Barbara Kentner and the Danger of Fake News

A look at discourse surrounding hate crimes as lies about Kentner circulate the internet

By: Kaelen Pelaia, Staff Writer

On July 4th of this year, 34-year-old Barbara Kentner passed away in Palliative Care at St. Joseph’s Hospital due to injuries sustained from a trailer hitch, which was thrown at her out of a moving vehicle. The person responsible for throwing the hitch, 18-year-old Brayden Bushby, has been accused of second-degree murder after initially being charged with aggravated assault.

Since Kentner passed away, there have been reports of an alleged incident involving Kentner intimidating and hospitalizing an unnamed fifteen-year-old boy in an unrelated incident, supposedly to prevent the boy from testifying against her in court.

There have also been many posts on the Real Concerned Citizens of Thunder Bay Facebook page regarding the assault and later passing of Kentner. Several users have posted racist remarks regarding Kentner’s Indigenous heritage, while expressing sympathy and even praising her attacker. Members of Kentner’s family expressed concern and distress at the volume of hateful comments directed toward her. Further investigation by Tia Nicholaichuk, a 34-year-old social work student, revealed the origin of the story.

PC: Willow Fiddler/APTN National News

According to an earlier CBC article, in February of 2017, the Thunder Bay Courthouse released a redacted court document sheet containing Kentner’s name. The incident described in the sheet was the aforementioned alleged assault and intimidation of a Crown Witness in a court case from November 2016. The released document was posted on the Thunder Bay Courthouse – Inside Edition Facebook page. The released copy had the victim’s name redacted.

One of the supporters for this rumor was Thunder Bay citizen, Tyler Jeffries, who also made several posts under false identities, claiming to have known the victim personally and spread support for this constructed narrative. CBC managed to get a phone interview with Jeffries, who admitted that he “bullshitted” knowing the victim, but still believed that Kentner was “a monster” who intimidated witnesses – something that has never been proven in court.

This false narrative surrounding Barbara Kentner has caused significant distress to her family. Holly Pappassay, Kentner’s sister-in-law, said in an interview with CBC that “seeing all those posts, and knowing my nephews and my niece, Barb’s daughter, were seeing this was heartbreaking.”

The fake news surrounding Kentner is yet another instance of false narratives and outright lies being propagated on the Internet by individuals or groups of people with an agenda – in this case, racist attitudes towards Kentner substantiated on lies about her criminal record.

All of these stories and false reports are part of the far larger phenomenon of fake news and lies surfacing on social media in the last few years. Though the attention of the public is mostly directed towards the propaganda-like fake news endorsed by politicians and political parties, the more troubling instances of fake news begin to appear at local levels.

Dr. Steven Jobbitt of the Lakehead History department offered his insight to the troubling questions raised by this kind of discourse: “In an event like this, similar to the treatment of African Americans in the United States,” Jobbitt explains, making reference to the Eric Garner case: “there seems to be this kind of effort to find any time this person may have had a run-in with the law. It’s similar to the incident where there was that gentleman who was choked to death by police in the past where the explanation provided was that this man was selling cigarettes illegally.”

The main idea is that whenever the victim of violent crime belongs to a minority group of any kind, whether racial or religious, there seems to be an attitude that ‘they deserved it.’ Jobbitt remarks, “These people are looking for a way to justify the death of a woman to what essentially boils down to a hate crime.”

There seems to be an effort, conscious or not, to downplay the suffering of victims of racially or religiously motivated hate crimes. The tragedy of Kentner’s death and the lies surrounding her past are part of a far more systemic and institutionalized problem in modern society—which are not isolated to only Thunder Bay, or only Canada.

As Jobbitt emphasizes, the problem is not necessarily the fake news, but rather the dangerous rhetoric that surrounds crimes against marginalized people in our society. It begs the question: why is it that, in the event of someone having been subjected to racial violence, there is an attempt by our society to ignore the crime and instead focus on dehumanizing the victim and justifying the violence?