A US waiter is no longer working at a Texas restaurant after his employers said he faked a widely-shared image of a receipt scrawled with a racist note.
Khalil Cavil, who worked at a Saltgrass Steak House restaurant in Odessa, Texas, posted an image of the receipt to Facebook where it attracted tens of thousands of shares and comments.
The story was widely covered by the media – including the Washington Post, The Sun and the Daily Mail – in an illustration of how false claims can spread online and be picked up by the mainstream press.
A customer was initially banned from the restaurant in response to the claims, but on Monday Saltgrass Steak House chief operating officer Terry Turney said in a statement that that the employee “fabricated the entire story”.
“Racism of any form is intolerable, and we will always act swiftly should it occur in any of our establishments,” he said.
“Falsely accusing someone of racism is equally disturbing”.
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Mr Cavil posted the image on 16 July. A receipt indicating that no tip had been left on the $108 bill appeared to show a scrawled racist note. His name, Khalil, had been circled and the message “we don’t tip terrorist [sic]” handwritten on the top.
In his Facebook post, the waiter said he was “sick to his stomach” and that he wanted “people to understand that this racism and this hatred still exists”.
Within days of the image being shared online, the post had been shared more than 18,000 times and attracted more than 7,000 comments. Many of those commenting had expressed their support for Mr Cavil.
As the number of shares and comments went up, the story was picked up by news media around the world – from New Zealand to India to the UK.
The BBC investigated but declined to publish a story when it could not confirm what happened – Mr Cavil deleted the Facebook posts in which he made the false claims and did not respond to an interview request. He repeated the false claims when contacted by other media organisations.
The incident highlights how quickly unverified or false information can spread online. Social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been under pressure to improve their efforts to combat the spread of false or misleading information.
Facebook is running a prominent advertising campaign in which it declares “fake news is not your friend”. But last week, Facebook’s head of policy Monika Bickert told a hearing in Congress the company “don’t have a policy of removing fake news”.
According to reports, Mr Cavil has apologised for making the fake claims.
“I’m sorry,” he reportedly told the Odessa American.
“I deeply made a huge, big mistake. And I’m in the process of getting the help that I need”.
Mr Cavil appears to have subsequently removed his Facebook account. The BBC has not been able to reach him for comment.