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Fake viral stories could spark a surge of Islamophobic attacks post-lockdown

22nd May 2020
Fake viral stories could spark a surge of Islamophobic attacks post-lockdown

UKIP supporter Robert Bilcliff posted this image on Facebook of a bustling mosque on March 27 claiming it was taken that day, the photo of Masjid Ibraheem in Leeds was taken on March 20 the Friday before the national lockdown was announced.

Nadine Osman

Muslims in the UK are under fire from “dangerous” fake online stories claiming that they are spreading the Coronavirus by flouting lockdown restrictions, a report has warned.

Far-right groups and individuals have used Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and WhatsApp to spread fake stories, in some cases including old video and photos, to claim that mosques are open, causing police to be inundated with complaints by duped members of the public.

And abusive online posts have called for the “demolition” of all mosques to “cure” the virus.

The report, commissioned by members of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, warned that the claims posted by high profile far-right people like Katie Hopkins, Tommy Robinson and former UKIP leader Gerard Batten could lead to a spike in attacks when the lockdown lifts.

Co-author of the report and Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University, Imran Awan, said, “The Covid-19 crisis has been used to create ‘others’ of Muslims, blaming them for the spread of the virus. The spread of fake news online is contributing to this extremely worrying trend.”

“While we haven’t yet seen this translate into physical hate crimes, once social distancing rules are relaxed there are concerns that this could be the case.”

In one recent incident, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and a protective mask overheard a man in a supermarket say to his partner “look, a bomb” as he pointed at her.

In another incident, which was reported to the Metropolitan Police, a Muslim woman said she was approached by a man who coughed in her face and claimed he had the Coronavirus.

Roxana Khan-Williams, who co-authored the report, warned that anti-Muslim hatred and conspiracy theories were “penetrating common-sense thinking.”

She said she witnessed examples of people who were not being deliberately Islamophobic but “we’re seeing this fake news and absorbing it. It has gained a lot of traction, which is what has made it more dangerous.”

“It’s the usual suspects peddling [anti-Muslim narratives] but it’s gained a lot of support. What they’ve done has worked because people are worried and Muslims are being scapegoated.”

Analyzing online posts the report identified narratives claiming that mosques and Muslims are spreading the Coronavirus, police are giving preferential treatment to Muslims, and that the “UK’s Muslim population is responsible for a quarter of the country’s Covid-19 related deaths.”

“Online narratives rooted in anti-Muslim bigotry are evolving and transforming in the new social context created by the pandemic,” the report says.

“In this new context, Islam and Muslims have been associated directly with the causes of the pandemic, fitting well within broader well-known far-right themes depicting Muslims as parasitical to society – foreign, alien and ‘disease-like.’”

An old video shared by the founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, claimed to show worshippers leaving a mosque in Birmingham during the lockdown.

The footage sparked a deluge of complaints to West Midlands Police, which was forced to investigate the false reports and confirm that the mosque in question had not opened since the lockdown was implemented.

It was one of a series of similar incidents, including fake claims over mosques in London, Leeds and Shrewsbury.

The report contains copious posts claiming that police were turning a “blind eye” to the violations and spreading “unfounded narratives that argue ethnic minorities, and particularly Muslims, are given preferential treatment by the police.”

The Centre for Media Monitoring, which campaigns over the reporting of Islam, launched complaints about news articles that claimed, “Experts fear social gatherings in Ramadan will lead to a spike in Covid-19 cases.”

The Muslim Council of Britain called the stories “untrue and dangerous” after issuing guides on performing Ramadan prayers at home and conducting digital worship.

 

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Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims. It was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15.

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