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As the Sydney Siege Comes to an End, Hundreds of Thousands of Tweets Show Solidarity with Muslims

Hostages taken at Lindt Chocolat cafe in Martin Place – Sydney. Photo by Demotix/Richard Milnes

The 16-hour hostage situation at Lindt Café in Martin Place at Sydney's busy Financial District came to an end with commandos storming the cafe killing the lone gunman Man Haron Monis, but coverage of the siege continues to bring the best and worst of mainstream and social media in Australia.

In between thousands of tweets, hours of live broadcast and hundreds of web pages, some facts have proven to be inaccurate and misleading, and some angles had dangerous Islamophobic overtones.

Early on the gunman made the hostages hold up a black flag with Arabic writing at the cafe window. Many reports that followed had angles which alarmed some Sydney social media users who joined a hashtag campaign #IllRideWithYou. The campaign is meant to show solidarity with Sydney's Muslims who might feel uncomfortable taking public transport following the cafe siege. The hashtag has been used hundreds thousands of times and gone viral all over the world. 

Sloppy Reporting

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reports “Monday's siege in the CBD has seen a number of myths circulating on social media and in the press.”

Keith Fitzgerald, a crisis negotiator expert, after seeing the front page of a special edition newspaper, asked journalists in Australia to condemn the Daily Telegraph: 

2GB radio presenter Ray Hadley also created several rumours live and on air during his daily show. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the disinformation in this article could create race-based discrimination. The ironic Twitter user ‘The Daily Rupert‘ tweets:

And some headlines could raise unnecessary panic like this one published on Twitter by an ABC News reporter:

#IllRideWithYou

Chris Graham, the founder of the New Matilda blog wrote ten predictions of what is going to happen in the aftermath of the siege. The first is the “possible raise of violence directed against Muslims, in particular Muslim women”. 

On Twitter, 33-year-old blogger Tessa Kum created the hashtag ‪#illridewithyou‪ in solidarity with Muslims who might feel uncomfortable riding public transport in Australia after the Sydney siege was reported with racial undertones. 

This solidarity movement started after a journalist tweeted a screen grab from a Facebook update by a Sydney-based teacher and dancer named Rachel, regarding her experience on a Sydney train posted as soon as the siege started:

She said “a Muslim Woman sitting besides her silently removed her hijab because she didn´t want to show signs of her religion for fear of misplaced retaliation from commuters in relations to the siege situation that was occurring in Martin Place, Sydney.”

SirTessa RTed Michael James tweet and tweeted:

The hashtag took over within an hour.

As the campaign took off the teacher and dancer whose Facebook post gave the impetus for the hashtag tweeted:

Siege Selfies

The police evacuated the area and created safe distance zones for the media, but these safe areas were also full of people that wanted to stay close to the action, as if they were watching a movie. Though it was a very real and dangerous situation some even took selfies and posted them on Twitter:

Aisha Dow from the newspaper The Age, writes “Cheerful onlookers have been snapping mobile phone “selfies” at the perimeters of the Sydney siege as a still unknown number of hostages remain prisoners of a gunman.”

During the afternoon five hostages managed to flee from Lindt Café, it is not clear if the gunman freed them or they managed to run away.

17 hostages were caught up in the siege, four were injured. Besides the gunman, two hostages were killed after getting caught in the crossfire. 

The Lone Gunman

The 50-year old hostage taker was an Iranian asylum seeker, who had been living in Australia since 1996.  Authorities believe he acted alone in the siege. He was well-known to the police and was in court recently. He had faced dozens of charges on indecency and sexual assault. In 2013, he pleaded guilty to sending hate letters to the families of deceased Australian soldiers. He was also implicated as an accessory in the murder of his ex- wife. 

Within Sydney's Muslim community he is believed to be an outsider. Reports suggest he had been sidelined by Shia leaders, who had urged federal police to investigate  him over his claims to be an “ayatollah”, or leading cleric. Reports from his blog, which has now been taken down, suggest he converted to Sunni Islam last week. He also reportedly claimed on his blog to be an expert in astrology, numerology, meditation and black magic.

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