Inaccurate or misleading news stories

by Aisha Gani & Tom Phillips (2017)

Image Copyright: Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed News

Inaccurate or misleading news reports about Muslims have received hundreds of thousands of shares on social media in 2017, analysis by BuzzFeed News has shown.

The stories, which range from false reports about Islamic terror attacks to stories about “halal” Easter eggs being sold in supermarkets – as well as a number where the religion of the people described was not in any way relevant – were the subject of complaints by a British man who has made it his task to get editors to correct inaccurate news stories about Muslims in the British press.

One of the most viral incorrect stories about Muslims so far this year appeared when tabloid newspapers falsely reported a breaking story about a gunman wearing a suicide vest who apparently shouted “Allahu Akbar” and opened fire at a Spanish supermarket.

A typical headline, from The Sun, read: “Supermarket terror gunman ‘screaming Allahu Akbar’ opens fire in Spanish supermarket while ‘carrying bag filled with petrol and gunpowder,’” with the breaking news alert tweets receiving hundreds of retweets at the time.

However, a spokesperson for the supermarket would later confirm: “The shots fired at a store in Ourense (Galicia) were not part of a terrorist attack. He did not shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ and he wasn’t wearing a suicide vest.

“He is a Spanish national with some kind of decreased mental faculties, as the police has said. He was born in the Basque country and he was shouting in his local language.”

Versions of the article from both Mail Online and The Express went viral. The Mail Online version of the article was shared 24,899 times across social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter – including by notable figures on the right such as Infowars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson, the alt-right YouTube star Lauren Southern, and former Republican congressman Joe Walsh.

The Express version was shared 21,171 times, by people including the American blogger Erick Erickson and the popular right-wing British Twitter user David Jones.

Most of the outlets that covered the story changed their headlines. At the time, Victoria Watson, The Sun’s digital editor, told BuzzFeed News: “We reported claims made by [Spanish newspaper] La Region in good faith and removed them as soon as they were found to be false. We acknowledged this in the copy and have since added a correction to the story.”

A Mail Online spokesperson said: “The claim that the gunman had shouted Allahu Akbar was based on reports in a Spanish newspaper. The headline was amended when it was established that the claim which was reported to have been made by a supermarket employee had been denied by a spokesperson for the supermarket. We added a footnote to the article and published a standalone correction in our Clarifications & Corrections column.”

They added: “All MailOnline staff have the Editors’ Code of Conduct written into their contracts and, unlike BuzzFeed, our journalism is independently regulated by the press regulator IPSO. If any errors occur we endeavour to correct them as promptly as possible. Mail Online, of course, has no control over who shares its content.”

Our analysis was compiled with the help of Miqdaad Versi, a management consultant from London and assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain. He has made almost 40 complaints this year to the independent press watchdog IPSO about reports he has found in newspapers. Many of his complaints have resulted in articles being retracted, being entirely changed, and receiving corrections.