Social Networks

Europe: The Rise of the Far-Right Online

“Britain First is a patriotic political party and street defence organisation. Here you can join forces with patriots like you!” reads the description on Britain First’s Facebook page, which, with 494,980 “likes” is the most popular political Facebook community in Britain.

Britain First is a far-right movement formed just three years ago in 2011, by former members of the ultra-right-wing, British National Party (BNP). And as the Independent recently explained, its Facebook reach: “far outstrips the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, arguably making it the UK's biggest political site.”

BuzzFeed added: “[Britain First’s] social media operation is getting seriously powerful. [Its] Facebook page now reaches millions of people a week, giving it a bigger audience than some national newspapers.”

The Facebook feed presents a continuously updated feed of anti-Muslim hate, white supremacy and popular British invocations, such as: “Do not leave your dog in the car [in the hot weather].” This alone had 494 “likes” and 432 “shares”. And it is this blend of inflammatory poison and honest values that makes the overall message so dangerous.

“Britain First could give the other parties a lesson in political messaging on Facebook,” wrote BuzzFeed: “they have a clarity of message, use simple designs and rely on emotive content. As for what they’re actually preaching, well that’s another matter. But analysis of the recent posts suggests fans of Britain First are five times more likely to engage with Britain First on Facebook than fans of more mainstream political parties.”

“Ever since the dawning of websites it has struck me that the extreme right have been years ahead of the anti-fascist world,” suggests Gerry Gable, editor and publisher of Searchlight Magazine, an anti-fascist publication which recently celebrated its 50th birthday. Gable also co-authored a book with Paul Jackson, “Far-right.Com: Nationalist Extremism on the Internet (Mapping the Far-right)” which analysed this exact problem.

Gable is sceptical about the validity of Britain First’s social numbers and suspects rigging. “The main gripe I have about this,” he says “is that the mainstream media have given them a clean run not challenging their figures.”

“Extremists have used the internet to build membership, advance their credibility and to mobilise for direct action,” Matthew Goodwin wrote in a Guardian article in August 2012. The far right has long provided us with a window through which we can view the changing nature of racism, and racist politics. While this traditionally played itself out in the humdrum of election campaigns, it has now adapted to the digital age – and at phenomenal speed.”

The trouble is simplistic messages are just easier to follow, especially in online communities, where interaction is a quick “thumbs up”, or a couple of lines of praise or condemnation, possibly from a mobile phone, whilst on the move. Nobody wants anything too complicated or nuanced. If you can generate an instant reaction, the chances are, you’ll do better in these communities. It stands to reason: if you pop up a note saying: “I hate toast!” you’ll probably get a stronger reaction than if you wax lyrical for 50 words about the wrongs and rights of wheat production… and nothing is more innocuous than toast.

Last Friday, according to anti-fascist campaign group Hope Not Hate, Facebook took the page down for an hour due to a complaint. Britain First immediately announced on its site: “For the third time, Facebook has closed down our enormous fan page, and this time no reason is given,” to makes its point, it slapped down a big “censored” stamp. This no doubt, riled its supporters even further.

None of this is isolated to Britain, of course. The rise of the far-right is on the up through Europe. This year’s European elections saw a surge of right-wing parties enter the European Parliament. The Financial Times ran the headline “Eurosceptics storm Brussels”. Whilst the Huffington Post compiled a list of the: “9 scariest far-right parties now in the European parliament”.

In the wake of all this, numerous individuals leapt into the fray to provide some depth and measure to sweeping statements about fascism. Yet whichever way you look at it, a slew of right-wing parties are emerging, and whatever their differences they do tend to have certain similarities. European far-right parties usually dislike the EU in favour of their own nation state, hate immigration and, fundamentally, offer a voice to the “left behind”, white working class voters, who often see themselves as marginalised in a world of middle class, career-driven, party politics.

These individuals want a voice. And the “granddaddy” of these platforms explains Nick Ryan, a journalist whose books include Homeland (which addresses the rise of the far-right) is Stormfront.

Founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader, Don Black in the US, this started as an online bulletin in the early 1990s and rose to become a full blown global website.

In the millennium, Stormfront reached fame of a kind when it was featured in 40-minute, HBO documentary “Hate.com: Extremists on the Internet”.  It has been fully active in Europe for decades: was blocked in Italy in 2012 - four people were arrested. And in 2002, Google deleted it from its French and German listings, in the light of local racism laws.

This overall trend has led to an increased need for online counter-activities. This year the Institute of Strategic Dialogue produced a paper, [PDF] “Old Threat, New Approach: Tackling the Far Right Across Europe,” which focused on 10 European countries. In this, it highlighted the fact that Finland has “initiated a pilot programme involving ‘internet police officers’, who maintain a visible presence in online spaces largely to offer help to young people who might seek it, but also engage in some dialogue with extremists.”

“One problem is that some of the anti-fascist sites are run by well-meaning people but don't know the BNP [British National Party] from the NF [National Front] or the NF from the EDL [English Defence League],” explains Gable, of Searchlight Magazine. “If you are going to play this game then hard factual information is vital.”

Of course, this can be difficult because the far-right is an extremely complex network of parties, splinter-parties and affiliated groups. In the UK alone these range across the spectrum from the friendly “common sense” face of UKIP [the UK Independence Party], through to overtly racist parties such as the BNP, EDL or Britain First. Multiply this across the European continent and you’re looking at a very confusing, fragmented criss-cross of varied organisations.

In Britain, Britain First did not do very well in the European elections. This is because like every other party, it was trounced by UKIP. This party also does simple messages very well - it has been struggling to perfect them for 20 years - but it is not quite so far right, or extreme and is therefore not quite as scary to ordinary British voters.

Not surprisingly, it does very well on Facebook. UKIP [founded 1993] has 226,282 “likes” on the site, which puts it just behind the Conservative Party [founded 1834] at 227,987 “likes” and well ahead of Labour [founded 1900] which has 177,865 “likes”. None of the anti-UKIP campaigners come close. “Women Against UKIP” which is easily the most active and popular experienced a surge of followers in the run up to the Euro Elections, but still only has 5,767 “likes”.

“Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Extremism and Democracy),” by Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, published this March, looks at the phenomenal (and to many, baffling) growth in support for this new party, which incidentally, has neither manifesto nor clear policies. The brilliance of this strategy appears to be that, unlike other established parties, which rely on specific promises, the appeal is based on a “big idea” – you could argue, this is old-fashioned politics as it used to be.

UKIP taps into all the things people feel passionately about – the very concept of “Britishness” - and in so doing, manages to wrap-in both traditional Labour and Tory voters. And this is the promise of all the new parties emerging on the right through Europe. Many have not yet had the chance to fail in any formal democratic setting… and so what they offer is potential, pure and simple.

For people who have lost all hope in traditional politics, these new, right-wing parties can validate what it means to be French, German or Hungarian. Through simple, social media platforms, they can make those who feel disenfranchised proud to be Italian, Dutch or British. Because these vast online communities can invoke that spirit, which exists within us all, of: national righteousness, fuelled by fear and jealousy of interlopers.

Facebook pages may sound relatively harmless, but across Europe this trend has the look and feel of an explosive keg of emotive ideas… working itself up to detonation.   


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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