In the last few days, three UK police forces have taken to social media to refute fake news being spread about Muslims supposedly flouting the law on social distancing.
Police in the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Shropshire have all faced criticism on social media for apparently allowing mosques to stay open on their patch. But in each case, the information was false.
In Birmingham and Leeds, footage from before the tightening of restrictions were being presented as having been recorded in the past few days. In Shrewsbury, police had already spoken with the leaders of the local prayer centre and confirmed that no breach of legislation was occurring.
Unfortunately, the nature of social media is that even with detailed refutations from knowledgeable sources, the tide of misinformation continues to gather pace – especially amongst people who would like these rumours to be true because of their anti-Muslim prejudice. These allegations represent a concerted effort to incite anger against a minority at a time of crisis.
HOPE not hate has identified dozens of tweets in the last few days that accuse mosques of remaining open, some of which have been retweeted thousands of times. None provide any evidence beyond the three discredited examples above, but it appears that the idea has taken off and can now be freely referenced without proof by those intent on promoting it.
Perhaps more worryingly, we have also recorded a number of tweets promoting the smear that appear to be coming from inauthentic accounts. A small sample of tweets directed at Piers Morgan and Good Morning Britain on April 1st contained a surprisingly high number of accounts with very little prior activity, including at least five which had never tweeted before and had little or no identifying information on their profiles. Some of these accounts were created years ago, others in the last few weeks. Our analysis has not yet determined the level of coordination between the accounts involved in pushing this smear, if any, but it strongly suggests inauthentic behaviour and HOPE not hate will be asking Twitter to investigate for potential abuse of the platform.
These baseless allegations against a minority group form part of a worrying trend in Europe. In Bulgaria, roadblocks have been erected around some Roma neighbourhoods, supposedly in response to the flouting of social distancing regulations. Police in Serbia have imposed tougher restrictions of movement of migrants and asylum seekers than on the broader population, despite there being no obvious reason why migrants might constitute a greater risk.
The UK police forces who chose to tackle this misinformation head-on with direct refutations deserve huge credit for doing so, as do the social media users who continue to challenge the smears. HOPE not hate will be in contact with Twitter and other social media platforms to emphasise the dangers of allowing these rumours to spread unchecked. In this time of heightened anxiety, it is more important than ever that fake news and the deliberate whipping up of an anti-Muslim narrative not be allowed to create resentment at a time when solidarity and cooperation are needed more than ever.
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