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November 19, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:36am

Lib Dem leader’s ‘fake news’ warning after false ‘squirrel abuse’ story goes viral

By PA Mediapoint

Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson has warned the public to be wary of sharing misinformation after a story went viral that wrongly claimed she had abused squirrels.

Doctored images claiming to show an article on the Mirror’s website were shared thousands of times across Twitter and Facebook last week, including by a number of pro-Brexit and Brexit Party groups.

But Mirror executive editor Michael Greenwood tweeted today: “The Mirror website has never published a story about Jo Swinson and squirrels (until this one).”

The false story, written by non-existent journalist “Wurrance Telephene”, claimed the Lib Dem leader was blasted by animal rights charities after “harrowing footage” was found on a private Facebook account.

Speaking to LBC’s Iain Dale today, she said: “This sort of fake news is surprising to me, now that I am the leader of a party. This isn’t the only one, there has been various other fake news story. Sometimes using the byline of an established journalist.

“There was one that used Peter Walker’s name from the Guardian and he had to go online to debunk it and say he never wrote it.

“But they’re quite sophisticated in that people believe them.

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“I do think it’s worrying because it has echoes of what we’ve seen in other elections. Particularly when you think about fake news and the technological possibility for deep fakes, where videos can be faked.

“I think it’s very difficult to prevent the spread.”

Researchers at First Draft, a non-profit group fighting misinformation, found that the false story was originally circulated among anonymous pro-Labour accounts, confined to a fairly small section of Twitter.

However, on 5 November a Medium post appeared pushing the same fake claims. It claimed to be written by a Miranda Joyce of the Milngavie Times, however neither the journalist nor the publisher exist, while the image purporting to show the author was actually a stock image.

The Medium post has since been removed.

The post received few interactions until it was shared by a Brexit Party account on 14 November with nearly 9,000 followers.

It then picked up more than 20,000 interactions across social media.

Posts promoting the story can still be found across both Twitter and Facebook, despite both social companies vowing to tackle misinformation on their platforms.

Screen grab of a Twitter post of a story that went viral which claimed Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson had abused squirrels. Picture: @bilderberg_gp/Twitter/PA Wire

How to spot ‘fake news’

With an increasing number of false news stories circulating online, members of the public need to be wary before sharing anything online.

First, vet the publisher’s credibility. Is it a legitimate news source, written by a legitimate journalist? If the domain name is something like “.com.co” it is likely the site is illegitimate.

Pay attention to the quality – are there grammatical errors? Google the story and see if it’s old or recycled.

False news tends to be less grammatical and factual, with a greater reliance on emotionally charged claims and misleading headlines.

If the story is reliant on images, a reverse image search can establish where these came from. If the story is a screengrab of what looks like a legitimate website, find the original version. It’s easy to edit pictures so they look real.

If in doubt, don’t share the story. Visit a fact-checking website, or see what legitimate news sources are saying before you retweet content.

Facebook has said it will attempt to crack down on fake content, by flagging it with users. If a story has been debunked, related links will appear next to the original.

Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

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