They saw only what they wanted to see.
Members of a Norwegian Facebook group reportedly mistook a photograph of empty bus seats for a group of six burqa-wearing Muslim women — and responded with a slew of racist comments.
Journalist Johan Slattavik shared the snap to the “Fedrelandet viktigst” group ―which translates roughly as “Fatherland first.” “What do people think about this?” he said in the accompanying caption last week.
Slattavik was curious to see what the members’ reactions to his “little practical joke” of sharing the “old internet meme” would be, he told HuffPost via Facebook.
The group’s members often use the forum to complain about what they believe is a “recent influx of Muslims into the country,” according to Mashable.
While some of the closed group’s members appeared to understand Slattavik’s joke, it also sparked an avalanche of hate-filled replies that seemed to take it seriously.
“You can never know who is underneath,” wrote one commenter, according to The Local. “Maybe terrorists with weapons.” Other members reportedly described the image as “tragic,” “disgusting” and proof of Norway’s “Islamization.”
The comments went viral after Sindre Beyer, a political adviser for the Norwegian Labour Party who had been monitoring the group’s activities, shared screen grabs of the replies to his personal account on Friday:
“I’m shocked by how much hate and fake news is spread there,” he told the Nettavisen newspaper. “The hatred that was displayed toward some empty bus seats really shows how much prejudices trump wisdom.”
Slattavik told HuffPost that his stunt had prompted “some angry reactions” and he believes he’s now been banned from the group.
But his social experiment had proven an “educational” means of examining “the differences between legitimate criticism of immigration to Europe, and blind racism and xenophobia,” he said.
“As a journalist myself I am fascinated by social mechanisms such as group polarization, and how people’s perceptions of an impression are influenced by how others around them react,” Slattavik added.
This article has been updated with new details, including comment from Slattavik.