This week, the Facebook page of the Black Sphere, a popular US-based conservative website, shared a story claiming that Muslims in the UK had demanded that people not walk their dogs in public.
The story came from Jews News, which constantly publishes stories that depict Muslims in a negative light. The Facebook promotion from the Black Sphere generated over 10,000 shares, comments, and reactions in a little more than 24 hours. People were angry.
"Do not tell me not to walk my dog. I will walk her anyplace I get ready to and I have a concealed gun permit so don’t get in my face or try to hurt my dog if you do you might meet your Allah sooner then you think..." reads the top comment on the post, which has earned more than 350 positive reactions as of this writing.
The story is a classic piece of anti-Muslim bait: unreasonable demands being made by Muslims and a reference to Sharia in the headline. It's also based on utterly dubious claims that first surfaced and were debunked close to two years ago. This manufactured tale continues to go viral on Facebook and shows no signs of slowing down.
Arsalan Iftikhar, senior fellow for the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University, which analyzes anti-Muslim sentiment around the world, told BuzzFeed News that the resilience of the anti-dog tale shows how hard anti-Muslim stories are to debunk.
"Since Islamophobia has become pervasive in many parts of the Western world today, it has become quite clear that people are willing to blindly share these anti-Muslim conspiracy theories without even seeking out whether they are true or not," Iftikhar said.
It started when flyers were distributed in Manchester in July 2016. The flyers asked residents to "limit the presence of dogs in the public sphere" out of sensitivity to the area's "large Muslim community."
The flyers included awkward language such as: "Keeping the purity of the public space enables the Muslims remain untainted and without blemish." The flyers were attributed to a group calling itself For Public Purity.
The flyers appeared to be designed to increase tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim residents, and they worked. People tweeted about them, angry comments appeared on the group's Facebook page, and prominent anti-Muslim figures, including Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of the far-right Britain First party, got involved.
"When the Muslim community feel empowered enough to distribute these leaflets, you know your country’s Islamic appeasement has gone too far!” Fransen tweeted, according to TellMAMA, an organization that tracks anti-Muslim incidents in the UK.
Soon, mainstream media began writing about the flyers. "I would not impose my beliefs and my view of life on other people," one outraged dog owner told the Manchester Evening News.
"I understand the issues Muslim people have with dogs, that they are unclean," another person told the newspaper. "I have a lot of Muslim friends so I get the issue behind it, but they are living in our country."
But For Public Purity was highly questionable right from the start. Its website and Facebook page had only been created months earlier, included no contact information, and were quickly abandoned after the flyers gained mainstream attention.
As Snopes and others reported at the time, the campaign had all the markings of a hoax. Local Muslim residents and community groups also said they had never heard of this group before, and that it was likely an effort to increase anti-Muslim sentiment in Manchester.
There was also evidence the whole thing was either started, or helped along, by 4chan trolls. In one archived post on the forum, a user applauded the outraged public response to "the P-blicP-rity website," warning others not to write out the full name so news outlets "and other leftie shills don't search up the archives and out us."
But in spite of all that evidence, the flyers continue to be reported on as real — and the resulting stories generate massive engagement on Facebook.
The social monitoring service BuzzSumo shows that well over a dozen sites with strong pro-Trump or anti-Muslim leaning have scored viral hits based on the fictitious anti-dog campaign. Many of the articles were published long after it first spread. At least one story was published this year.
The more than a dozen stories have generated close to 1 million Facebook engagements, and continue to spread thanks to pages like the Black Sphere.
Jews News has in fact published two articles about the fake flyers. Its first post was published in August 2017, a little more than a year after the story first surfaced. While the article expressed some skepticism about the flyers, the headline still suggested actual Muslim residents of Manchester had been behind the campaign because they viewed dogs as "impure."
That story generated more than 46,000 engagements on Facebook. The site took another crack at it a few weeks later. This time it dispensed with any caution in the story and amped up the headline: "Muslims DEMAND Locals Don’t Walk Dogs In Public Because It Is A Violation Of Sharia And 'DISRESPECTS' Them."
"[T]his type of intrusive behavior from Muslim immigrants helps to explain British citizens unwillingness to remain in the European Union," read the article, which was rewarded with more than three times as many Facebook engagements as the first.
To compound matters, the second article published on Jews News appears to be identical to something published months earlier on Debate Post, a Canadian-based blog that frequently runs anti-Muslim content. Its story was also based on a different website's article.
BuzzFeed News reached out to Jews News for comment but did not receive a reply. The Black Sphere also did not respond to a request for comment.
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, Debate Post said it's aware of the highly dubious nature of the story.
"[H]owever, if it's highly dubious doesn't mean it's not true," the website said in an unsigned email.
The Bridge Initiative's Iftikhar said stories like these have "a hugely negative impact on Muslim communities throughout the West because these false conspiracy theories either make Muslims direct targets for hate crime backlash or Muslims are forced by their neighbors to debunk these hoaxes without being given the benefit of the doubt like other minority groups."
This article has been updated with comment from Debate Post.