Three weeks ago former colleagues within Tell MAMA, the national anti-Muslim hate monitoring project, analysed Britain First and its Facebook page.
They looked at the number of followers gained by the page on a week-by-week basis and from 27 February to the 12 March it had gained 23,000 new followers. That’s right: 23,000 new followers at a time when leaders Jayda Fransen and Paul Golding were being convicted, possibly highlighting how much of a magnet the Facebook page had become for conspiracy theorists, far-right sympathisers and anti-Muslim bigots.
Over a short period of time, Britain First amassed over two million followers, larger than many political parties in the UK and Europe. They used it to raise money and to keep their anti-Muslim rhetoric alive and funded. All of this, right under the noses of Facebook’s young fashionista staff and public relations executives who turned up in Parliament to explain how great they were at removing content, without mentioning the fact that the platform was allowing far right and Islamist extremist groups to operate and generate funding for their hate.
You see, part of the ‘payback’ for social media companies is that bad publicity generates more discussions and more people wanting to get onto the platform, view the material and engage in more conversations. So for them, accounts like Britain First simply generated more publicity while also ensuring that these two million ‘followers’ were interconnected and further locked into the platform.
In part, I am pretty sure there were those in Facebook who said that resisting previous calls to take down the Facebook page would show the wider public that free speech was being defended. Yet at what cost to the public, the safety and security of citizens and most of all to the social fabric and cohesion in our country.
When Tell MAMA colleagues repeatedly asked Facebook to remove the Britain First page, the response from Facebook was that it was a ‘political group’. This was their failsafe ‘opt-out’ from removing the page. Yet Britain First’s leaders had a history of intimidation through the ‘mosque invasions’ that they had carried out at various Islamic sites in England.
In doing so, they also filmed elderly men in the mosques they targeted who looked scared, intimidated and bewildered. The videos shot were swiftly posted onto Facebook and yet, after such overtly anti-Muslim activity, Facebook stuck to the mantra that Britain First was a political group.
It was Fransen and Golding’s criminal convictions that proved the final straw. Facebook closed down the page and said that hate material would not be tolerated. Had it suddenly realised that Britain First was promoting hatred? As though the mosque invasions, daily diet of anti-Muslim rhetoric and demonisation of Muslims was not enough. Let us not forget that the judge in the Darren Osborne case said that Osborne had been rapidly radicalised and had devoured material online from Britain First (and Tommy Robinson). Even after that point, Facebook simply failed to act and on rumbled the anti-Muslim shrill of Britain First’s leadership.
Britain First’s very existence was driven by its use of Facebook. It was the first extremist group to really leverage Facebook which, in effect, gave it the space. Much can be said about Facebook, that it has revolutionised how we connect and engage with each other. But what can also be said is that the hate that I had to work through on a professional and personal level was generated because of the inaction of social media companies like it. Tens of thousands of people helped through Tell MAMA were affected because Facebook allowed the tumour of far right hate to manifest and grow.
In effect, we – collectively – as citizens have paid the price of hate, while corporates in California raked in the profits and put on free lunches, dental care and drinks for their staff. Anyone who has been into Facebook’s office will know that they lavish their toilets with free dental care items and make a point that they “care”. Well, for the many victims out there, Facebook’s inaction over groups like Britain First was a kick in the teeth for them.
Fiyaz Mughal is director of Faith Matters and founder of Tell MAMA