Internet forums are fertile breeding grounds for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Hateful, racist material is posted and shared without challenge. Conspiracy theories and fake news stories abound. These are exploited by users as propaganda material for their supremacist ideology.
But a report published by Hacked Off identifies another source for these far-right propagandists; a number of major stories published in national newspapers. All these stories attacked Muslims or immigrants, and all of them were later found to be inaccurate.
In June of this year, for example, the Telegraph published a story suggesting travellers from Pakistan were responsible for an alarming number of COVID-19 cases, headlined “Exclusive: Half of UK’s Imported Covid-19 Infections are from Pakistan”
(the headline has since been marginally improved).
The story feeds all kinds of racist and xenophobic narratives: the foreigners bringing disease to British shores; the commitment and efforts of the British public in a national crisis undone by immigrants; the thoughtlessness and cavalier attitude of Muslims to Coronavirus.
But the headline was false. The data only related to a few weeks in June and the statistic of “half”, which held the story together, was totally unevidenced. The reality is that infections imported from Pakistan are responsible for a vanishingly small fraction of total Coronavirus cases in the UK.
Nonetheless, after the story was published, extremists piled in on white supremacist forum “Stormfront”.
One user, whose signature states, “We must secure the existence of our race and a future for white children”, commented on a posting of the story on Stormfront and blamed “that.. dump of a country” (Pakistan) for Covid-19 restrictive measures in the UK. Another user commenting on the story accused Pakistanis of “grooming children and selling drugs”.
In August 2018, the Daily Mail ran a double-page spread with the dramatic headline “Powder Keg Paris”. It painted a frightening picture of one area of Paris that was allegedly on the verge of social breakdown and overrun with illegal immigrants and Muslims flouting the law. The errors in the piece ran into double figures, according to campaigners.
It was so riddled with inaccuracies that even the Mail Online pulled it after one week. But it was already doing the work of extremist propagandists for them. “Gab” is a social network known to be popular with the far right, on which hate speech was has been directed at Prince Harry. The Powder Keg Paris story was rapidly circulated by users of the network. One such user, Alan, publicised the Mail’s report.
His other posts included suggestions that LGBT people should kill themselves. “Hunter II” also shared “Powder Keg Paris” on Gab. His back catalogue of posts includes multiple Islamophobic remarks, including referring to Islam as a “filthy death cult”.
In August 2017, The Times published a story that spawned frontpage follow-ups for a week: “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care”. It was alleged that a child had been plucked from a Christian background and placed into an alien culture, with her possessions confiscated and favourite foods denied. The story was later shown to be substantively false and based almost exclusively on the account of one wholly unreliable source.
Long before it was exposed as inaccurate, the story had been widely shared on Gab. The report finds two users immediately shared the story; one who identifies with “ethnic/racial nationalism”, and another who hashtags “Muslim-supremacy” and “child-abuse” as she shares the story.
Another user, Nicholas, then shared the story. He followed it up with a couple of posts alleging a Jewish plot to control the world.
Chillingly, another user linking to the story added a comment urging British men to take up arms “to defend the souls of their children”.
Then there was the notorious Sun front-page splash: “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”. The story was such nonsense that the polling company, on whose poll it was based, disowned it immediately after publication.
But the story was quickly doing the rounds on Stormfront, a self-described “White Nationalist Community”. One user, who calls him/herself “whiterat”, queries what can be done about the fact that “Europe is under siege by non-Europeans”. A fellow user responds to the post, alleging that “Muslims are gang-raping our children”.
Now no newspaper can prevent their coverage from being shared by racists and neo-Nazis. But these stories were blatantly inaccurate.
The Telegraph’s story on infections imported from Pakistan was clearly unevidenced. “Christian child foster care” fell apart after the briefest fact-checking. The Sun’s poll report could be disproved simply by reading the poll.
The “Powder Keg Paris”’ inaccuracies were so ridiculous that the figure given for illegal immigrants in the area exceeded the population of the entire area itself. The Mail Online has a global reach in the millions. It can afford someone to check facts.
So how did these newspapers – which produce some quality journalism – allow these stories to go to print?
The answer is simply that most of them have no effective system of accountability. Unlike broadcast journalism, which is regulated by Ofcom, proper oversight is entirely optional for newspaper publishers – and their websites.
But the newspapers named in this report know they cannot get away with claiming they are above accountability altogether. So they formed a body called “IPSO”, to give the perception of proper scrutiny. In limited circumstances, IPSO handles complaints from the public about newspaper articles. It lobbies the government to ensure a favourable policy regime for the newspaper companies that control it. Its Chairman pontificates.
But when it comes to effective oversight – that is, genuine accountability for standards of accuracy and professionalism – IPSO is little more than an industry puppet. It can’t control its own rules, can’t change its own standards code, and has not launched a single investigation nor levied a single fine during its six years of operation.
IPSO’s response to each of these articles was a decision many months after the articles were published, with the adjudications published in small type, with far less prominence than the original articles. In case of some residual risk they might actually be read, adjudications are commonly given the cryptic headline “IPSO ruling upheld”.
There is simply no meaningful incentive for newspapers to get their facts right.
The terrorist suspected of being responsible for the attack in Christchurch New Zealand, and the individual responsible for the attack in Norway in 2011 had engaged with online white supremacist groups. The terrorist who murdered nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, said he turned towards violence after discovering a white supremacist website.
We now know that inaccurate stories that demonise Muslims published by British newspapers are being exchanged and circulated on websites like these. IPSO is supposed to protect the public from inaccuracy. Their failure to do so is having an adverse effect on the safety of the public – and Muslims in particular.
The need for IPSO to be replaced by an effective, independent regulator that genuinely holds newspapers to account for professional standards of journalism is more urgent than ever.