False claims started spreading about the Bondi Junction stabbing attack as soon as it happened

<span>Six people were killed after Queensland man Joel Cauchi went on a stabbing spree at Bondi Westfield shopping centre on Saturday. The attack ended when police shot Cauchi dead about 4pm. </span><span>Photograph: Dean Lewins/EPA</span>
Six people were killed after Queensland man Joel Cauchi went on a stabbing spree at Bondi Westfield shopping centre on Saturday. The attack ended when police shot Cauchi dead about 4pm. Photograph: Dean Lewins/EPA

The police operation in Bondi Junction was still under way on Saturday as false claims about the attacker’s motivations and identity began to circulate online.

Police said on Sunday they had no indication that the stabbing spree committed by Queensland man Joel Cauchi was motivated by a particular belief system – but that didn’t stop speculation spreading on social media that the assailant was motivated by a variety of religious or political ideologies.

“There is still to this point nothing – no information we have received, no evidence we’ve recovered, no intelligence that we have gathered – that would suggest that this was driven by any particular motivation, ideology or otherwise,” the NSW police assistant commissioner, Anthony Cooke, said on Sunday.

Each tragedy that attracts global attention is now an opportunity for social media accounts to attract followers and revenue off the back of inflammatory claims, or to fit the incident into a predetermined narrative before the facts have emerged, and this weekend was no different.

Esther Chan, a disinformation researcher, said “Islamophobic and anti-immigrant comments” were rife online in the hours after the Bondi Junction stabbing, including speculation about the perpetrator’s skin colour, appearance and supposed religion.

Related: Joel Cauchi: who was the Queensland man who carried out the Bondi Junction mass stabbing?

“In fact, several X accounts based outside of Australia and each with a large following were among the earliest to share these videos, some unverified, alongside comments with a racist or Islamophobic undertone,” she said.

“It’s important to beware of how incidents like this can be used to promote harmful narratives.”

In the aftermath of the attack, several prominent verified accounts on X, including those of journalists and far-right political leaders in the UK, speculated without evidence that the person responsible was motivated by Islamic faith.

The verified account of Julia Hartley-Brewer, a presenter on British channel TalkTV, claimed the attacker was an “Islamist terrorist”, which she later clarified was incorrect. The verified account of Britain First co-founder Paul Golding made similar allegations, which had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

The Australian Muslim Advocacy Network (AMAN) collected examples of “xenophobic and racist” remarks made in the Facebook comment threads of Australian news outlets following the attack on Saturday evening.

An AMAN spokesperson said they were full of dehumanising tropes about Muslim people. “Because of the high emotion triggered by the actions, we see people’s real sentiment and prejudice come to the fore,” the spokesperson said.

“It’s really important for social media platforms and media companies to moderate those threads and those posts.”

Wrong attackers named

Amid the deluge of false claims, at least two people were wrongly named as the attacker on social media – one by a major news outlet – before police officially revealed Cauchi’s identity on Sunday morning.

Related: Bondi Junction mass stabbing attack: who are the six victims?

The name Benjamin Cohen began to circulate online Saturday evening, spurred on by several verified accounts on X, some with more than 1.7 million followers and others that regularly share anti-Semitic commentary.

The name also spread on Telegram, where Australian far right accounts eagerly seized on false allegations the perpetrator was first Muslim and then Jewish, as well as in the comment sections of videos about the incident on Instagram and TikTok.

Accounts linked to the pro-Kremlin activist Simeon Boikov, who goes by Aussie Cossack online, shared Cohen’s name on X and Telegram to a combined 93,000 followers on Saturday night as well as that of another man in “unconfirmed” reports about the attacker’s identity.

“I was simply commenting on the fact that there were unconfirmed reports circulating,” Boikov told Guardian Australia from the Russian consulate in Sydney. “At no time did I claim that was fact.”

Guardian Australia is not suggesting Boikov published Cohen’s name due to a financial motive.

A Sydney man by the name of Benjamin Cohen, whose LinkedIn profile was shared on X by accounts falsely claiming he resembled the attacker, said people were attempting to “push an agenda and spread hatred”.

“It’s extremely disappointing to see thousands of people mindlessly propagating misinformation without even the slightest thought put to fact-checking or real life consequences,” he said in a statement to Guardian Australia.

Max Kaiser, the executive officer of the Jewish Council of Australia, said the false claims naming Cohen were spread to drive antisemitism. “We unequivocally condemn any attempts to stoke fear, hatred, or discrimination against migrants, Muslims or Jews in the aftermath of this horrific event.”

The false accusation was further boosted in an incident described as a “human error” by the news outlet Seven, which incorrectly named Cohen as the perpetrator on its website and in a YouTube caption – both since removed. He was also named on air early Sunday morning.

Seven did not respond to questions about the origin of its incorrect claim concerning Cohen. Screenshots from the Seven website circulated as so-called “proof” of the shooter’s identity.

A Seven spokesperson said the network “sincerely apologises” for the error: “It was escalated immediately and rectified,” he said.

Cohen’s name was still trending on X on Sunday, with more than 70,000 posts linking the name to the attack.

The antifascist research group White Rose Society tracked many of the misleading claims made about the attack over the weekend, including those from neo-Nazis accounts claiming the offender was non-white “to fit into their anti-immigration narrative”.

“Disinformation on X is rewarded – literally financially, but also in that the first story that gets out there is often the one that stays in people’s heads,” they said.