Scrolling through my newsfeed is not quite the purely “social” experience it once was. I catch myself sighing, more than a few times each day, at the articles and videos shared by my Facebook friends. As I have grown up on Facebook, the content has shifted away from mere updates on personal life and ventured into other domains of modern society. Now, I find myself (often uncomfortably) privy to my friend’s socio-political views and commentary. It is through this aspect of Facebook, and my British family members and friends, that I discovered the Facebook page “Britain First”.
It is worrisome enough when a popular Facebook page espouses hatred and racism, it is even worse when they lie under the guise of a serious political organization. Currently, the Britain First Facebook page has 544,318 likes and the number is quickly rising. In May, a buzzfeed article reported that the page had had 3.3 million interactions in one week and was gaining 8000 followers a day. Furthermore, the article posited that “fans of Britain First are five times more likely to engage with Britain First on Facebook than fans of more mainstream political parties”. This engagement often seems to revolve around persuasive, “patriotic” social media campaigns. These campaigns often capitalize on current events, such as the recent ISIS threats and the shootings in Ottawa, Canada, to garner support for anti-Muslim and anti-Immigration British polices. They frequently attack the “leftwing thugs” for their supposed idiocy, freakishness, and hatred of Britain and Christianity. Many of these attacks are personal and target prominent British labor party leaders.
The Facebook page description states, “Britain First is a patriotic political party and street defence organisation. Here you can join forces with patriots like you! www.britainfirst.org”. Upon visiting the website, I was immediately taken aback by it’s sleek, modern look. This is not a ramshackle website thrown together by an outdated computer illiterate designer – it is official looking and organized. It encourages visitors to share the website on various forms of social media and makes it extraordinarily easy to do so. On the website you can make a “Patriot Pledge” (donate money to Britain First), sign up as an activist, buy Britain First clothing and merchandise, and catch up on National and International “news”. This reminded me of “Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights” and the destruction of our assumption that white supremacists are “red-necks” or “hicks” with no attachment to the online world. Instead, many of them have successfully mastered technologies that help them recruit and promote their cause. I hope to use this book to inform much of my discussion on Britain First.
Furthermore, I hope to include the ideas discussed in Dara Byrne’s “The future of (the) race: identity and the rise of computer-mediated public spheres” to look at the ways in which the “Britain First” Facebook page has formed a community where people can openly share their thoughts with other like-minded individuals (without a fear of major backlash). Despite espousing the necessity of free speech (and being outraged whenever their freedom is challenged), the “Britain First” Facebook page is notorious for their “delete and ban” policy. This phenomenon describes the consistency and speed with which the page moderators delete comments that challenge their posts and then ban the user who posted them. This has created an environment where the conversation is overwhelmingly one-sided and many of the posts appear to go unchallenged, thus molding the public perception that their views are acceptable and popular. I think that this policing has been critical to their recent rise in popularity.
Goals of my Project:
Very little academic work has been done on their recent surge of popularity and I am struggling to find critiques of their organization outside of “one-off” posts on personal blogs and “parody” websites. Thus, I hope for my project to begin a more serious conversation about this organization and the repercussions of its online (and real life) success. Fundamentally, my project hopes to examine three questions:
1) The Britain First Facebook page is reaching millions of people every week, more than many British newspapers. How is social media changing the public consumption of news (and how does social media provide individuals and groups with the power to “shape” public perception)?
2) The Britain First page has more likes than the Labor party page and the Conservative party page combined. How is “Britain First” achieving dramatically more online popularity (than other British political parties)?
3) How has the Britain First page lured, or duped, seemingly unsuspecting individuals into “liking” the page and henceforth being exposed to their less popular ideas?
Guided by these questions, most of my project will be focused on the Facebook page and the action that unfolds there on a daily basis. More specifically, I will be focusing on their use of “viral content”, content that many people agree with and therefore like and share. Examples of this include images and messages that promote love for British soldiers and the queen, and decry pedophilia and animal cruelty. Britain First often invokes the poppy and Christian imagery as well. These “honey trap” images are interspersed between Britain First’s more radical and hateful messages — they are calculated, manipulative, and extraordinary successful in attracting positive attention. I am certain that many of these images are responsibly for the “likes” on their Facebook page and the recruitment of subsequent supporters.
Side Note: many of these images attach links to dubious Britain First fundraising efforts. At best, it is unclear how giving money to Britain First helps stop, for example, animal cruelty. At worst, they are guilty of funding their political party under false pretenses and using overseas donations.
I have decided to use a blog for this project, although I am still in the process of finalizing which website to use. Each week I hope to do a blog post focusing on a new image or campaign promoted on the “Britain First” Facebook page. I will analyze the vocabulary they use (“leftwing thugs”), how they relay national and international events, gain “likes” (and a wider audience), and spread an anti-Muslin, anti-immigration message. This will predominantly be done using screenshots and subsequent text analysis. Hopefully, by the end of the project I will have a substantive body of work that tracks, and explains, the growth of Britain First.
Britain First Facebook Page (Screenshots)
Daniels, Jessie. 2009. Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. (selections)
Byrne, Dara N. 2008. “The future of (the) race: identity and the rise of computer-mediated public spheres.” In Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Anna Everett, ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 15-38.