims of the shooting, as well as to the family of Aghdam, all of whom are grappling with the trauma and effects of this shooting.

Headlines that describe Aghdam as being a vegan, followed directly by the fact that she shot three people, imply that her veganism has something to do with the shooting. Choosing headlines and language that create a visual of social justice groups is deliberate. One headline following the shooting read “Vegan bodybuilder Nasim Aghdam shot YouTube staff in vendetta against site”. Without explicitly saying it, such language and structure leads readers to link veganism as being a cause of this shooting. It fuels the stigma that left-leaning activists are violent and extreme, encouraging the general public to disregard these “dangerous” and “crazy” ideas and movements.

What we know to be true is that the very people and animals that anti-oppression groups are advocating for, are actually the largest victims of violence and extremism.

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