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How the Far-Right are using Twitter: EDL and the Woolwich attacks

Categories: Features

Holly Rigby analyses the English Defence League's twitter offensive after the Woolwich attack. She argues that whilst we should not over-emphasize the EDL's increasing social media presence, the left does have lessons to learn about dominating social networks.

Much is often written about the power of Twitter to source information almost instantaneously when big news stories first erupt into the public sphere.

Twitter should not be viewed, however, as useful merely for establishing facts on the ground in the immediate aftermath of an event. Influential Twitter accounts, or popular Tweets that capture the mood of the Twitter-sphere succinctly, can shape the narrative of how definitive facts are read for days to come.

No group understood this more clearly yesterday than the English Defence League (EDL). Within hours of the attack on a solider in Woolwich, they used the motivations of the attackers to peddle their narrative: this was not an attack on just one solider – but instead Islam’s attack on us all:

EnglishDefenceLeague (@Official_EDL)
22/05/2013 17:43 ****CONFIRMED WE HAVE BEEN SUBJECT TO A TERROR ATTACK BY ISLAM, WE ARE CURRENTLY UNDER ATTACK****

 

As ludicrous as this Tweet may appear to be to any sane Twitter user, in a moment of unbelievable double-think just hours later, Home Secretary Theresa May released a statement saying exactly the same thing:

BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking)
22/05/2013 21:00 “This was an attack on everyone in the United Kingdom” – Home Secretary Theresa May condemns #Woolwich incident bbc.in/18592kM

 

As a result of the EDL’s ability to capture the Twitter-sphere in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the #EDL hastag dominated Twitter last night, and has sustained a continued presence in the Top 10 Trending terms today.

Since the attack, the EDL’s Twitter and Facebook accounts have gone into manic overdrive. In the last 24 hours, it has posted hundreds of Tweets – using the moment to post spurious articles on other Islamic “crimes”, and outright racism:

Karlos (@karlwhite83)
23/05/2013 08:49 @Official_EDL Muslim paedophile gangs dirty islamic scum, beheadings what next at least EDL stand up and be heard!!This is England #EDL

 

What appears to be most disturbing is that the number of supporters of the EDL Facebook page has exploded exponentially – from around 25,000 to just above 85,000 today. As of today, 50,000 new people will be receiving regular messages from the EDL into their Facebook news feed.

The EDL has consistently used social media in a way that no other far-right organisation does in the UK. Whilst last night the BNP and Nick Griffin’s personal Twitter accounts were curiously silent, the EDL and Tommy Robinson were agitating via Twitter, and appeared to be using the site to organise activists on the ground. The following Tweet was Re-Tweeted over 1500 times:

EnglishDefenceLeague (@Official_EDL)
22/05/2013 18:26 EDL leader Tommy Robinson on way to Woolwich now, Take to the streets peeps ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

 

However, to attribute the collection of EDL activists in Woolwich last night to the EDL’s Twitter call-out would be a mistake. As no phone numbers, meeting points or specific details were posted on the EDL Twitter feed at any point yesterday, it is unlikely that around 100 EDL members wearing matching balaclavas would have congregated at exactly the same time as a response to a Twitter call-out.

Just as the Egyptian revolution was dubbed the “Twitter Revolution” – despite the majority of Egyptians having no internet access – this analysis completely ignores pre-existing networks that exist offline, and the role of activists organising on the ground.

When Alan Lake, a figure head of the EDL, addressed an anti-Islam conference organised by the Sweden Democrats last year, Lake himself admitted the problem of translating the online activity of the EDL into action. He told The Guardian:

We have a problem with numbers. We have an army of bloggers [on the far right] but that’s not going to get things done.”

Whilst we are yet to see how the EDL’s profile and growth on social networks last night will translate into actual support for the group, recent experience has demonstrated that the EDL is an increasingly fractured and immobile force.

The relatively large online presence of the EDL has consistently failed to translate into on-the-ground action, and its street movement has all but collapsed. At a Scottish Defense League (SDL) demonstration in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland just last weekend, a mere 3 protestors turned up – despite the local group having over 5000 Facebook “fans”.

Similarly, when the EDL marched in Walthamstow Forest in September last year, anti-fascist demonstrators outnumbered the EDL at a rate of 10:1, resulting in EDL supporters taking to Twitter to lambast their leader Tommy Robinson for the frequently embarrassingly poor turn-outs at EDL demonstrations.

This is not intended to demean the very real fear that the EDL can be a physical threat to ethnic minorities when they protest across Britain, nor to ignore the Islamophobia that is rife amongst mainstream media outlets. The Daily Mail is the obvious example of this, but ITV’s description of the Woolwich attack as “Baghdad-style violence” has similarly nasty echoes of inherent racism.

However, a close analysis of Twitter last night demonstrated that for all the racist bile that was being posted by supporters of the EDL, the #EDL hashtag was overwhelmingly dominated by those speaking out against the EDL’s opportunism and exploitation of this gruesome attack.

One of the perhaps most unlikely sources of this outrage at the EDL’s response came from the London-born rapper Professor Green, whose post was Re-Tweeted over 6000 times – far eclipsing the EDL’s most “popular” post last night:

Professor Green (@professorgreen)
22/05/2013 23:16 why are idiots running around attacking mosques? why are edl supporters taking to the streets? to kill more innocent people?

 

The generally widespread sentiment on Twitter yesterday was that blatant Islamophobia and blaming all Muslims for what happened in Woolwich was unacceptable. The #EDL hashtag was awash with individuals from across the political spectrum condemning the EDL and its ugly, racist narrative.

However, what is problematic is not people’s attitude towards “liberal, moderate” Muslim communities, whom most people seem to agree play a key role in a multicultural British society. Instead, what became apparent via Twitter is how people perceived Muslim “extremism” – and which political party was best to tackle this “issue”.

In fact, it was Tommy Robinson himself, who summed up potentially where this fear could be directed. Just as the general public are increasingly unlikely to support right-wing, racist extremists like the EDL – they are also far more likely to see the Woolwich attack as a reason to support the so-called “liberal, moderate” manifestation of these views: in the form of UKIP:

Tommy Robinson EDL (@EDLTrobinson)
23/05/2013 08:39 Who could u trust to tackle Islamist extremism? Cameron? Clegg? Milliband? And they wonder y ukip have seen a surge in support #farage 

 

Whilst Twitter posts supporting the EDL and calling for the death penalty for the attackers were reactionary in the most visceral and literal sense, that people immediately drew conclusions from Woolwich to vote for UKIP demonstrates how deeply racism is entrenched in UKIP’s anti-immigration position in the minds of voters – despite Nigel Farage’s claims otherwise:

Pricey (@jonnyp8426)
23/05/2013 09:15 I’m not that racist but yesterday’s events in #woolwich really took the piss,David Cameron will do nothing about it that’s why I voted UKIP

 

What was demonstrated in the very diverse reactions in the Twitter-sphere yesterday was that the EDL’s narrative consistently and successfully intervened in all the discussions that took place. Whether a conscious strategy or merely the Twitter expression of its reactionary views, the far-right were able to dominate the narrative of the events in Woolwich in the immediate aftermath of the attack, despite little real-life active support for their campaign.

If Twitter is a tool that can be successfully utilised by the far Right to exploit incidents like this, then where is the Left in trying to seize control of Twitter and promote its own narrative? Left-wing figures yesterday were understandably intent on articulating that this attack should not lead to increased Islamophobia, but didn’t clearly articulate a counter-analysis and narrative to the EDL of why it happened and what should be done.

Owen Jones, one of the most prolific and well-known figures on the Left, with over 100,000 Twitter followers, could have lead a Left intervention as he so often does, but his response fell short of what was needed:

Owen Jones (@OwenJones84)

22/05/2013 19:58 Terrorists who commit sickening acts like this want us to hate. Let’s not follow their script.

Whilst there is not scope in this article to deal with the problematic use of the label “terrorist” (its almost exclusive association with Islamic extremism means that Owen Jones should have known better), this thoughful article in The Guardian today offers some strong arguments as to why that label may be factually incorrect.

The message that the Left should have adopted was, in fact, very simple and easily reduced to Twitter’s 140 characters: “No to Islamophobia, bring the Troops home”. Without the latter part, we condemn our British soldiers to more attacks like this as the government continues to use Islamaphobia to justify Britain’s continued presence in Iraq. These arguments should have been at the fingertips of any one of the 2 million people involved with the mass mobilisation against the Iraq war in 2001 – the left definitively won these arguments and should be calling upon them again.

We know that we are more intelligent and more conscious than the EDL, and we can prove it merely by adopting hashtags and 140 character messages. #whencanwestart?

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