Fox News has deleted its tweet labeling a suspect in the shooting as being “of Moroccan origin.” Earlier today, Kate Purchase, Director of Communications for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, called on the network to “either retract or update” its false claim.
Twenty-four hours later, Fox News still has not corrected its erroneous tweet that a suspect in the mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec City is “of Moroccan origin.” The suspect is actually a French Canadian man named Alexandre Bissonnette who is described in one news report “as an online troll who was inspired by extreme right-wing French nationalists, stood up for U.S. President Donald Trump and was against immigration to Quebec -- especially by Muslims.”
During the evening of January 29, a gunman entered the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center and opened fire, killing six people and wounding eight others. Police initially arrested two suspects in the attack: Bissonnette and Mohamed Belkhadir, who is of Moroccan descent.
What happened next exemplifies Fox News’ tendency to try to pin the blame for high-profile acts of violence on entire communities -- but only when doing so suits the outlet’s conservative world view. Here’s a brief timeline:
At 12:05 and 12:06 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on January 30, Quebec police released two tweets indicating that only one of the arrested individuals was a suspect, and that the other is considered a witness to the attack:
At 12:31 p.m., Fox News issued its erroneous tweet, claiming, “Suspect in Quebec mosque terror attack was of Moroccan origin, reports show.” It is noteworthy that at the time the tweet was sent, Bissonnette’s identity had also been leaked to the press, but Fox News made no reference on Twitter to the French Canadian, who was a bona fide suspect:
This mistake would have been easy to correct. Given developments in the story that clearly identified Bissonnette as a suspect and Belkhadir as a witness, Fox News could have issued a new tweet with accurate information along with a note saying that it would delete the inaccurate earlier report.
Instead, hours later, Fox News responded to its initial tweet with two identical tweets that failed to clarify the earlier mistake. At 6:12 and 6:14 p.m., Fox wrote on Twitter, “@FoxNews Mosque attack suspect formally charged w/ six counts of murder; Second man cleared, identified as a witness”
At best, this update fails to clarify that the Moroccan individual is no longer a suspect in the shooting: It indicates that a “second man” was “cleared” without saying who that man is.
At worst, the update makes it seem as if the Moroccan man had subsequently been charged with murder. Imagine relying on Fox’s Twitter account as a sole source of information on who police believe perpetrated the shooting. First, there is a “suspect” who is “of Moroccan origin.” Second, the “suspect” has been charged with murder, while another man has been “cleared” and identified as a witness.
And as a practical matter, Fox News’ response likely did little to stop the spread of misinformation. The update was sent more than six hours later. While the initial erroneous report was retweeted more than 900 times, the two identical follow-up tweets were retweeted fewer than 140 times.
But there is a larger, more troubling context to Fox News’ mistake and the outlet’s subsequent failure to set the record straight.
The shooting took place just days after President Donald Trump created a national firestorm by signing an executive order temporarily barring individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. While many condemned the order as discriminatory, contrary to American values, and unconstitutional, others, including people within the Trump administration, view the order as a first step, saying it should or will be expanded to other Muslim-majority countries. In this context, it would be especially important for Fox News to correct an erroneous report that labels a person from Morocco, a majority-Muslim country, as the suspect in an act of apparent terrorism.
Fox’s actions also have implications in terms of the network's tendency to use high-profile shootings to play a collective blame game. When high-profile tragedies occur, Fox News is quick to scapegoat entire communities if doing so aligns with a conservative agenda. When Islamic extremism is the motivation for terrorist acts or African-Americans are accused of killing police officers, those communities are condemned as a whole on Fox News. When white suspects are accused of killing police officers or terrorism is motivated by right-wing extremism, Fox News goes silent.
In the case of the Quebec mosque shooting, Fox News was clearly getting ready to play the collective blame game. At the time of Fox’s erroneous tweet, both Belkhadir and Bissonnette’s names had leaked, but Fox News focused on only the Moroccan “suspect.” Now that there is no Moroccan suspect -- only a white, right-wing, Trump-supporting French Canadian suspect -- we can expect to stop hearing from Fox about this tragedy and what broader implications it might portend.