Inside the English Defence League

31/10/2011 15:30 GMT | Updated 30/12/2011 10:12 GMT

Today, Mark Littler and I have released a paper about the English Defence League. In it, we argue that the group is not simply a street movement of thugs as many assume, but would be better understood as a large Facebook group with a small militant wing. While around 1,000 or so people march or demonstrate fairly regularly, the overwhelming majority of its activity takes place online. It is here - through its thousands of Facebook fans that you'll find the beating heart of the group.

This means that, to understand the group, one has to understand this online army people too. Bizarrely, though, no-one has ever tried to survey them, although it is remarkably easy to do. So we did - and 1,295 online supporters responded. It gives a broader, more nuanced picture of the EDL than hitherto. Supporters are a mixed bunch, ranging from the committed peaceful democrat demanding that homosexuals be spared the horrors of Sharia Law courts all the way to the rabid Islamophobes. Yet overall, what seems to define them is not a violent hatred towards all Muslims - though that does exists among some members - but pessimism about the UK's future, worries about immigration, and high levels of joblessness. This is tied together with a proactive pride in Britain, British history and values, which they see as being under attack from Islam. While some find the chance of a Saturday afternoon punch-up to good to miss, the majority disavow violence.

Unusually, it is how we got this information that is the really interesting bit. This is the first time, as far as we know, that a think-tank has tried to survey a Facebook group. There are inevitable statistical weaknesses of course, but the potential is endless. The fact that millions of people now relate to politics through a mélange of virtual and 'real-world' activism means there are now enormous data sets about people's preferences, likes, dislikes, opinions - 5 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook every day. It is not just social media marketers and commercial reputational analysts who should get into the game: to marshal this evidence can help us understand social movements, extremist threats and modern activism. In one week we will have another piece of research out which explores these issues still further - so watch this space.