In October 2018, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) took to the streets of London in their thousands to protest against issues such as “returning jihadists” and “rape gangs”. Keen to stress they are not racists but concerned members of the public, a grassroots movement who simply want to be heard, they claim the voice of the ordinary citizen is being marginalised and that no political party truly speaks for them.
Like the English Defence League (EDL) before them, the DFLA protests can easily attract a few thousand people onto the streets, but their online footprint is significantly larger. Radical right Facebook groups are not new of course, both the EDL and Britain First learned how to exploit the algorithms to increase the reach of their far-right agenda. Simply ‘liking’ one of their benign posts – support for war veterans, animal welfare and even Princess Diana – encouraged Facebook to deliver more of their content into your timeline, including the more toxic rhetoric. But where previously these groups’ condemnation of terrorism and grooming gangs would target the perpetrators while unfairly (yet willingly) inferring an implicit problem with Islam, there has definitely been a more recent shift to an explicitly anti-Muslim agenda.
For example, the administrators for a closed Facebook group with the somewhat turgid name UKIP & EDL BNP, Britain First Pegida United we stand divided we will fall boldly proclaim to their 2,500 members, “In this group we tolerate and respect what ever belief system people wish to embrace, except Islam, and we do not insult or antagonize anyone for their faith beliefs or lack there of“. This common claim by such groups that they can’t possibly be racist because they hold no animosity towards other faith communities rings hollow. Racism is racism. You don’t get a free pass because you’re bigotry is selective. The words ‘except Islam’ offer a chilling glimpse into the evolution of the radical right.
The DFLA host their own ‘secret’ Facebook group with 12,000 members. By establishing a secret group, they ensure that not only are its membership and its content private, but it is hidden from public view and won’t appear in any searches of the social media site. However, one of its increasingly disaffected members invited me to take a glimpse inside and the vitriol towards Islam and Muslims not only shocked me, but left me feeling ashamed of my fellow countrymen and women.
To give you an indication of the levels of invective, below are some screenshots, with the names and some of the language redacted. The unedited posts have been forwarded to the Police.
Many of the posts in this group are more indicative of a general frustration with terrorism and the prevalence of child sexual exploitation and it spills onto the page in a barrage of expletives, but the language in the posts above demonstrate two of the most worrying factors for those of us who work in countering extremism and radicalisation: dehumanisation and violence. One post I saw states, “Scum, that (sic) all they are! We are at war! When will people realise our way of life is under serious threat??” This is the language of white supremacy, invoking notions of an existential threat and race war.
These are extreme and horrifying examples, but not all members share these views. Some decried the racism of their colleagues, while others were keen to point out that not all Muslims should be tarnished because a few individuals have committed acts of terrorism. These were not views I expected to find in a secret DFLA Facebook group and I think what this group represents is a microcosm of the wider radical right in the UK, running the gamut from genuine concern about social harms to far-right nationalism to anti-Muslim abuse and all the way to white supremacy.
One thing is clear throughout these social media forums, movements like the EDL, DFLA and Pegida genuinely believe they represent true working class voters and that no mainstream political parties speak for them.
In light of this, it is surprising that far-right political parties which flaunt an explicitly anti-Muslim and anti-immigration agenda don’t have the same levels of popularity and influence in the UK as they have elsewhere in Europe. I was recently asked why that might be and my response was that despite the likes of DFLA, we are ostensibly a tolerant country and when it comes to the ballot most people will vote for the issues that affect them personally and not be swayed by the racism of fringe parties, even if sympathetic to those views. This was challenged and I was asked to consider if perhaps it is because Britain is so intolerant that the problem has not been accelerated in the political sphere.
The premise put forward is that the UK has multiple ‘pressure valves’, most notably in elements of the right-wing press, that allow bigotry and prejudice to be released vicariously and cathartically, therefore rarely boiling over into the kind of unrest we have seen in Germany, Austria and France. It’s an interesting premise, and one that asks challenging questions of free speech and whether there is ever an acceptable, albeit unpalatable, level of intolerance.
If the DFLA’s closed Facebook groups represent a similar pressure valve, should we take heart that behind closed doors keyboard warriors are venting their frustrations on their smartphones and not escalating that bigotry into physical violence? Or should we worry that these views are escalating prejudice, feeding extremism and may ultimately be the catalyst that lights a fuse? The answer must surely be both.
What role should the social media companies play? In the last three months of 2017, Google’s algorithms automatically deleted a staggering 5 million videos from YouTube for content policy violations, with a further 1.6 million removed after users flagged them. Facebook claims that between January and March this year, they removed or put content warnings on 1.9 million pieces of extremist content, albeit only related to Al Qaida and ISIS specifically. But can we be confident they are applying this same rigour to closed or secret groups? While none of the above screenshots directly threaten another person, it’s hard to imagine how such implications of violence can be permitted on a social media platform.
Some may feel as detestable as these comments are, if they are not breaking the law then the right to say them trumps the rights of those offended by them. After all, no one has the right not to be offended. This brings us to the nub of the problem; in an increasingly polarised society, there is an area between free speech and incitement that is becoming rapidly more problematic. So how do we tackle this problem while still protecting free speech?
I do think in the UK we have the balance mostly right. The Government relentlessly lobbies social media companies to fulfill their moral obligation to remove extremist content. Campaigns such as the University of Leicester’s award-winning “Harms of Hate” bring the voice of the victims to life, reinforcing the devastating impact on individuals and wider society of such abhorrent pronouncements. We have hate crime laws for when free speech slips into hate speech, we have counter extremism initiatives to challenge the ‘mood music’ within which extremists can flourish and we have a counter radicalisation strategy (Prevent) to diffuse those who are at risk of having their far-right prejudice or politics mobilised into violence. It’s a pragmatic approach that recognises we cannot eradicate racism or extremism, but we can manage the risk. Applied correctly, none of these approaches threaten free speech.
I honestly don’t know if the posting and protests are cathartic and therefore constraining the violence, but I do know that groups like the DFLA cannot believably reject the label of racism if the issues they champion are reflected through the prism of one specific faith community. Nor can they claim legitimacy when they allow unfettered racism, dehumanisation and threats of violence to permeate their forums. It’s simple mathematics: if you genuinely want to tackle child abuse then you don’t only speak out when you see apparent similarities in the offenders’ nationalities or religion, and if you are concerned about Islamist terrorism you don’t vilify all Muslims.
There is sympathy for the view that mainstream political parties have failed to represent the concerns of white, working class voters and this is likely to have exacerbated the popularity of radical right movements across Europe. If this trend continues and communities feel increasingly marginalised or forgotten by their politicians, then I predict only two outcomes for the UK: either the radical right political fringes will gain traction or the hostility I encountered in these closed forums will boil over and be the catalyst that brings greater tragedy to our streets.