Big Issues

Twitter Was Already A Nightmare, Then The Bondi Attack Happened

police stand outside bondi junction westfield mall where a man stabbed many people

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

On Saturday afternoon, a man stabbed almost 20 people, killing six of them in Bondi Junction Westfield mall before he was shot dead by a police officer. It was and remains deeply unsettling, scary and sad, especially for a country that doesn’t suffer these kinds of mass killings regularly.

Like a lot of people, I jumped online to find out what was happening as events unfolded. The Sydney Morning Herald and Guardian homepages were reserved, sharing information as they received it — and, presumably, only what they were able to actually confirm.

Twitter/X, on the other hand, was a firehose of misinformation. Mostly. I obviously can’t prove anyone’s motives, but a lot of it seemed like it could have qualified for disinformation as well. Before anyone had any idea of who was committing the crime and why, Elon Musk’s platform was filled with capeless heroes bravely asserting what they, in their heart of hearts, knew to be transpiring. 

Overwhelmingly, these detectives rushed to claim that radical Islam was involved. (“If you want to know what ‘Globalise the Intifada’ looks like, see the Sydney Mall.”) As if there was some prize for being both racist and wrong first. And there is a prize: engagement and followers on X. Whether they were met with support or scepticism, these posts appeared to have been boosted by the algorithm (X has been accused of boosting hate speech in the past), especially if they came from a “verified” user with a blue tick (people who pay for the “premium” version of the app receive a quadruple boost in reach). When images emerged of the perpetrator featuring facial hair, the anti-Muslim narrative gained steam and credence. No one with facial hair has ever been anything but Muslim, the thinking went.

But then came the suggestion that the man was a Jewish terrorist named Benjamin Cohen. According to one popular post, he “looked Israeli”. “Benjamin Cohen” was trending. (As of writing, it still was — but for revenge. Like the first round, there are lots of very mad, very uninformed people with blue ticks getting involved.)

It was unbelievably disturbing to watch this play out in real-time. While officials were scrambling to de-escalate the situation or provide reliable information, the online cesspool was being stirred. Imagine having a family member or a friend who was shopping at Bondi Junction at that time, how scary it would have been. How badly you would have wanted to know what was going on, to know that everyone was safe, hoping that things wouldn’t get further out of hand. And instead you’re being funnelled to a torrent of posts from people desperately trying to force-fit this tragedy into their already corrupt narrative and justify some hateful ideology.

At the time, I thought, “Thank God none of these people are responsible for disseminating actual news and remain trapped in the hate-filled swamp of X.”

“Not so fast,” the Seven Network said. “We want in on this action.”

They picked up the Benjamin Cohen detail and ran straight to YouTube with it. They also reported it on the TV the next day. (They currently regret the error.) Cue the demons taking it upon themselves to find Benjamin Cohen and share his LinkedIn profile with the world. The Guardian has a thorough and specific accounting of the misinformation blizzard, which is worth reading to understand just how powerful it was. These were big accounts with big followings. And it was horrendous.

Also fighting for attention were the people — blue tick or otherwise — tossing out some of the worst takes imaginable, twisting themselves into knots in order to make whatever was happening fit whatever agenda they felt compelled to serve.

Where were the manly men to stop this person? 

People with guns would have stopped this person. (Thank you, America.)

No way could a white man do this. Not in Australia.

When it was discovered that a white man had indeed done this, the pivots came fast — it was mental illness, not terrorism. Some had the bravery to wonder if the man’s apparent Maltese heritage made him white or… something else?

When it was revealed that the man appeared to be targeting women, someone pointed out that he didn’t “ask his victims their pronouns” and “attacked them on the basis of their SEX not their ‘gender identity.’” (The post sounded like it was echoing trans-exclusionary talking points, but I’m not sure — I didn’t completely understand it.)

Another truth-telling patriot used the occasion to complain about “woke Labor”. Finally.

Twitter was always filled with the worst possible posts you could imagine, including the misidentification of a criminal. Truly apocalyptic stuff. But those posts would be reliably ratioed, drowned out by more apparently reasonable people. At least, that’s the way it seemed. I’m sure it didn’t always work out for the better. 

The difference is that on X, being horrible isn’t just for egg profile sociopaths. Misinformed trolls have blue ticks now and they’re getting their $8/month worth. Once, blue ticks were reserved for people who’d been identified and vetted on some level. If you saw that blue tick, you could be fairly confident that someone vaguely reputable was behind it. A journalist, perhaps. It wasn’t a guarantee of quality and integrity, but it was something. What do we have now? Complete chaos. I practically gave myself arthritis trying to scroll past the blue tick maniacs and the people sharing their posts.

Is this the “most trusted place on the internet” Elon Musk had in mind? The “digital town square”? Why would anyone want to live in such an unbelievably terrible town?

Now, I realise that complaining about Twitter has become an industry unto itself. There has been story after story trumpeting the demise of the platform, especially since Musk took over. Maybe Twitter isn’t dying. Maybe all of this is overblown and articles like this one are overstating Twitter’s importance. But the way we talk about things online does make its way into real life. It informs debates and shapes political talking points and legislation. (Ask 20-year-old uni student Ben Cohen how he feels about it.)

It’s been three days since the tragedy unfolded and X has cheerily moved on to apply its dumb and distasteful lens to a different news story, mangling good faith and decency, twisting and trivialising the pain of others.

The platform was useful at one point, especially when there was breaking news. And it was funny. Now, it’s a sewer. A black hole. A chamber of pain and exploitation. At this point, we can keep trying to come up with more dramatic, despairing descriptions… or we can just unplug it.

Nick Bhasin is the Managing Editor of Junkee. His debut novel, I Look Forward to Hearing from You, published by Penguin Random House Australia, is out now. Follow him on Instagram. You can follow him on Twitter, but, as discussed above, you will only find sorrow there.

Image: Getty