Far-right extremists have targeted British Muslims through fake social media posts and recycled videos that falsely suggest mosques are breaking new rules aimed at stemming social gatherings to combat coronavirus.
Online messages included claims that Muslims were continuing to gather as normal at a mosque in an English town that did not have one, and footage of a gathering in London that pre-dated the lockdown.
British police have been forced to counter some of the messages that attempt to scapegoat Muslims more than a week after the UK government told people to stay at home for everything other than for essential journeys.
In the latest case, police debunked a video that purported to show dozens of people leaving a mosque during the lockdown. The video, which was not date-stamped, was taken outside a mosque in Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city, and widely circulated.
But the mosque, in the Small Heath area of the city, has been closed since restrictions were imposed in the UK on March 23, police said after an investigation. Some 20 per cent of people in Birmingham have identified as Muslim, rising to more than 70 per cent in places like Small Heath, according to council census figures.
“We’re aware of a video circulating that appears to show a group of people leaving a mosque in Small Heath since the government introduced restrictions last week,” said West Midlands police in a statement.
“Although we can confirm the footage was filmed in Small Heath, our officers have conducted enquiries and are satisfied that the mosque is currently closed.”
Twitter removed a tweet from an extreme far-right group which called for the “culling” of Muslims in response to an article debating the closure of mosques before government advice changed, said anti-extremism monitoring group Tell Mama.
Further cases included a Tweet from a person claiming that a mosque in the town of Shrewsbury in central England was still open and allowing “super spreaders” to attend.
When the poster questioned why police had not investigated, the local force responded: “Probably because there is no mosque in Shrewsbury”.
It said it had confirmed that a prayer centre in the town – which had announced its closure days before the lockdown – was “fully compliant with the current government requirements”.
Another tweet from March 25 claimed to show Muslims praying in the street after a mosque in northwest London was closed because of the pandemic.
Tell Mama said the mosque had been closed because of an internal dispute weeks before the government took action over the virus.
The video posted on a far-right account was shared hundreds of times and repackaged by a prominent right-wing extremist group with a virulent anti-Muslim agenda, the group said.
Twitter later removed the video and placed restrictions on the poster.
“We have urged Twitter to revise its policies and allow users to report tweets designed to mislead that stoke racial and religious hatred,” said Tell Mama in a blog post.
Details of the fake news videos emerged as the UK’s government specialist units are working to counter false information about the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials said the teams are responding to as many as 70 incidents a week including misleading or false narratives and phishing scams carried out by criminals hoping to take advantage of fears surrounding the spread of the virus.
Boris Johnson announced on March 23 that Britons should remain at home and only travel for shopping, one form of exercise a day, for medical reasons, to help the vulnerable or for key workers to travel.