Mistaken identity leads to online troll attack on Sydney uni student

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
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When Ben Cohen’s name started trending on X (formerly Twitter) shortly after 8.30pm on Saturday night, it didn’t take long for the online abuse to begin.

The 20-year-old first-year uni student lives what his father Mark Cohen describes as a “normal” life, but, in a case of mistaken identity that was broadcast across various social media platforms, the computer science student who lives in Sydney’s eastern suburbs with his family was named as the alleged murderer responsible for Saturday afternoon’s shocking Bondi Junction Westfield stabbings.

The dangerous impact of misinformation

The misinformation was initially broadcast during one of Channel 7’s news bulletins and was also present on their news site on YouTube, with the network describing him as “40-year-old lone-wolf attacker Benjamin Cohen”.

Channel 7 has since apologised to the Cohen family after wrongly naming Mr Cohen as the person responsible for the tragic event that left six innocent victims dead and more seriously injured. They attributed the mistake to “human error”.

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Although that mistake was rectified quite quickly and the video removed, the rapid speed at which the social media world moves meant it had already been shared to X.

Since then, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) student’s name has been mentioned more than 500,000 times.

Mr Cohen’s father Mark used the same platform to reach out to New South Wales police, pleading with them to publicly name the alleged killer in an effort to stop the calls of concern the family received from loved ones, as well as the threatening messages and abuse being directed their way from an online audience reeling from the impact of one of Australia’s worst massacres:

“Hey @nswpolice, you need to release the name of the Bondi junction attacker before this nonsense claiming it was my son causes more harm.”

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False accusations led to ongoing distress

Ben Cohen has since expressed how harmful these claims were toward him – emphasising that people should consider the impact of their online posts before sharing potentially damaging information. His father also shared the distress the family has endured because of the false accusations.

“Everyone’s asking what’s going on, people asking if it’s true. Of course it’s not true, he’s not even a politically motivated person. He’s just a normal kid who now has got to deal with this.They don’t realise how much harm they can do. I have worked in tech my whole life, my wife is a teacher. We are just a very normal family.”

The impact of the events highlights the critical need for responsible reporting and fact-checking to help avoid the potential consequences of viral misinformation.

“It’s extremely disappointing to see thousands of people mindlessly propagating misinformation without even the slightest thought put to fact-checking or real-life consequences, and then using that information to push an agenda and spread hatred,” Mr Cohen said.

“People don’t really think too hard about what they’re posting and how it might affect someone. It’s very dangerous how people could just make stuff up and destroy people’s lives.”

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If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live