• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Call For Fox News To Delete Misleading Tweet on Quebec Shooting Shows Problem of “Zombie News”

From the Independent:

Fox News has deleted a “false and misleading” tweet that claimed the suspect in the Quebec mosque terror attack was of Moroccan origin, following a call from the office of the Canadian Prime Minister for the network to remove the post.

…Early reports of the shooting suggested two men had been arrested following, one of whom was of Moroccan origin, though the man was found to have been a witness and later released by police without charge.

The Fox News Tweet stated “Suspect in Quebec mosque terror attack was of Moroccan origin, reports show”, and clicked through to a story which has since been updated to reflect later developments. It has since been established that sole suspect now in custody is a white man who holds far-right and anti-Islam views; if it is true that the killer shouted “Allahu Akbar”, as “witnesses” reportedly claim, it seems reasonable to conclude that this was done in mockery of those he was in the process of murdering. In any case, the mosque would have been an unlikely (incoherent, even) target for a Jihadi, even allowing for sectarianism.

The continuing existence of the Fox Tweet until just now raises an issue similar to that fake news: something we may call “zombie news”, the persistence of old and inaccurate reports that nevertheless continue to float around on the internet like ordure that refuses to flush away. Fox had of course issued later Tweets that had superseded the original, but thanks to Re-Tweets the earlier version was still being re-published. Anyone who clicked on the link would have seen the later developments – but headlines are often consumed without generating click-throughs.

The general problem, it seems to me, is likely to be exacerbated by urls embedded in social media, which cause headlines to appear but not their dates, meaning that a debunked and discredited media report can continue to circulate if it remains live on the source’s website.

Outdated information can also be weaponized into fake news. Type “Mohamed Khadir” into Twitter, and as of 1 February results continue to show new Tweets identifying him as a Quebec gunman – despite the fact that his innocence has been established beyond reasonable doubt. In particular, such Tweets direct readers to Pamela Geller’s site, where the virulent anti-Islam activist continues to host a 30 January article headlined “Quebec mosque shooters identified as Moroccan Muslim Mohamed Khadir and Alexandre Bissonnette”, and in which she boasts that “As I predicted last night, the shooters in the Quebec mosque attack are Muslim, as is generally the case in these circumstances.” Of course, the Fox News item was never such a wild extrapolation as Geller’s article is, but like Fox she was working with what was thought to be the case at the time, rather than making up a story from whole cloth.

Geller doesn’t have any general principle against amending her site – in 2012, she deleted a claim that Barack Obama wears a Muslim ring after the story was debunked. In that instance, she knew that the story made her look foolish – but perhaps this time she’s calculated that there is more to be gained by continuing to spread a lie. After all, Alex Jones is continuing to assert that Khadir is guilty, just as in 2013 Glenn Beck accused an innocent Saudi student injured at the Boston bombings of having been the mastermind (Beck eventually settled a libel action).

Geller’s sidekick Robert Spencer is little better – he also deletes (but does not correct) untrue stories when it suits him (e.g. here and here), but in this instance the original headline remains on his Jihad Watch website: “Quebec mosque mass murderers: Alexandre Bissonnette and Mohamed Khadir”. Underneath the dateline is now a churlish note conceding that “Now police say that Bissonnette is the sole suspect.”

Both articles are continuing to be spread on social media, and I doubt either of them loses any sleep over the falsehood.