“Irresponsible”: Fox News cited “fake” terrorist attack 97 times — then used it to vilify Muslims

“It’s dangerous. It brings a real possibility of revenge violence,” extremism watchdog warns

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published December 3, 2023 5:30AM (EST)

People walk by the News Corporation headquarters, home to Fox News, on April 18, 2023 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
People walk by the News Corporation headquarters, home to Fox News, on April 18, 2023 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Fox News personalities and guests made at least 97 claims alleging or speculating that a car accident at the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara, New York, last week was an act of terrorism, generating a fabricated narrative about Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians, and their supporters being responsible for the incident, Media Matters found

The network aired the false claims on screen for hours speculating that the car crash at the U.S.-Canada border was an act of terrorism relying mostly on reporting from correspondent Alexis McAdams, who attributed her information to anonymous law enforcement sources. 

The deadly crash at the Rainbow Bridge border crossing involved a couple traveling in a Bentley at a high rate of speed resulting in an explosion, The New York Times reported. No terrorist activity was suspected.

But the speculation on both mainstream and social media platforms created “significant and unnecessary anxiety in the community,” according to Niagara police chief Bryan MacCulloch. 

McAdams later walked back her claims blaming “conflicting reports” on a breaking news situation. But by then, the damage had already been done with conspiracy theories running rampant and right-wing figures engaged in fearmongering, highlighting the supposed threat posed by Muslims and Arabs for carrying out attacks as a result of the ongoing violence in Gaza.

“High level police sources tell me this is an attempted terrorist attack,” McAdams posted on X, formerly Twitter. “Sources say the car was full of explosives. Both men inside dead.” 

A little over an hour after McAdams made such claims, The New York Times reported an investigation found that the car “did not contain explosives.” Users on X referenced The Times reporting as a community note on McAdams’ post.

However, her post quickly gained traction with other Fox reporters spreading her claims. Border reporter Bill Melugin shared her post and Fox News anchor John Roberts read McAdams’ reporting on air, including additional information that wasn’t mentioned in the post.

“Alexis McAdams is reporting that according to high-level police sources, the explosion was an attempted terrorist attack,” Roberts said. “A lot of explosives in the vehicle at the time, the two people who were in the car are deceased, one Border Patrol officer was injured. Driving from the U.S. apparently to Canada, and were trying to drive toward the CBP building.”

Roberts took things a little further and baselessly suggested that Hamas might be behind the attack saying that the “unrest in the Middle East that has spilled out past Israel” means there “could be operatives in this country sympathetic to terrorists who want to send a message here in the United States,” according to MMFA.

Other Fox News on-air talent and guests joined the chorus and began fueling the narrative. 

“When you are talking about radical Islamic terrorism and the attacks against the United States, this has happened before," said senior correspondent Eric Shawn.

Roberts further speculated whether the two people involved were "acting alone” or if the explosion was “part of a larger plot.”

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McAdams joined his program as well and reported that there may have been a second car that was “possibly involved” and that the original car was “full of explosives,” according to “high-level sources.” She also included that “there’s going to be big crowds of people coming here to New York City for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade," insinuating it could be a target, MMFA reported. 

Far-right influencer Laura Loomer also tweeted about the incident saying that the FBI is “suspecting that the Car Bomb Explosion TERRORIST ATTACK at the Rainbow Bridge US-Canada border in Niagara Falls could have been heading directly to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NEW YORK CITY.”

Robert Spencer, an anti-Muslim activist, who is “verified” on X pushed the claim that an Iranian passport was found at the scene. Spencer’s tweet received more than 250,000 views at the time it was posted. 

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, added to the ongoing anxiety and tweeted: "This confirms our worst fear: the explosion at Rainbow Bridge was a terrorist attack. Both attackers are dead, and one law enforcement officer is injured. I am praying that officer makes a full recovery and is able to spend Thanksgiving surrounded by family and loved ones."

Ultimately, McAdams had to retract her initial claims. Explaining the situation, she said that they encountered “conflicting reports,” as news broke out. “They get new information, they give it to us, and we bring it back to the viewers.”

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Despite the damage that spreading such misinformation had caused, Fox continued to exploit the incident to advance its narrative against Palestinians and migrants.

Guest host Jason Chaffetz appeared on "The Ingraham Angle" acknowledging that the explosion might not have been an act of terrorism, but used it to argue for a nativist immigration policy anyway, MMFA reported.

“Today's explosion at the border, regardless of the motive behind it, is a chilling reminder that we are all on high alert and living in a post-9/11 mindset, which means that our borders need to be secure,” Chaffetz said. He added that the Biden administration doesn’t “have the political will to actually shut down the border."

Fox host Kayleigh McEnany suggested that it was reasonable to infer that the explosion was linked to Hamas or associated with Palestinian solidarity demonstrations.

“The crash was so fierce and in such a sensitive location that everyone's mind of course went to the same place — terror,” McEnany said. “With war in the Middle East, violent domestic protests, radicals calling for days of jihad, the FBI director telling us to be vigilant — we are all on edge.”

Blaming a “terrorist” attack on Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians and their supporters is going to “drive hate towards those communities,” Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told Salon. Painting Muslims in this way for years has resulted in incidents of hate and violence being directed towards those communities.

“And this fake reporting will spread prejudice towards these communities,” Beirich said. “It’s dangerous. It brings a real possibility of revenge violence against members of these communities. Some people will take it upon themselves to retaliate for terrorism, as we saw after 9/11 when people totally unconnected to the attacks and from diverse communities were killed in revenge. This is terribly irresponsible and will drive anti-Muslim sentiments.”

She added that this “fake reporting” will spread anti-Muslim and anti-Islam propaganda, further contributing to the already “false narratives on the right that all Muslims are somehow terrorists.” Such rhetoric will be picked up in online spaces “to demonize the communities that Fox implicated in the supposed terrorist attack.”

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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