For better or for worse, the internet has changed the face of activism. In their support of a particular cause, the average person can now log on to internet fora and share ideas with likeminded groups around the world; they can use Twitter to organise rallies and protests; and can opine publically on their topic of choice through Facebook or YouTube. This article investigates what this has meant for politics.
By Niamh Baker-Loughlin
*This article, along with the in-text images, was originally published by Project for Democratic Union
It seems that Russell Brand, comedian and quirky celebrity personality, has succeeded in re-marketing himself as something of a political guru. While one might question the coherence of his oft-ranting diatribes and appreciate the irony of a Hollywood millionaire claiming that money is at the root of all evil, it is clear that something in Brand’s much publicised statements on revolution and the state of the political system has struck a chord with the public. Furthermore, it shows that Brand, who refuses to vote in any political elections in sympathy with what he calls a ‘disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system’, has struck a nerve in an age in which trust in politicians and the political system is at an all time low.
While it might be easy to dismiss figures such as Brand as silly, harmless caricatures, this political apathy and discontent has mobilised much more dangerous forces at the extremes of the political landscape. The 2014 European Parliament elections highlighted that the extreme-right has seen a renaissance in Europe, with parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary now gaining a worrying influence over national and European politics.
Interestingly, however, the extreme-right in Britain, which is mostly represented by the British National Party, has seen a decline in electoral success, winning no seats in the 2010 UK General Election, and with then-leader Nick Griffin losing his seat in the 2014 European Parliament Elections. No doubt this decline is in part due to the rise of the far-right but nonetheless undeniably more moderate UKIP, who have appealed to some traditional BNP voters, but who can certainly not be considered in the same mould as the fascist BNP or its Continental counterparts.
In looking at these developments (or lack thereof), one might make the happy assumption that the extreme-right is no longer a real force in British politics. However, it seems that electoral statistics tell only part of the story.
In fact, if one looks at popular social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, one may well draw quite the opposite conclusion on the state of the extreme-right in the UK. Britain First, a party which, in looking at electoral successes, seems to be of little or no political importance, has succeeded in becoming one of the most significant and popular British political forces on Facebook. With over 500,000 ‘likes’, Britain First now has more internet followers than any of the 3 main UK parties or UKIP.
Why, if voting patterns point to a decline in the support of the extreme-right in the UK, does Britain First, a splinter group of the BNP and self-styled ‘street-defence organisation’ have such a following online?
One possible explanation is that many of those who ‘like’ Britain First do so without realising the true nature of the group. In looking at the Facebook page, one meets a barrage of posts and imagery with a broad, populist appeal. Photos of Churchill are juxtaposed with remembrance poppies and Union Jack flags, and many posts decry the evils of Islamic extremism and child sex abuse. It stands to reason that, in producing a large amount of relatively inoffensive content that a broad section of society will happy share on social media, groups like Britain First can extend their reach. As they happily boast, much of the content created by Britain First is seen by more than a million people. It stands to reason that the broader the appeal of the content of the Facebook page, the more likely the page is to increase its following.
Sadly, this is not to say that there does not exist offensive content on the Britain First website – there is certainly a great deal of Islamophobic and anti-immigration rhetoric. However, Britain First has cleverly ensured that some tenets of their principles which would be less popular among their target audiences on Facebook such as, for example, their stance against abortion, do not really feature in their Facebook content. This guarantees that those who sympathise with much of the supposedly ‘patriotic’ content shared through their Facebook page remain ignorant of many aspects of the party. Indeed, one might perhaps hope that there does not even exist half a million fascists within the UK, which seems to further back up the idea that many of those who ‘like’ Britain First are not fully aware of the true nature of the page.
But does the popular rhetoric of celebrities such as Brand and the ever-increasing Facebook and social media presence of groups such as Britain First represent a shift in the way in which those at the extreme fringes of the UK political scene are reaching out to potential supporters? Or is, rather, the popularity of Britain First an anomaly created by clever over-emphasis of the group’s populist messages combined with the censorship of its less socially acceptable, more fascist material?
The first issue here is whether the Facebook success of groups such as Britain First has the potential to translate into electoral support and thus represent a real threat to the political status quo. Britain First’s only hope for political representation has been in the form of less-than-charismatic Jayda Fransen, who stood in the Rochester and Strood by-election on the 20th November 2014. Quite in contrast to their online popularity, Britain First managed to secure a meagre 56 votes, roughly a third of the number gained by the Monster Raving Loony Party. A poor turnout for a group that styles itself as the new alternative for Britain.
So it seems rather to jump the gun to suggest that Facebook presence automatically translates into electoral success. However, this does not mean that there is no danger in the activities of Britain First. One potential issue is that an internet forum, especially one in which comments of dissent are deleted, as is the case with the Britain First Facebook page, serves as an amplifier for extremist views. Although there exist no statistics, one might perhaps make the assumption that many of those who ‘like’ Britain First are young or easily influenced, perhaps with below average educational levels. Groups such as Britain First can get away with publishing content which has no factual basis on topics such as Islam as their target audiences have little or no frame of reference. Such content reinforces stereotypes and a cycle of frenzied Islamophobia ensues. This, along with the broad reach of these groups on social media, has the potential to skew the political leaning of some groups in society over time.
What is clear is that the potential influence of these groups must not be ignored. However, there also exists a possibility for mainstream political groups to learn a lesson here. At a time in which youth engagement in politics is low, perhaps it is time for politics to exit its traditional corridors of power to embrace a more interactive democracy. In reaching out to young people through media they feel comfortable with, politics might succeed in rebranding and reinvigorating itself for the next generation. Here, the potential for new forms of democracy, that are based on principles of enhanced participation and deliberation, can clearly be seen.