Student wrongly named as Sydney stabbings attacker speaks of ‘distress and disappointment’

Twitter users with large followings amplified the false speculation posted online by an anti-Israel account


Distressed: Benjamin Cohen was wrongly named by online trolls - and a major Australian TV network - as the man behind the Bondi Junction knife attack

An Australian university student falsely identified as the perpetrator of the Bondi Junction mass stabbing attack that left six people dead has spoken of his “distress” at being wrongly linked to the rampage.

Online trolls falsely named Ben Cohen, 20, on Saturday night as the man behind the deadly shopping centre attack that unfolded earlier that day, sharing photos of the student on X/Twitter, where his name began trending.

It appears that the fabricated claim originated on a small account sharing almost exclusively anti-Israel content, while numerous other users suggested the attack could be connected to Israel or Gaza. Other accounts with larger followings then amplified the untrue claims that Cohen could be connected.

Many of the posts on X drew attention to what users perceived to be the Sydneysider’s Jewish identity due to his surname.

New South Wales Police named the actual culprit, who was shot dead, as 40-year-old Joel Cauchi on Sunday morning.

By that time, Channel Seven, a major Australian network, had incorrectly identified Cohen as the suspect.

In a promotional clip for its Sunrise programme posted on YouTube, the broadcaster stated the culprit was “40-year-old lone-wolf attacker Benjamin Cohen”.

It appeared initially that the rumours began circulating merely because Cohen bore a physical resemblance to the true culprit, whose image was widely shared in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

But it has emerged that the false speculation can be traced to an account that posts almost exclusively anti-Israel content and that a pro-Kremlin social media influencer currently residing in the Russian consulate in Sydney appears to have been instrumental in spreading the untrue theory.

Simeon Boikov, who posts online under the moniker “Aussie Cossack” and has nearly 38,000 followers on that platform alone, was seemingly responsible for subsequently amplifying the original claim, which went on to reach hundreds of thousands of people online and via the messaging app Telegram, according to Marianna Spring, the BBC’s disinformation and social media correspondent.

In a post that appears to have been deleted, Boikov reportedly said on X on Saturday: "Unconfirmed reports identify the Bondi attacker as Benjamin Cohen. Cohen? Really? And to think so many commentators tried to initially blame Muslims."

An Australian national, Boikov has been living at Russian consulate in Sydney since December 2022 after a warrant was issued for his arrest by Australian police over an alleged assault on a pro-Ukrainian protester. Last September he was granted Russian citizenship by President Vladimir Putin.

"I never falsely suggested anything," Boikov told Spring. In fact, he insisted he was the "first large platform to warn” the false speculation around was “unconfirmed".

Commenting on the way misinformation can be spread by “seeded” narratives, which are picked up by larger accounts, digital disinformation expert Marc Owen-Jones told Spring: "It's less obvious and suspicious than if an influential and known partisan account was to initially tweet it.

"Then more established accounts can use this 'seeded' narrative as if it's a legitimate vox pop, and claim they are just 'reporting' what's being said online."

The online storm surrounding Cohen proved so frenzied in the wake of Boikov’s post, the student’s father, Mark Cohen, pleaded with New South Wales Police to release the killer’s name “before this nonsense claiming it was my son causes more harm”.

Cohen, who studies computer science at the University of Technology Sydney, teaches children to code in his spare time.

“Cohen”, is one of the most common Jewish surnames among both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. It is also the number-one family name in Israel, according to the Chassidic organisation Chabad.

In a video uploaded online, a visibly upset and shaken Cohen said: “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 for 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 try and verify it themselves.”

He added: “This whole incident has been highly distressing and disappointing to myself and my family.”

David Ossip, president of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, said: “It is difficult to imagine more irresponsible or dangerous ‘journalism’ than incorrectly identifying an innocent young man as the perpetrator of a massacre.

“In doing so, Channel Seven inexcusably amplified and lent legitimacy to the sinister antisemitic conspiracy theories circulating in the sewers of social media. They played into the hands of those who wished to exploit the tragic murder of innocent human beings, without any care or concern for the consequences.

“We grieve for those who were tragically murdered and pray for the recovery of those who have been hospitalised with injuries.”

Channel Seven apologised for naming the wrong person, saying in a statement: “The mistake was human error. It was escalated immediately and rectified. Seven sincerely apologises for the error.”

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