To Tackle Far-right Mobs We Must Tackle Online Habitats

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

For the past two months, we have had a far-right mob coming to London to harass and attempt to intimidate pro-EU politicians, peaceful activists, and journalists. This group, which apes the look of the French ‘yellow vests’, hangs around Westminster and hurls abuse at anyone they deem an enemy.

MP Anna Soubry has been on the receiving end of their vile abuse more than once, and they recently chanted (in the style of football hooligans) the bizarre ludicrous accusation that she is a Nazi.

Projection can be a revealing thing. While they certainly don’t have the organisational skills of the German Nazi Party, one can understand why some, including John Bercow — the speaker of the House of Commons — have described them as fascists. Extreme patriotism, forcible suppression of opposition, and shouting down dissenting voices are key features of fascism.

After a number of their street harassments were shown on the news, the Metropolitan Police began to take action and at least one arrest has been made.

Unfortunately, this pitiful little far-right mob, intended to drown out the voices of those who oppose Brexit and those on the left, is just one of several new far-right movements bubbling up in the UK, US and elsewhere. Though the noisy ranting mob we have seen on the street are irritating, it is perhaps the ones who are in the shadows that should concern us more. At least we can see the ranty yobs in bright yellow jackets.

With each new far-right group that emerges, it becomes clearer that the cultural and technological habitat in which they grow has to be tackled, in addition to the groups themselves.

The internet has made it easier for such groups to be established and groom devotees. Social media has become a key habitat for the growth of far-right movements as it helps susceptible people be reached with simplistic narratives that play on fears and ignorance. Filming confrontations and posting them online is a key element of far-right activists’ grooming activity and self-promotion.

In Shane Meadow’s first This Is England film we see young men and a boy at a National Front meeting in an isolated pub, which they were encouraged to attend by a sociopathic older member of their circle. The group was taken from their run-down urban environment and driven some distance to hear a white nationalist address a small mob.

Contrast this with the development of modern groups like Britain First, the English Defence League and National Action, which harnessed the powerful and free weapon of social media to reach large numbers of susceptible people easily. The far-right is so dependent on social media to amplify its messages that it went into meltdown when Twitter took the step of removing the verified ticks of some prominent hate-pedlars.

Another significant development was the Nazi group National Action being proscribed as a terror group after it praised the assassination of MP Jo Cox by far-right extremist Thomas Mair. Several people associated with National Action have since been convicted.

This hasn’t put off those who share the abhorrent views of the white supremacist network. Recently the new far-right group System Resistance Network (SRN) was infiltrated by an undercover reporter and its recruitment tactics exposed. The group advocates the expulsion of minorities and views homosexuality as a disease. The ideological links to National Action are clear.

Ironically, the opportunity that social media affords such groups has also proven a vulnerability for SRN. The journalist was able to infiltrate the group by creating a fake online profile and communicated with the group for months to gain trust. They then asked him to carry out acts, such as putting up SRN posters at night in public spaces. He has said that the group also told him to read Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf and other extremist material.

One of National Action’s founders, Alex Davies, has mentioned SRN via far-right broadcaster, Radio Aryan. He said on a show that he was encouraged by racist posters and graffiti daubed on walls in Cardiff earlier this year, and he stated: “It’s like a fire. As long as you’ve got some embers burning all you need is to put some fuel on that fire and it can turn into something big very quickly.”

After hearing about SRN, Security Minister Ben Wallace stated: “The government will not hesitate to proscribe any organisation that poses a threat and work is underway with tech companies to combat extremist propaganda online.”

This last point is important, but it is not as easy as it might sound. Since the emergence of the internet, what has enabled companies to host messaging boards and chat rooms, and develop social media empires like Twitter and Facebook without being sued or prosecuted for content created by users, is that they have not been deemed publishers. While a news site could be sued if a journalist wrote something defamatory, Twitter would not if the same words were posted there by the same person.

There isn’t an easy answer to this situation. If social media companies were deemed publishers, then to ensure ‘their’ content isn’t defamatory and doesn’t incite hatred or prejudice legal proceedings, posts would need to be moderated by legally aware editors. This would not be cheap and could take the dynamism out of social media. It could also, ironically, strengthen the narratives of far-right extremists, who capitalize on martyr status by claiming they are being silenced by the ‘establishment’.

A counter-argument is that social media companies make billions by allowing inflammatory views to be peddled, and so they should share responsibility for the content they disseminate.

The issue of freedom of speech versus the protection of society from dangerous extremists, who prey on the psychologically and economically vulnerable, becomes more significant as the online world becomes a bigger and bigger part of human life. If the amplification of hate speech via online platforms isn’t tackled, then extremist groups are likely to become more common and their narratives normalized. Once the narratives of fascists become normalized, then we really have a fight on our hands.

Will is an anthropologist, journalist and former clinician. He is the author or Veneer of Civilisation, Psychopathic Cultures and Beyond the End of the World