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Angry extremist Facebook group thinks bus seats are burkas

Commentary: An innocent photo reveals how quickly people can leap to conclusions that confirm their beliefs, as the Facebook page of a Norwegian anti-immigrant group proves.

 Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


Nothing to see here.

screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

The internet makes us more reactive.

The instant nature of the medium allows us -- encourages us, even -- to squint at some words or a picture and instantly emit a retort. Too often, a nasty one. Too often, a myopic one as well.

Take what's happened over the last week after a single image was posted to the Facebook page of the Norwegian group Fedrelandet viktigst.

The headline on the closed group's page reads,"Yes, we love." What the group doesn't love, however, is immigrants. Fedrelandet viktigst, you see, can be translated as "Fatherland First."

As the local Nettavisen newspaper reports, Johan Slåttavik posted a picture last Thursday of an empty Norwegian bus to the group's page, saying it was a joke. 

Slåttavik asked: "What do we think of this?"

You might not immediately imagine why a photo of an empty bus would be controversial, never mind funny. Well, many of the 13,000 anti-immigrants on the page saw burka-clad women where there were only empty black bus seats.

"It looks really scary, should be banned. You can never know who is under there. Could be terrorists with weapons," commenter Ann Deborah Goldmann offered. 

"I thought it would be like this in the year 2050, but it is happening NOW!!!!" offered another oddly frightened nationalist adherent.

There was far worse.

You might wonder how these comments reached the wider sphere. Politician Sindre Beyer has been following the group for some time. He posted 23 pages of the commentary on his own Facebook page

From there, those comments have traveled day-by-day to India -- where called it "a clear case of Islamophobia" -- and beyond.

Norwegians commenting on Beyer's page seemed to pause in stunned wonder and sadness. With some humor sprinkled in.

"Think I passed the test, since the first thing I saw was a bunch of Darth Vadere [sic]," said Patrik Sahlstrøm.

"New ad for specsavers?" mused Yousef Bartho Al-Nahi, co-founder of extremism prevention organization JustUnity. 

Slåttavik told me he was taken aback by what's happened. "Both the immediate reactions of the joke, and the worldwide response afterwards. It's completely unexpected," he told me.

He said he also found it "very educational in regards to group polarization and the mind of the masses."

Though the image is now enjoying worldwide reaction, it's just another example of the way extremists continue to use to Facebook as a gathering place.

Facebook acknowledges that it has a lot to do when it comes to hate speech. The philosophical issues that surround it are treacherous. "This is free speech" cry some. "This is inciting violence," say others.

Still, there's pressure from the people some might say Facebook cares about most -- big brands -- for Facebook (and Google) to clean up the extremism on their pages.

As Beyer told Nettavisen: "So much hatred against empty bus seats certainly shows that prejudice wins out over wisdom."

That's not to say European countries don't have serious social issues when it comes to immigration. Norway has followed France, Belgium and others in moving to ban full-face coverings in its schools and universities.

One can laugh at -- as well as fear -- how quickly extreme prejudice can spread online. 

But it's the words of Facebook commenter Unni Evang that perhaps carried the largest and saddest wisdom: "They see what they want to see."

Update, 9:51 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Slåttavik