https://dnyuz.com/2022/09/15/a-man-tried-to-kill-the-vice-president-then-came-the-conspiracy-theories/

BUENOS AIRES — This month, a man squeezed through a crowd toward Argentina’s vice president, pointed a gun inches from her face and pulled the trigger. The gun did not go off.

In a somber address to the nation hours later, Argentina’s president called the assassination attempt one of the most serious events in the country’s history. The following day, thousands of people marched to call for an end to political violence. For a moment, it appeared that the stunning episode might bring the polarized nation together.

At least three people, including the gunman’s girlfriend, have now been arrested in connection with the attack on Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is also a former president.

Yet from the start, much of the conversation in Argentina has centered not on who pulled the trigger, what the motive was or what should be done about it — but on whether someone had actually tried to kill the vice president at all.

A sizable portion of Argentines seem to believe that Mrs. Kirchner’s life was never actually in danger. Instead, many suggest that the entire assassination attempt was an elaborate hoax, even though many of the claims being floated are baseless.

In the days following the attack, at least two-fifths of the posts on social media about Mrs. Kirchner expressed doubts about the legitimacy of the assassination attempt, according to two separate analyses of millions of posts. At the same time, an online survey of 1,650 Argentines found that more than half said they believed the attack was staged.

The speculation swirls around the idea that the ruling party orchestrated the attack to deflect attention from Mrs. Kirchner’s corruption trial, in which prosecutors are seeking a 12-year prison term.

“It was all staged. What a show! They don’t know what else to do to make her a victim,” Amalia Granata, a reality-television star turned right-wing state lawmaker, wrote to her 2.2 million followers on Twitter.

The conspiracy theories are fueled by a history of deep distrust in Argentine authorities, stemming in part from the mysterious unsolved death of a prominent prosecutor, widespread irregularities in government economic data and the unsolved bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the 1990s.

In the case of the recent assassination attempt, that skepticism has been stoked by an early mistake in the police investigation and a torrent of misinformation on social media, some of it bolstered by prominent political operatives and pundits.

There are claims that the gunman had spent time with a previous Argentine president, that he did not have his finger on the trigger when he went to shoot Mrs. Kirchner and that the gun used in the attack was actually a water pistol. All those claims have been debunked.

The two most popular false claims — that the gunman was actually a supporter of Mrs. Kirchner and that an Argentine news channel reported on the attack before it happened — have been shared more than 151,000 times on Facebook and Twitter, and viewed more than one million times on TikTok, according to an analysis for The New York Times by Chequeado, an Argentine fact-checking media agency. It is unclear how many of those shares and views may have been caused by bots.

Social media networks have removed some false claims or tagged them with fact-checking labels, but have left many posts alone.

Most Argentines “don’t trust the justice system, politicians or unions,’’ said Sergio Doval, founder of Taquion, an Argentina market research firm that conducted the other analysis of online posts. “Institutions are in crisis. Normally, if a person is hit and bleeding, the first thing you do is ask him what happened. In this case, the first reaction was to hesitate.”

The attempted assassination has become the latest example of how, in the age of the internet, the public rarely agrees on a single set of facts around a major news event, particularly when politics are involved.

The 35-year-old man accused of trying to kill Mrs. Kirchner, who had shown some affinity for the far right online, remains in police custody. His 23-year-old girlfriend and at least one other person have also been arrested.

President Alberto Fernández said the gun was loaded, but it was unclear why it did not fire.

On the streets of Buenos Aires, it is not difficult to find doubters.

People offer a variety of reasons. They find it strange that Mrs. Kirchner continued to greet supporters after the attack. (Mrs. Kirchner said she did not notice that a man had tried to shoot her.) They were suspicious why the gun did not go off. They said the government had lied before. And they felt it was fishy that Mr. Fernández immediately declared the day after the attack a national holiday, urging people to come together and support Mrs. Kirchner.

Outside the courthouse where Mrs. Kirchner’s corruption trial is being held, Marta Ojeda, a retiree, was putting up signs demanding Mrs. Kirchner be held accountable for accusations that she steered public money to an associate’s company. (Mrs. Kirchner denies the charges.) Ms. Ojeda, 71, said she believed the assassination attempt “was staged to divert attention from our high inflation.”

Mrs. Kirchner’s corruption trial has resumed and could conclude as early as December with a decision by a three-judge panel.

There were also broad misgivings from people who were less politically inclined. “I’m apolitical, but unfortunately, the government has lied so much that it’s like ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf,’” said Victor Ocampo, 67, a salesman sitting on a bench at a train station.

“I have a lot of distrust in everything: the justice system, journalism,” said Monica Rodriguez, the owner of a hardware store near where the attack happened. “The truth is going to be covered up and everything is going to remain in the dark.”

Last week, a journalist with a major TV network called it “a supposed attack” because of “the doubts that are starting to surface.” A federal lawmaker shared the clip on Twitter, mocking Mrs. Kirchner and her allies.

The government did not respond to requests for comment. Senator Jose Mayans, one of Mrs. Kirchner’s closest allies in Congress, criticized the credence being given to conspiracy theories. “By the end of the weekend, they’re going to be saying it was a suicide,” he said. “This is something that has rocked our society so deeply that we all really have to exercise some caution.”

Some Argentines said they are dubious because this was not the first murder mystery involving the government.

In the most notorious case, in 2015, a federal prosecutor was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head on the eve of planned congressional testimony. He was intending to detail accusations that Mrs. Kirchner conspired with Iran to cover up details of a Jewish community center bombing in Buenos Aires years earlier. (Mrs. Kirchner was later cleared of such accusations.)

Mrs. Kirchner and her allies have argued that the death was a suicide, while many rivals say it was a murder. The authorities have long called it a murder investigation, but the case remains unsolved.

In the attempt on Mrs. Kirchner’s life there is a clear suspect. That fact alone would, theoretically, limit conspiracy theories. But the man accused of trying to kill the vice president, Fernando Andre Sabag Montiel, has refused to cooperate with investigators. And then the police erased most of the contents on his cellphone.

Law enforcement officials tried to guess the wrong password on the phone too many times, causing it to wipe the hard drive, according to multiple news reports. It could complicate authorities’ ability to solve the case — and it added accelerant to the conspiracy theories.

Mr. Sabag Montiel’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

The conspiracy theories have also ensnared innocent people. One photograph that went viral purported to show Mr. Sabag Montiel with Mrs. Kirchner years earlier. In fact, the man in the photograph is a 24-year-old law student named Ignacio Barbieri.

Mr. Barbieri said he began receiving messages from friends when people started sharing the photo, but the outreach exploded after Ms. Granata, the right-wing state lawmaker, shared it, even after Mr. Barbieri had publicly clarified that it was a photograph of him and not Mr. Sabag Montiel.

“They’re sending messages of hate to my mom, to me, to everyone around me,” Mr. Barbieri said. His mother, he said, is more worried than him. “Imagine that your son suddenly appears as the face of the person who wanted to kill the vice president,” he said.

The post A Man Tried to Kill the Vice President. Then Came the Conspiracy Theories. appeared first on New York Times.

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