@Didn'tHappenUk
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Hate crimes, social media, and the rise of the “hoax hoax”

When hate crimes rise, so do the number of people trying to discredit them.

The first thing 16-year-old Kiaira Manuel did when she saw a bold, underlined sign reading “COLORS ONLY” over one of her high school’s hallway water fountains was go to her school administrators.

“They said they were going to handle it, but so many things go unnoticed at this school and they just don’t care,” says the now 17-year-old, explaining her decision to post a picture of the sign on social media that night. “So this was taped above the water fountains at my school...” she innocuously captioned the image, which has now been shared over 1,500 times.

It took a day for someone to call her a liar. Twitter user @iH8Thots tweeted Manuel a message, which was then also shared hundreds of times on the site. “We go to the same school,” he wrote. “I watched you put that piece of paper up there and take the picture.” Manuel blocked the user, which was then seen as “proof” that his accusation was true.

These tweets were first posted in January – when the sign was stuck over the water fountain – but over the last few days, Manuel has fended off a fresh flood of people taking to social media to call her a liar. The timing is no accident. Since Donald Trump won the United States presidential election, there has reportedly been an increase in hate crime in America – with the Southern Poverty Law Center receiving 200 complaints in the last week. There has also, in turn, been a surge in people trying to discredit hate crimes, by loudly labelling them hoaxes on social media.

It doesn’t take a lot of research to unravel @iH8Thots’ claims. Less than a week after the incident, he and Manuel appeared on the comedy podcast Pod Awful to talk about their viral tweets. “You’re clearly a fucking troll,” says the host within a few minutes of speaking to @iH8Thots, even though he initially believed his story. @iH8Thots refuses to explain his side of events, is unsure of his own age, and calls his lawyer – who has, in the host’s words, “the voice of a child” – to defend him on air. When I asked – over Twitter’s direct messaging service – whether @iH8Thots would like to speak to me for this piece, he replied: “lol. fuck the media. journalists can go to hell”.

Before all of this, however, a cursory glance at the profile of @iH8Thots – a username that, translated from internet slang, seems to mean “I hate That Hoe Over There” – was enough to disprove his accusations. Manuel claims that when he first posted the tweet, his account said he was based in California, nearly 3,000 miles from her high school in Florida. His feed was full of similar trolling messages, and if you click on his account today, you will see a man in a gas mask holding a gun staring out from his profile picture, a design for a fascist flag of America as his header, and a timeline full of pro-Trump and anti-liberal tweets. Few people, however – both when the tweet first blew up and now it has reappeared – think to check.

Manuel’s experiences are part of a current trend on social media that I will tentatively call a “hoax hoax”. It goes like this. Someone posts evidence of a hate crime on social media. Someone else uses false evidence to out their post as a hoax. This, however, is the actual hoax. It is a lie claiming someone else lied – a hoax hoax.

This is happening on fake news websites and across social media. A Twitter account @DidntHappenUk was set up last month to expose people they believe to be lying on the social network. Despite offering no evidence for who is or isn’t telling the truth in any scenario, they have over 2,000 followers – with half of these gained over the last week since the election. “A nice display of left hand writing here,” they wrote above a picture of a swastika-laden racist message that was allegedly left on a Facebook user’s car.

“People think that, after the election, people are making up hoaxes to prove that there is hate in the world. It’s so stupid. People don’t do their research on these things and now I’m being used as a prime example for it,” Manuel says.

The problem is being exacerbated by police forces using social media to encourage victims to come forward. Twitter users jumped on the journalist Sarah Harvard when she claimed her friend’s Muslim sister had “a knife pulled on her” at her university and the campus police replied saying: “This has not been reported to police. If you are in contact with anyone involved, please encourage them to give us a call.” Though they meant well, their tweet was used as evidence that the event never happened at all. This is a problem because police reports are not the be-all and end-all of proving a claim’s veracity.

Manuel says her school administrators, for example, were reluctant to act when she reported the water fountain incident, and she felt they were dismissive of her concerns. “When I put it on social media it was forcing them to actually pay attention and actually do something about it,” she says. Contrary to what many might expect, then, some people – especially those who are disenfranchised – are compelled to turn to social media over the authorities.

“That’s why we put stuff as ‘Unproven’,” says Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of the internet’s oldest fact-checking website, Snopes, which uses “True”, “False”, "Mixture", and "Unproven" buttons to label stories. They recently labelled a story about a Muslim woman told to hang herself with her hijab in Walmart as “Unproven” after the police said they had not heard about the attack.

“We didn’t want to say ‘False’ because there’s not much we can do if two people were involved and neither of them are talking and nobody saw it. Maybe she didn’t want to go to the police. All sorts of creepy people will start threatening people who do so. And the people who are doing it certainly aren’t going to say ‘We told her to hang herself by her hijab’.”

Snopes are a non-partisan site, and investigate claims based on how many people email them to ask about a story. “Inherently, fact-checking hate crime accusations is certainly sticky,” says Kim LaCapria, a content manager and political fact-checker at Snopes, when I ask whether there are any moral considerations around investigating hate crimes. “There's definitely the idea out there it's wrong to question people who we agree with that have been purportedly attacked, but folks on the other side of the aisle clamour for a look into claims' veracity.”

It is important to note that there are undeniably hate crime hoaxes – something the right often calls “false flags” – occurring, though Binkowski says they are “extremely rare”. The conservative news website Breitbart – which has found fans among white supremacists – concludes that there have been 100 in the last ten years, a remarkably low rate of ten a year (especially considering the site’s agenda) and nothing compared to the 2,241 racially or religiously aggravated offences that occurred in the UK in the two weeks after the EU referendum. The right is also guilty of false flags, recently purporting a man was attacked because he was a Trump supporter when the incident actually stemmed from a traffic altercation.

Still, when false flag hate crimes do happen, they are seized by the right as evidence that no hate crimes are happening at all. Who can forget when, earlier this year, an openly gay pastor was forced to admit he had iced the word “Fag” onto a cake himself, and had lied that it was done by a Whole Foods employee? Just last week, a student at the University of Louisiana admitted to fabricating a story about having her hijab ripped off by two Trump supporters (it is worth noting, however, that some people may recant their stories out of fear).

It is crucial that we, as social media users, fact-check things before we share them so they can’t be used for another agenda. Just because fake hate crimes are rare doesn’t mean it’s wrong to scrutinise things you see on social media. Questioning one particular post that seems a little off is not the same as denying that hate crimes are happening.

“Even if it feels uncharitable to consider the veracity of a claim, it's important for information to be credible and not to add to the spread of bad information inside a political bubble of one's own making,” says LaCapria. “Liberals are most definitely not immune to spreading bad information or getting angry when their claims get debunked, but it doesn't help anyone's cause when a popular story inevitably proves false.”

It can be very distressing, however, for a victim to be accused of carrying out a hoax, and Manuel ended up blocking over 600 people on Twitter. “People started attacking me and calling me ‘n****r’ and all of these derogatory terms,” she says. “Two days ago, after this all blew back up, I got 50 messages in a row from one person who said he was watching me, and said my first name and last name and said my information had been leaked. That’s really frightening.”

While fact-checking, it is crucial to not cause unnecessary distress. But how?

“Even a simple ‘I haven’t verified this yet’ or ‘If this is true, it’s worth paying attention to’ marks the story as unvetted but allows people to share,” says LaCapria. “Critical thinking is important; if something sounds completely implausible, it probably didn't happen the way the person is telling social media it did. There are two good subreddits – r/thathappened and r/quityourbullshit – that just take a second (sometimes mocking) look at viral social media claims. Although users aren't always kind, they can be very good at pinpointing holes in stories.” Another, r/hatecrimehoaxes has also become popular after the election. 

Binkowski also points out that many hoaxes fall apart at the first sign of scrutiny. “They usually make it easy because they can’t handle the pressure and feel guilty so come out and recant,” she says. “Everyone should read from a variety of sources, even ones you don’t agree with. A lot of people yell at us because they think we are trying to be the be-all and end-all but we just want to be the starting point."

For Manuel, everyone being better at fact-checking would have saved her a lot of pain. At the time of writing, her Twitter mentions are still being flooded with offensive messages. In order to combat both hoaxes and hoax hoaxes, then, everyone must attempt to be non-partisan in scrutinising social media claims. 

"Even if you don’t have much time, if you read something on some site that doesn’t quite ring true or seems too perfect, then Google it, just Google it,” says Binkowski. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Clive Turner/Maeve McClenaghan
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Inside the lives of the 78 people who died homeless this winter

Some died in doorways or in tents pitched in the snow. Others died in shelters or temporary accommodation.

In early March, the snow lay thick over the windows of Hamid Farahi’s car, obscuring the jumble of blankets, books and bags within. An entire life crammed into the passenger seat of a Peugeot 206.

Amongst the clutter was a prized possession – a letter from the office of Stephen Hawking. But 55-year-old Farahi no longer needed it.

Less than a mile down the road, Farahi had been checked into a hotel, the inclement weather forcing the homeless man out of the car where he was living and into a warm room for the night. It was there that he died. The cause of his death is still being investigated.

Farahi is one of 78 people the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found to have died while homeless this winter. This averages to more than two people a week, with at least ten people dying last month alone.

Despite many of these vulnerable people being known to the authorities, local journalists and charities are often the only ones that report these deaths.

The Bureau spoke to councils, hospitals, coroners offices, police forces and NGOs. Whilst there is a charitable network recording information on people sleeping rough in London, it found that there is no centralised record of when and how people die homeless in the UK. Therefore, its count is likely an underestimate.

And so today, the Bureau launched Dying Homeless, a long-term project to track and count those that die homeless on UK streets. 

It has already started to log some of the stories of those who have died homeless on UK streets. They include an avid gardener, a former soldier and a grieving 31-year-old who had lost both his mother and brother.

Some died in doorways or in tents pitched in the snow. Others died in shelters or passed away in hospitals after living on the streets. Many were rough sleepers, others were statutory homeless and staying in temporary accommodation.

The Bureau found that, since 1 October 2017, at least 59 men and 16 women have died – and in a further three cases the gender is not known due to lack of public information. The ages of those in our database so far range from 19- to 68-years-old. Fourteen deaths were of people 35-years-old or under.

The project has been welcomed by those working in the sector.

Petra Salva, St Mungo’s Director of Rough Sleeper Services said: “It’s a scandal that people are dying on our streets.

“St Mungo’s would welcome more nationally collated, robust statistics around rough sleeper deaths.”

Thames Reach Chief Executive Jeremy Swain said: “To systematically record the number of deaths of rough sleepers in order to gauge the scale of the problem and investigate trends will be of enormous practical value.”

Farahi’s car now sits unclaimed, on a quiet side road behind the car park of a huge Tesco shopping complex in Harlow, Essex. Four weeks on from his death and, instead of snow, the windscreen is covered with floral tributes. There are 11 bunches of flowers in all, most now withered and brown.

“They all appeared over the past couple of weeks”, said Adam Protheroe. A local businessman, Protheroe had met Farahi the year before and had come to know him well. “I’m back and forth from Tesco all the time getting stuff for the wife and kids. I just came across him, said hello, he was a friendly enough guy,” he said.

Farahi once told Protheroe he had studied aeronautical engineering in Bristol. His Facebook page registers a stint working in avionics for British Airways.

Once, he even applied for a graduate research position with Stephen Hawking’s office at the University of Cambridge. The Bureau saw paperwork confirming his application. Farahi told Protheroe and others he had made it down to the last three applicants.

But then, things started to go wrong.

“Someone conned him out of money and he ended up selling his pension to shark companies, that is what he called them,” Protheroe explained. “Losing that money was the start of the alcoholism I think, it alleviated the stress.”

Iranian-born, Farahi was also reportedly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from his time fighting for the army in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

People that knew Farahi years before told Channel 4 News he was not the easiest man to live with. He struggled with alcoholism for years and had to be removed from several properties. But many people in Harlow told the Bureau of their affection for him.

Chrissy Sorce works in a car rental hut, just five metres from Farahi ’s makeshift home. Her cigarette breaks would often bring her face to face with the homeless man. “At first I thought that’s a bit weird living there. He first arrived in the summer, and so I just started saying hello, ” she explained. Soon she was charging his phone for him or making him tea.

She told the Bureau that after gathering many books on advanced mathematics and engineering he had to enlist the help of a friend, who stored them in her daughter’s garden shed because they could no longer fit in his car.

“You know he’s a person like anyone else. Everyone’s vulnerable aren’t they,” she said. “He was a very intelligent man, he had all engineering books, maths books you know. He was just left here, I thought that was really wrong.”

The number of people sleeping rough has risen sharply across the UK, increasing 169 per cent in England since 2010, according to the government’s latest rough sleeper count. Experts warn cuts to mental health and substance abuse provision, coupled with rising private rents and a lack of social housing, are now forcing increasing numbers into homelessness.

However, there is no central database logging deaths of those who die when homeless. There no obligation on councils or coroners to log the deaths. Not all deaths make the news.

But that does not mean they go unnoticed. The Bureau found that for those working in the sector, news of premature deaths can be hard to shake.

Wayne Hood, from the charity Streets2Homes, knows two other people who died in Harlow this winter. The families do not want the names shared.

Hood knows only too well the dangers of sleeping rough. Now a paid outreach worker, he first arrived at the Streets2Homes shelter when he became homeless in 2015.

These days he splits his time between helping those who arrive at the day centre, tucked away in a small industrial estate on the edge of the town, and the time he is out walking the streets, looking for those that need help.

“I have these flyers printed”, Hood explained, pulling a handful of A4 sheets out of his rucksack. In big, bold letters they read: “Homeless you are not alone”. In the corner of a storeroom are bulging plastic bags tied tightly at the top, full of toiletries, bottles of water and other essentials. These are the packs Hood hands out on his round.

“Street homeless is becoming very visible here now. It has definitely increased,” he said. “We have 28 registered rough sleepers that we know of here in Harlow. It is probably more like double that in reality”, he added.

People bed down where they can. In a small square of grass outside the local St Paul’s church, eight tents huddle in varying states of disarray.

“When the weather was bad in March, we went out to places we thought people might be. A couple of occasions we opened up the centre here too, on Friday and Saturday night when it was really cold. It was a case of people bedding down here on the day room floor,” Hood explained.

At the same time, 70 miles away, Robert Wallis was settling in on the floor of an emergency shelter too.

Six days before Hamid Farahi died, as 'the beast from the East' cold snap pummelled the UK, Eileen Wallis, a homeless woman, woke up on the floor of the Catching Lives drop-in centre and found her 41-year-old son Robert, who was also homeless, dead beside her.

Eileen told journalist Gerry Warren of KentOnline: “I woke up and reached out for his hand but it felt really cold. I realised he was dead but tried to revive him.

“I knew he was ill, but this came completely out of the blue and I am devastated. I have no idea what my future holds now.”

The centre, a squat rectangular building housed just metres from Canterbury East station, had been turned into an emergency shelter as the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, a statutory requirement on councils to house homeless people in severe weather, prompted charities within the sector to open their doors.

“When the temperature is forecast zero [degrees Celsius] or less for three nights or severe wind, rain or snow, the council contact us and we open our day centre”, explained Graeme Solly, a Project Leader with Catching Lives day centre. “We had 47 nights of that this winter.”

The tables which usually line the hall were pushed to the side, the snooker and ping-pong tables moved back to make room for 15 people bedding down on mats on the floor. The centre was at capacity most nights.

"We are seeing a large number of rough sleepers, sofa surfers, and people who are vulnerably housed coming to our centre to seek advice", said Solly. Footfall at the Catching Lives day centre doubled between 2013 to 2015 and has remained around this mark since, he added.

Official figures show that, across the South of England, the numbers of rough sleepers has increased by 194 per cent since 2010, higher even than the national average.

Cuts to council budgets have had an impact on the care homeless people can access, said Solly.

With fewer options for referral to other services, staff at Catching Lives are left trying to support people as best they can.

Staff in the centre are still shaken by Robert Wallis’s death. Responding at the time, the centre’s general manager, Terry Gore, told Kent Online: “Every year we lose a number of clients, but we’ve never had anyone die inside the building before. It’s very sad for our staff, clients and volunteers.”

But Robert was not the only person to die while homeless in Canterbury this year. Less than three weeks later, the city saw another death.

Out on the streets of Canterbury, Sonya Langridge walks with a purpose, her years working for the navy evident in her powerful stride and eagerness to keep time.

“It was incredibly difficult this winter,” she told the Bureau. “I normally go out to start my round around 6am but there were some nights I’d find myself lying awake worrying about people, so I’d just get up earlier and check they were okay.”

Sonya is an outreach worker with Porchlight, a homelessness charity which works across the entirety of Kent. “People will sleep anywhere that is safe, if they are sleeping in the town centre it is for safety reasons, where they know cameras are, they know they have someone watching over them, or equally you get the people that go out in the woods by the rivers, tuck themselves away there where they feel they are not on show, they feel safe when no one knows where they are- those are the worrying ones, those are the ones we want to keep our eye on for their own safety.”

One of the people on Sonya’s watch was Shelly Pollard, a 42-year-old woman who was well-known around the city.

Many nights Pollard would bed down in the dimly lit doorway of a record music shop, the grand city walls visible from where she sat. Women make up around 22 per cent of rough sleepers in Canterbury, according to Porchlight, higher than the national average of 14 per cent. Sleeping where there is light and CCTV can provide some form of security.

“She was here every morning. She was always just here in the corner in the sleeping bag, maybe with some cardboard, sometimes spare clothes, you’d just hear snoring,” shop worker Alex Furness told the Bureau. “You couldn’t really believe she’d died until you heard it from a couple of people.”

A short distance down the road, watched over by a bronze statue of poet Geoffrey Chaucer, candles and flowers lay in tribute to Pollard. By the time of publication, a GoFundMe page trying to raise money for her funeral had raised £1,360 of its £4,000 goal.

Sonya is still shaken by Pollard’s death. But there is no time for her to stop. She covers a huge patch and spends her days scouring the streets and woods around the city, checking in with those that are rough sleeping.

“Sonya is fantastic, she can get people to talk to her who would never open up to anyone else,” said Mike Barrett, Chief Executive of Porchlight. “She was keeping almost a daily watch on Pollard. Sadly now Pollard has passed away.

“Her death is an example of the end of a process that is not fit for purpose, which is destructive and immoral.”

Barrett can reel off a long list of things he thinks are causing the increase in homelessness in the area and across the country: cuts to mental health services, lack of regulations around private landlords, landlords refusing to take those on Universal Credit.

Those issues, he says, are compounded by funding cuts to homelessness services.

“The cuts have impacted to a point where some services have closed. Others are so diluted they can’t do what they were set up to do”, said Barrett.

“Years ago Porchlight had 28 outreach workers. In 2011 our budgets were cut by 75 per cent and we ended up with a team of four [outreach workers]. So the charity, our board decided to pump some of our own reserves into it and we’re still doing that. But we’ve only got a team of 11, ”said Barrett. “The whole funding environment has returned to what it was in the 80s,” he added.

The Homeless Reduction Act, which was brought in earlier this month, puts more responsibility on councils to prevent homelessness and provides some additional funds. But many in the sector told the Bureau they are worried it is not enough to counter the cuts that have already happened.

A recent survey of local authorities, by the homeless charity Crisis, found that 74 per cent warned that a roll-out of Universal Credit would significantly increase homelessness in their area. Nearly half also feared the lowering of the total benefit cap would significantly increase homelessness.

Farahi, Pollard and Robert died within weeks of each other. At least seven more people died while homeless in March too, according to the names compiled by the Bureau. The true figure is likely to be much higher.

Matt Downie, Director of Policy and External Affairs at Crisis, said: “The Bureau’s figures are a devastating reminder that rough sleeping is beyond dangerous – it’s deadly, and it’s claiming more and more lives each year.

“Those sleeping on our streets are exposed to everything from sub-zero temperatures, to violence and abuse, and fatal illnesses. They are 17 times more likely to be a victim of violence, twice as likely to die from infections, and nine times more likely to commit suicide. What’s worse, we know these figures are likely to be an underestimate."

“It is extraordinary and unacceptable that nationally data on rough sleepers is so limited”, said Jeremy Swain of Thames Reach.

Thames Reach, along with other homeless charities, has now pledged support for the Bureau’s Dying Homeless project.

Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it totally by 2027.

Responding to the Bureau’s findings, a government spokesperson said: “Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many. We are taking bold action and have committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it by 2027.

“We are investing £1.2bn to tackle all forms of homelessness and earlier this month the Homeless Reduction Act, the most ambitious legislation in this area in decades, came into force."

Farahi’s death is still being investigated by the coroner’s office. Around a week after he passed away his hero Stephen Hawking died. Hawking was buried with ceremony 17 days later, on 31 March. Farahi is yet to be buried. 

His car sits, stuffed with his belongings, the only remaining marker of his life.