A lie, as the saying goes, can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.
That’s all the more so in the age of social media. Whether it starts as a misunderstanding, or a deliberate attempt to mislead, before you know it an untruth can be swept up to make a political point, used in arguments and believed by many — and never mind that there’s no factual basis to it.
In 2016, we pointed out a meme spreading false allegations about immigrants, and that the response to an FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow was providing a way for people to challenge the post with facts.
Back then, the false rumour being spread was that immigrants were entitled to benefits payments far in excess of the reality. It came to our attention when we realised that the FOI request proving it wrong had become one of the most-visited pages on WhatDoTheyKnow that month.
And now, almost exactly the same thing has happened again.
One of the pages with the highest number of visitors in November was this request asking if people (specifically muslims) using their homes as places of worship are exempt from paying council tax.
On further investigation as to what might have prompted the surge in traffic, we came across Full Fact’s refutation of the claim, which, as proof, links to the official government guidance.
The FOI response says “Such an exemption does not exist”.
A quick search reveals that this isn’t the first FOI request on this subject made on WhatDoTheyKnow. In fact, there are several, dating back to 2009, made by different users to a range of different councils.
In 2010 Leeds City Council responded to a request that said, “I heard an alarming rumour that newly built houses in Dewsbury in the million pound price bracket were claiming a large reduction in their council tax because one room was deemed a place of worship”.
The council said: “There is no provision within council tax legislation for discounts or exemptions from Council Tax for residential properties which have a place of worship”.
And in 2009, Cornwall Council responded to a similar request, “There is not an exemption from Council Tax for houses classed as a place of worship”.
We don’t know whether the people making these FOI requests were doing so as a way to challenge the meme’s false claims, or because they saw it and sensibly decided to reserve judgement until they knew the facts. Either way, it’s a great use of WhatDoTheyKnow and these responses will stand as a permanent reference point for anyone who wants to check the facts around this matter in the future.
UPDATE: After tweeting this story, we had a response from Andrew White who gave some further background from his experience on the Parliament petitions service:
We picked this up on the Petitions website as a Google Search alert – updated both this petition https://t.co/1Itmm0s8R2 and https://t.co/aPqIWYzX06 with a link to the Full Fact article. The recent spike had its origin in a Facebook video: https://t.co/bAzc4N1fBc
— Andrew White (@pixeltrix) December 19, 2019
In a terrifying example of how misinformation can be spread in the most unexpected of ways, as you can see in the Facebook video linked to in the tweet, a petition that led with the words Muslims who use their living area’s within their homes as a place of Worship, are exempt from paying Council Tax [sic] was identified by the Amazon virtual assistant Alexa as the most suitable information source for the question “Do Muslims have to pay council tax if they pray in their own homes?”.
Presumably the fact that the petition was located on an official government website gave it, in Alexa’s view, the credibility needed to cite it as a source.
Image: Climate Reality
If you’re a UK citizen, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that we have a rather important vote coming up.
On June 23, a referendum will decide whether or not we remain in the European Union. It’s a divisive subject, with strong advocates and emotional arguments on both sides. But here at mySociety, we know what we believe.
We believe in an informed vote.
That’s why we advise you to analyse the facts before making up your mind where to place your cross. And to help you do that, here’s a list of impartial resources, from us, from our partners, and from other organisations.
Check the facts
Just as they did for the UK general election, our friends at Full Fact will be setting out the truth behind the emotive speeches, claims and counterclaims around the referendum. Here’s where you can find all their EU analysis.
They started off with a good check of the government’s EU leaflet.
Ask some questions
Wondering about something specific? Or perhaps you’ve seen claims flying about on social media which you’d like to check for accuracy. In some cases, a Freedom of Information request will help you source the facts and figures you need to understand the truth.
But hurry: by law, requests to the EU can take up to 30 working days to process (20 in the UK) and in actuality they often take longer.
You can use WhatDoTheyKnow to ask for information from UK authorities, and AskTheEU for EU bodies — AskTheEU is a site run on our Alaveteli Freedom of Information software.
Know where to vote
Democracy Club are the stalwart crew of volunteers who crowdsourced details of all candidates before the UK general election and again before the recent local elections.
Of course, for the referendum, there are no candidates — but you do need to know where to vote. Democracy Club’s Open Polling Stations project is attempting to make that information easier for everyone to locate: you can start by inputting your postcode on WhoCanIVoteFor. Where they don’t have the polling station data, you’ll see a phone number for your local council.