Counter-terrorism police in the UK are investigating far-right groups accused of trying to use the coronavirus crisis to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment.
The monitoring group Tell Mama said that in March it recorded dozens of incidents of far-right groups allegedly trying to put blame on British Muslims for the spread of the virus.
The group said it had had to debunk numerous claims made on social media that Muslims were breaching the lockdown by continuing to attend mosques to pray. There were also incidents where Muslims were attacked, it said.
In one tweet from a prominent white nationalist, claims were made that Muslims were breaching the lockdown by congregating outside a mosque in Wembley. Tell Mama debunked this claim, and after it encouraged others users to report the content, Twitter removed the tweet and placed restrictions on the account.
A video shared on Telegram by Tommy Robinson, the founder and former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), was alleged to show a group of Muslim men leaving a “secret mosque” in inner-city Birmingham. The video was watched 10,000 times on the platform. The claims were subsequently dismissed by West Midlands police.
West Yorkshire police similarly dismissed images allegedly showing Muslims attending Friday prayers, pointing out they were taken before the lockdown was announced.
Shropshire police took action after a tweet from a far-right-leaning account maliciously claimed that a mosque was flouting the lockdown. The content was also reported to Twitter.
Iman Atta, the director of Tell Mama, said: “These extremists are using coronavirus to get their pervasive message across that somehow the Muslim communities are to blame for the spreading of the virus.
“It is mainly repeat offenders – individuals who are already known to hold anti-Muslim views – who are repeatedly seeing this as a way to cause community turmoil and tension. It is at times like this when there are pressures in society that some people manipulate this to fuel hate and division across communities.”
High-profile accounts linked to spreading malicious rumours against Muslims have included those of Katie Hopkins and the former Ukip leader Gerard Batten.
Hopkins shared a video of police in India assaulting people for congregating at a mosque, tagging in Humberside police. She wrote: “Indian police assisting young ‘men of peace’ to disperse from crowded mosque during lockdown. Something to aspire to hey @Humberbeat?”
In a tweet that went viral, Batten suggested mosques would remain open as the government would be “too afraid” to close them. Batten has also promoted conspiracy theories about Covid-19 being a Chinese “bioweapon”.
In another incident reported to Tell Mama, a Muslim woman said she was approached by a man who coughed in her face and claimed he had coronavirus.
The alleged assault in Croydon, south London, on 18 March has been reported to the Metropolitan police. The woman, who wears a hijab, said she tried to avoid her attacker but the man turned towards her and “got in her face”.
She informed him she had already contracted virus and recovered and was therefore immune, after which he swore at her and used a racial slur before leaving.
David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, said counter-terrorism police were looking into reports that rightwing groups were trying to use the pandemic to create division.
“We have become aware that this is being used as an opportunity by rightwing groups to point the blame at some ethnic groups. It does not take a lot for these things to break down and for tensions to arise in these communities. It’s something we are monitoring very closely,” Jamieson said.
The advocacy group Hope not Hate said it had also identified an anti-Muslim misinformation campaign alleging that mosques were still open in defiance of government advice.
A spokesperson said: “Far-right activists in the UK are increasingly united in their view that globalisation and immigration are to blame for the ongoing pandemic. They are also relishing the opportunity to promote racist stereotypes and conspiracy theories about Chinese people on extreme message boards and channels.”