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Online antisemitic conspiracy theories apparently led to Channel Seven’s mistakes about Bondi attacker

Apr 22, 2024 | Alana Schetzer

Channel 7 reporter Matt Shirvington was the first mainstream media figure to falsely claim the Bondi attacker was Jewish student Ben Cohen
Channel 7 reporter Matt Shirvington was the first mainstream media figure to falsely claim the Bondi attacker was Jewish student Ben Cohen

It goes without saying that the Bondi mass murders – which occurred on the late afternoon of April 13 at Bondi Junction Westfield shopping centre – were beyond horrific. Six innocent people were murdered and 12 were injured, including a nine-month-old baby.

As Saturday afternoon turned into evening, millions of Australians held their collective breath, awaiting details and wondering how such a horror could have occurred. However, there were online actors who preferred to use that time to viciously manipulate the massacre – while the victims’ bodies were still lying on the floor inside the shopping centre – to claim that the murderer was a Jew, Israeli, Zionist, or all three, with innocent Jewish student Ben Cohen often named as the perpetrator.

This should not be seen as just some crackpot speculation but the latest episode in a 2,000 year history of blood libel and conspiracy theories that deliberately target and blame Jews for all that is wrong in the world.

What’s more, mainstream media then became a part of this antisemitic effort, after Channel Seven reporters and presenters repeatedly named Ben Cohen as the attacker, presumably based on these false online conspiracy theories. Seven is now conducting a detailed inquiry into how this happened – but at the moment, the only possible source seems to have been this online agitation.

The claims were fairly widespread across social media on the evening of April 13 and morning of April 14, especially on “X” (formerly known as Twitter) and TikTok. Prominent among those spreading these lies was pro-Putin activist Simeon Boikov, also known as the “Aussie Cossack”, who has been living inside the Russian Consulate in Sydney since December 2022 to avoid arrest following his conviction for assault. Pro-Palestinian activists quickly joined in. Maram Susli (@Partisangirl) who goes by the name ‘SyrianGirl,’ was one of the biggest accounts to do so, with 384,000 followers. Some of her tweets included: “possible terrorist attacking #Sydney Bondi junction involving 4-6 people. Some claims circulating that was an unhinged pro-Israel Zionist is behind the attack (sic).”

The account @Sonnydde, which has posted pro-Hamas and anti-Jewish content, posted several tweets on ‘X’ blaming a ‘Radical Jew’ for the murders, and making antisemitic comments. His appears to have been one of the first accounts to falsely name Cohen as the perpetrator, posting the following at 6:59 pm on April 13:. “Unconfirmed report – Terror attack in Bondi. Terrorist name is BENJAMIN COHEN. A radical Jew from Bondi Sydney. Only a Jew would stab a baby. Making sense now.”

Screenshots of some of the conspiratorial X posts spreading falsehoods about the Bondi attacker.

The same account later also posted: “Only a Jew would stab a child !!!! Why isn’t he called a terrorist!!??? He was on a ‘mission’.”

A different account claimed the killer was a Jewish IDF soldier who had “probably just returned after murdering spree in Gaza.”

Some social media users also made false claims about the killer possibly being Muslim and the killings being a possible Islamist terror attack.

The fact that the massacre occurred around the same time that Iran was attacking Israel with hundreds of missiles and drones fed into the second part of this antisemitic conspiracy theory; it led to some online theories that the shocking killings had been done by an Israeli as a way to distract the public from Iran’s own attack on Israel and further divert attention away from Israel’s own actions in Gaza.

Many of these conspiracy theorists backed up their claims by asserting that the killer – from dubious quality CCTV footage – ‘looked’ Israeli or Middle Eastern and noting the fact that the attack had occurred in Bondi – a suburb in Sydney’s eastern suburbs which is part of the ‘bagel belt’ that is home to the majority of Sydney’s Jewish population.

Cohen, a 20-year-old University of Technology Sydney student, saw his name trend on ‘X,’ with thousands of people bombarding his own ‘X’ and LinkedIn accounts.

However, this escalated further when Channel Seven named him as the “lone wolf” killer on the morning of Sunday April 14 several times, despite NSW Police having not released the killer’s name. To make matters worse, “lone wolf” is a known type of terrorism, yet NSW police had already by that point stated that terrorism was highly unlikely to be the motive in the tragedy.

Some later media reports on the mis-identification and harassment of Cohen and Seven’s actions briefly mentioned the fact that thousands of social media users “drew attention to his Jewish identity” but either played down or outright ignored the role that antisemitism and conspiracy theories played in this incident.

Cohen later released a video statement, saying: “It’s extremely disappointing to me to see people mindlessly propagating this information like this without even the slightest thought put into fact checking. But what’s even more disappointing to me is a major news network doing this, using my name without waiting for a statement from the police to verify this or going out to verify it themselves.

“This whole incident has been highly distressing and disappointing to me and my family,” he said.

A Seven spokesperson apologised for the incident in a statement issued to Mediaweek, calling it a “human error”.

Cohen has announced he will take legal action against Channel Seven but has yet to decide  whether he will do the same against the social media users who actively spread the conspiracy theories.

News.com.au reported that Boikov and Susli, in a joint video message, appealed to their online supporters for financial donations in the event that they are sued.

“If we have to fight and defend ourselves against an Israeli lobby-funded defamation lawsuit against us, would you crowdfund us?” Boikov asked.

Even when facing the possibility of legal action, they trotted out yet another antisemitic trope about the power and wealth of the pro-Israel lobby.

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