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Stabbed Bishop delivers first message from hospital as malicious disinformation spreads

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The last time Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel addressed his parishioners he was standing at the front of a church delivering an Assyrian bible reading that was dramatically cut short by the dark shadow of an alleged assailant armed with a knife.

From hospital on Thursday, after a traumatic week for the city of Sydney, the injured bishop uttered his first words to followers in an audio message posted to the Christ The Good Shepherd Church Facebook page – the same account that inadvertently live-streamed the attack three days earlier.

“The Lord Jesus never said go out and fight in the street; never said to retaliate, but to pray,” Emmanuel said, in an apparent reference to the riot that erupted outside the church in the city’s western suburbs as clips of the attack spread quickly online.

Monday night’s attack came just days after an unrelated knife massacre in a Sydney shopping mall that claimed the lives of six people and their attacker, who was shot dead by police.

Videos of both attacks circulated quickly online, leading to frenzied speculation about the identity of the assailants, their religion and motives – posing a challenge for Australian authorities.

The rapid spread of disinformation fomented an already volatile situation and days later authorities, faith groups and the bishop are still trying to calm community tension.

“In many instances, malicious information about damage to mosques and churches was being spread like wildfire and inflaming tensions in the community,” said New South Wales (NSW) State Premier Chris Minns on Thursday. “I’m still concerned about graphic, violent imagery being available on public domain websites, major websites, 48 hours after the incident had occurred.”

Attacker misidentified

On Tuesday, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner gave major social media companies Meta and X 24 hours to take down the violent videos.

In a statement Thursday, the commissioner’s office said Meta – which owns Facebook – had complied to its satisfaction, but work was still being done to see if “further regulatory action” needed to be taken against X, which could mean fines.

But regulators are finding it much harder to act against social media platforms for the disinformation that spread online after the attacks – especially after the mass stabbing in the eastern suburb of Bondi.

As police worked through the night on Saturday to gather evidence at the upmarket shopping center where the attack took place, posts that misidentified the attacker gathered pace online.

Marc Owen Jones, a disinformation researcher, detailed the chain of events in a thread on X, pointing to the posts that alternately identified the attacker as Jewish or Muslim – he was neither.

For several hours on Saturday night, a pro-Russia influencer helped spread “unconfirmed” reports of the attacker’s name that suggested he was Jewish. The rumors were picked up and amplified by Seven, a major Australian TV news network that is now reportedly being sued for defamation. Seven blamed the slip on “human error.”

Other posts suggested falsely Bondi was targeted because it has a large Jewish population.

Both incorrect theories collapsed when NSW Police identified the attacker as a 40-year-old man with mental health issues from the neighboring state of Queensland, who had reportedly stopped taking his medication.

“The narrative of ‘the attacker is either a Muslim or a Jew’ reflects the politicization of the Gaza war along pro-West versus pro-Russia lines, and does nothing more than aggravate polarization. But that’s the point I guess,” noted Jones, an associate professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar.

After the church attack, unconfirmed speculation also swirled about the faith of the alleged attacker and his motive.

As the suspect is a child, his identity won’t be publicly released under laws designed to protect youth offenders.

In his video – released to assure his supporters he’s “doing fine” – the bishop extended his forgiveness to the suspect, who’s being investigated under terror laws.

“Whoever sent you to do this, I forgive them as well,” he said.

System of self-regulation

But stamping out some of the hateful comments that spread online has not been so easy.

Right now, Australia has a voluntary code formed by the Digital Industry Group Inc. or DIGI, a non-profit industry association, that media platforms use to self-regulate disinformation and misinformation.

X has repeatedly breached the code and is no longer subject to it after being removed as a signatory.

Since coming under the ownership of Elon Musk, the platform formerly known as Twitter has dismantled some of the controls imposed to guard against disinformation and misinformation.

That’s put it on a collision course with regulators worldwide, and last year it was reprimanded by authorities in Australia for removing a function that would have allowed users to report suspect content during a national referendum.

Communications minister Michelle Rowland told ABC Radio Thursday the government was committed to pushing through stronger legislation this year on disinformation and misinformation.

That would include fines of 3 million Australian dollars ($1.9 million) for an offense, and ongoing fines, as well as a percentage of turnover.

“We know that the revenues of some of these online platforms exceed those of some nations. So, it needs to be a meaningful and substantial penalty system that’s put in place,” Rowland said.

Next week, Australian academics will launch what’s being called a “world-first” open-source platform to monitor regulations worldwide.

Terry Flew, professor of Digital Communication and Culture at the University of Sydney, said the International Digital Policy Observatory will allow countries to learn from the experience of others in a space where regulation is relatively new.

“It’s unfamiliar territory to most governments,” said Flew, who’s leading the team behind the project. “The capacity to have a resource that enables the relevant agencies in Australia to learn from what’s happening in the US or the UK or the European Union is important.”

He said it’s clear that a voluntary code isn’t enough.

“What has become apparent is that if a platform doesn’t want to comply with that code, there’s very little that can be done,” he said.

Late Thursday NSW Police issued a notice urging people not to share unsubstantiated information. “Misinformation continues to spread disharmony amongst the community,” the notice said.

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