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2017-03-24 07:55:03
Social Media Sleuths Fail Again: The London Attacker Who Wasn’t

Hours after the terrorist attack in London, online sleuths thought they had identified the assailant.

In Twitter posts, Facebook messages and a live British television news program, people pointed to Abu Izzadeen, a radical British cleric who was imprisoned last year for running afoul of British terrorism rules. His photos were shared on the internet. His Wikipedia page was updated with the information.

But they were wrong.

Not only was Mr. Izzadeen not the assailant in Wednesday’s attack, but he was also in a British prison, according to his lawyer, Tanveer Qureshi.

“He was not responsible for these terrible and unjustified attacks,” Mr. Qureshi said by email.

The real assailant was identified on Thursday as Khalid Masood, 52, a British-born man who had been previously investigated for potential ties to violent extremism and had a lengthy criminal record.

The public naming of Mr. Izzadeen was a troubling reminder that fact and fiction can be hard to separate in a breaking news event.

In this rapid-fire world, confusion and hearsay can spread quickly on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Traditional media, in a hypercompetitive 24-7 news environment, can rush to report fresh details. All of this has made for a media morass in which fake news, hate speech and unverified information may overrun basic facts.

That has been the case during elections in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, as governments and voters have faced a flood of misconceptions and falsehoods. Erroneous claims also have abounded in previous terrorist attacks, including the Boston bombing in 2013 when several people were incorrectly named as possible suspects.

Before British officials identified Mr. Masood on Thursday, they urged media outlets to avoid publishing the names of any suspects in the attack. But the pleas did little to stop the misinformation online, particularly in the hours immediately after the event.

A Russian news site published a fake photo of the suspect. Twitter posted false reports of potential victims. And Donald J. Trump Jr. reposted a news report that had incorrectly named Mr. Izzadeen as the attacker.

In the digital era, people increasingly seek real-time coverage, readily supplied by all manner of sources, credible and otherwise. This frenetic online environment has fostered the perfect space for rumormongering, creating a need for fast and accurate ways to counter false narratives.

“There’s more misinformation out there than there was in the past,” said Rasmus Nielsen, director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. “It’s cheaper to distribute, and more people are trying to do it.”

In this new landscape, Facebook, Google and other digital players have been criticized for not doing enough to clamp down on fake news, extremist speech, and reports from other unverified sources. Major advertisers, including AT&T and Johnson & Johnson, recently pulled their ads from YouTube and other Google properties amid concerns that the company was not doing enough to prevent brands from appearing next to offensive material including hate speech.

Online giants have updated their policies and tweaked their algorithms to try to block false reports, while financing fact-checking programs at traditional media organizations and tech start-ups. Sites like Snopes have also helped fill the void, by trying to debunk internet myths.

“Any claim should be treated with caution until verifiable including on social media,” said Tom Hegarty of Full Fact, a British nonprofit organization that checks the veracity of published material.

Like many false reports, much of the misinformation surrounding Mr. Izzadeen turned on a kernel of truth, namely his criminal history.

He is well known to the British security services, having been convicted on terrorism-related charges in 2008 and serving four and a half years in prison.

He was arrested again in 2014 with Anjem Choudary, an Islamist activist. After being released from prison the next year, he was deported to Britain from Hungary after violating a police-ordered travel ban.

With accusations swirling that Mr. Izzadeen was involved in the London attack, some online voices jumped to his defense to debunk the falsehoods.

Dominic Casciani, a reporter with the British Broadcasting Corporation, posted a message on Twitter saying that Mr. Izzadeen was not the attacker. Others quoted Mr. Izzadeen’s lawyer confirming that he was in prison.

On Mr. Izzadeen’s Wikipedia page, a spat ensued among the site’s volunteer moderators.

Four hours after the fatal assault, an anonymous moderator updated the online entry to include the attack, the website’s revision records said. After that, rival Wikipedia moderators vied to include or delete the allegations, with the page changing minute by minute.

By late Wednesday — after the editor of Channel 4 News, the British television program that had incorrectly named Mr. Izzadeen as the attacker, issued an apology — the Wikipedia entry was eventually scrubbed of the false allegations. LoudLizard, a moderator of the site, updated the webpage eight hours after the assault, saying that Mr. Izzadeen had been “wrongfully named as involved in Westminster attack.”

Wikipedia’s moderators were again quick on Thursday, this time relying on official sources. Within minutes of the British police identifying Mr. Masood as the London attacker, they had updated the entry for the terroristic event, naming him as the perpetrator.