It was claimed in an online article that the Home Secretary’s department had spent £77,000 with a beauty treatment company and £5,400 at fashion retailer Primark. The story, by the Byline Times website, quickly went viral on social media with many people accusing Ms Patel of abusing public money. Those who joined in the smear included Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, who accused her of a “disgusting waste of public money”.
Others duped into believing the false spin were a deputy head teacher, a presenter for LBC radio, a panellist on Jeremy Vine’s Channel 5 show and union activists.
But nothing was bought for Ms Patel personally. The Home Office said: “It is completely false to say the Home Office has spent money on beauty products, it was PPE.
“The spending with Primark was for asylum seekers who would have not had appropriate clothing when arriving in the UK.”
Tory MP Giles Watling, a member of the Commons Media Select Committee, said: “This is a very serious issue. Such misinformation and fake news not only brings online harm, it also can change the face of the way that people vote.”
The story started in February when migrants rights campaigner Mary Atkinson posted online a list of items bought last year using Home Office procurement cards.
Then the Byline Times in an article written by a former BBC journalist, said the Home Office had spent £30,000 with Global Beauty Products and £77,000 with SP Beautiful Brows.
Almost £4,000 was spent at a restaurant, £900 at a pub and £2,000 was spent with a “diet consultant”.
The Home Office said the pub and restaurant were used as training venues, while the “diet consultant” was actually a company organising international travel.
Byline’s editor Hardeep Matharu said its article was “entirely accurate” and not written to “personally disparage, or encourage any disparagement” of Ms Patel.
She said the story had shown that Global Beauty Products also appears to sell PPE and that it did not state that the spending was Ms Patel’s personal expenses.