It took over a day — and a direct complaint from the Canadian Prime Minister’s office — for Fox News to delete a tweet that incorrectly identified the attacker in the Quebec Mosque shooting as someone “of Moroccan origin.”
“These tweets by Fox News dishonour the memory of the six victims and their families by spreading misinformation, playing identity politics, and perpetuating fear and division within our communities,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Director of Communications Kate Purchase wrote in an email to Fox. Purchase posted the entirety of her email to Twitter.
The police had initially arrested two suspects in the attack, in which a gunman entered a mosque on Sunday and opened fire on worshipers from behind. The shooter killed six and wounded another nineteen.
One of the suspects, Alexandre Bissonnette, is a 27-year-old French Canadian, the other was Mohamed Belkadir, who is Muslim and of Moroccan origin. In their tweet (and original headline), however, Fox News mentioned only one suspect — Belkadir — identified by his nationality.
Even before Fox News sent out their tweet (at 12:31pm), however, Quebec authorities had clarified that one of the initial suspects was a witness, not a suspect. Quebecois outlets were, at that point, already reporting that the only suspect was in fact Bissonnette.
— Sûreté du Québec (@sureteduquebec) January 30, 2017
Belkhadir, the man of Moroccan origin, was actually a worshiper at the mosque who left prayers shortly before the shooter entered and opened fire. He heard the shots, and as soon as the bullets stopped, ran inside to help, according to reporting from local outlets. He called 9–1–1.
As he bent to put his coat on a wounded man, however, he saw someone enter with a gun and fled. He told a reporter for La Presse that in the confusion, he didn’t realize it was the police. He thought the shooter had come back.
“They thought I was a suspect, it’s normal,” he told La Presse, adding that the police had treated him well.
The full story of Belkhadir’s involvement trickled out over the past two days. Bissonnette was charged on Monday.
Bissonnette is a white French Canadian. He reportedly called the police to turn himself in. A member of a local group founded to welcome Syrian refugees told local press that they recognized him as an anti-immigrant “troll,” who also has a history of misogynistic remarks online.
His Facebook likes include far-right French politician Marine Le Pen and Donald J. Trump, and a classmate told local reporters that his political views were pro-Trump and anti-immigration.
Fox News updated their story and headline, and tweeted out the new information, but the original — obviously inaccurate — tweet remained live until Tuesday evening.
“This misleading information has been left to stand on the Fox News Channel’s twitter account and continued to circulate online even now,” Purchase wrote to the network.
The mentions of the tweet throughout the day filled with Twitter users telling Fox to take it down. Meanwhile, others took it as evidence — long after it had been debunked — that the terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers had been perpetrated by a Muslim attacker.
On far-right and white supremacist messaging boards, the attack was used to promote Islamophobia and argue against Muslim immigration.
On Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer used the attack on the Quebec mosque as evidence for why Trump’s executive immigration order — which bans citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days — was necessary.
The Canadian PM’s office, meanwhile, took a wholly different tack. Trudeau almost immediately labelled the attack a “terrorist attack on Muslims,” and in her message to Fox News, Purchase focused on the specific dangers of spinning this attack.
“We need to remain focused on keeping our communities safe and united instead of trying to build walls and scapegoat communities. Muslims are predominantly the greatest victims of terrorist acts around the world. To paint terrorists with a broad brush that extends to all Muslims is not just ignorant — it is irresponsible,” Purchase wrote to Fox News when asking the network to take the tweet down.
“If we allow individuals and organizations to succeed by scaring people, we do not actually end up any safer. Fear does not make us safer. It makes us weaker. Ramping up fear and closing our borders is not a solution.”
Fox News deleted the tweet within hours of Purchase’s email.
“FoxNews.com initially corrected the misreported information with a tweet and an update to the story on Monday. The earlier tweets have now been deleted. We regret the error,” FoxNews.com managing director Refet Kaplan said in a statement emailed to VICE’s Rachel Browne, one of the first to report on the retraction.