State of HATE 2021 – the leading annual report outlining the key trends and changes in the domestic and international far right – details how the last year of pandemic has sped up the evolution of the British far right into a digitally networked threat.
The report contains exclusive investigations into a new neo-nazi organisation, the National Partisan Movement, the mysterious figure behind the Sabmyk QAnon conspiracy, investigates Northern Irish Loyalism, eco-fascism and contains detailed profiles of the key groups and individuals in the British far right.
The State of Hate 2021 is the definitive review of the far right in the UK, and the context for their activities and impact. In this year’s report – our biggest to date – we cover a range of issues, summarised below.
2020 WILL forever be marred by the global pandemic. We were locked in our homes, forced to hide our faces, as millions around the world lost their lives or were left with debilitating symptoms. Many millions more have lost jobs, struggled to pay their rent or mortgages, and been left isolated and lonely.
As we enter 2021, the death toll from the disease continues to rise, though the arrival of numerous vaccines has provided a much needed glimmer of hope. However, the ramifications of the pandemic will continue to be felt for years to come, not least the impending economic crisis set to grip the world economy.
Yet, it has by no means been all bad news. In the face of these many tragedies communities have come together, neighbours and strangers helping one another and examples of heart-breaking sacrifice, love and hope.
2020 was also a year of anger, with millions of people around the world hitting the streets to chant “I can’t breathe”, protesting against the murder of an African American man, George Floyd, by a white Minneapolis police officer and demanding racial justice. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests erupted in over 60 countries across all seven continents, pushing the issues of racism and systemic inequality up the political agenda. Statues fell, street names changed and national conversations about racism, imperial and colonial legacies filled column inches and TV screens.
The need for racial justice is evident in exclusive polling of BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) Britons for this State of HATE report. Almost half of respondents (45%) had either experienced or witnessed racial abuse over the last 12 months and 40% had experienced or witnessed racial violence.
For the British far right, the last year has been a difficult one. Locked in their homes like everyone else, their ability to organise offline, meet and campaign has been severely curtailed. However, it was also a year of opportunities. With everyone locked indoors on their computers, the chances of reaching and radicalising new people online grew.
Exploiting the gateways offered by digital technology, far-right groups continued to proselytise, promote and recruit via online gaming, voice chats on social media and even in (online) film clubs. Some also tried to exploit home schooling as a way of pushing their divisive politics towards young people.
Importantly, with the explosion of conspiracy theory content, last year the far right sought to exploit new ways of radicalising others by exploiting various (non extreme-right) conspiracy theories related to COVID-19.
Because the unique circumstances of 2020 demanded innovation, many older, traditional far-right groups and individuals appeared to do very little, while the younger, more tech-savvy elements of the movement made a much greater impact.
In recent years HOPE not hate has increasingly talked of the threat posed by the ‘post-organisational’ far right: thousands of individuals across the globe, offering micro-donations of time and sometimes money to collaborate towards common far-right goals.
Although this has not replaced traditional far-right organisations with their leadership structures and formal memberships, the rapid growth of the digital landscape – and especially social media – has helped foster the growth of an alternative organising model. In turn, this has led to the creation of a growing number of decentralised and transnational far-right movements. This trend continued and even accelerated over the past year.
With Brexit delivered, the far right began looking for issues around which it could muster support. Unsurprisingly, the primary shift was a return to anti- migrant politics, spurred on by a Home Secretary who appeared determined to talk (very) tough on immigrants, while simultaneously demonising so- called “activist lawyers” working on immigration cases.
A small group of far-right ‘citizen journalists’ capitalised on the anti-migrant firestorm that splashed across tabloid media, as a growing number of migrants attempted the fraught Channel crossing between southern England and France. In a trend that began years ago, but accelerated in 2020, many of the figureheads that are now directing much of the UK far- right scene have begun to self-identify as “journalists”. In an age when trust in traditional media outlets is low and increasing numbers of people get their information via social media, the rise of these far-right ‘citizen journalists’ poses a growing danger.
Last year, a handful of these figures spent large amounts of time filming the arrival of migrant boats and various locations used to house the arriving migrants, including hotels. These videos, which occasionally included footage of the so-called ‘journalists’ chasing arrivals, quickly spread across far-right social media platforms and whipped anti- immigrant activists into a peak of anger. Each new video served to confirm the far right’s already existing (and twisted) belief that Britain was being invaded.
The daily drip-drip of anti-migrant content they produced and fed into far-right online spaces forced the issue up the agenda, until more formal far-right organisations including Britain First and For Britain enthusiastically jumped on the issue with their own demonstrations and migrant hotel invasions. Here we saw something new: post-organisational (far-right) ‘citizen journalists’ setting the agenda for traditional far-right parties.
The second primary campaign issue for the British far right during 2020 was their racist reaction to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests which spread across Britain (and many other countries) in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
There were over 30 protests by football hooligans and far-right activists to “counter” these BLM protests, some numbering many hundreds and, in the case of London, attracting as many as 5,000 people. While claiming purely to “defend” statues and monuments, several of these protests turned to violence, as the hooligans clashed with police and BLM supporters.
Racial nationalist groups and individuals used the BLM protests to push their existing political platform, built around concepts of race, to a wider audience. In August, there were 66 White Lives Matters protests organised across the UK by the far right group Patriotic Alternative, which emerged as a rising far-right force last year.
Additionally, other elements of the far right that had traditionally distanced themselves from open racial politics, promoting instead ‘cultural nationalism’, more openly took to explicit racial politics. Most notable here was Stephen Yaxley-Lennon [aka Tommy Robinson] who jumped on the BLM issue in the summer, providing a brief moment of relevance in a year otherwise dominated by legal woes.
Whether this shift towards more overt racial politics becomes permanent remains to be seen, but in the short-to-medium term we are likely to continue to see cultural nationalism cede ground to racial nationalism within the far right. With the combination of anti-black racism and anti-migrant politics as the twin prongs of its platform in 2020, the UK far right looks more akin to the far right of decades gone by, rather than the scene we have got used to in recent years.
The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic proved an incredible boon to conspiracy theories and theorists, as a confused and anxious population sought explanations for the shocking calamity of COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns.
An Ofcom report published in June 2020 found that during the first lockdown, Britain’s internet users spent an average of four hours and two minutes online each day, 37 minutes more than they did in January. While young people averaged five hours and four minutes per day, the highest percentage increase was among over-54s who were online 24% more than they were in January. It’s perhaps unsurprising that in these circumstances, more people came across and even believed conspiracies and disinformation.
From March onwards we saw meteoric increases in engagement with conspiracy content online, from anti- vaccine to anti-5G content, as well as QAnon pages and groups. HOPE not hate’s polling repeatedly found alarming awareness of conspiracy theories among the British public. A third of Britons have read or seen videos claiming that “elites in Hollywood, governments, the media and other powerful positions are secretly engaging in large scale child trafficking and abuse” – a key component of the QAnon conspiracy.
Forty percent (40%) had heard or seen claims that “Coronavirus is a bio-weapon intentionally spread by the Chinese state”, while 35% said that they had come across the conspiracy that “Coronavirus has been intentionally released as part of a “depopulation” plan orchestrated by the UN or New World Order.”
“Telegram continues to be the most important platform tying the violent elements of the British far right closer together“
While thankfully far fewer people actually believe these conspiracies, the levels are still worryingly high. Seven percent (7%) of Brits think that it is definitely true that “elites in Hollywood, governments, the media and other powerful positions are secretly engaging in large scale child trafficking and abuse”, with a further 15% saying it is probably true.
Four percent (4%) think it is definitely true that “the Covid-19 vaccine will be used maliciously to infect people with poison”, with a further 11% saying it is probably true.
An early beneficiary of this upsurge of interest in conspiracy theories was former BBC sports presenter David Icke, whose videos denouncing the pandemic as a hoax and blaming 5G internet were viewed by millions of people in the early days of the outbreak.
From summer onwards, a small but highly active network of conspiracy-minded anti-lockdown groups emerged led by the likes of climate-sceptic Piers Corbyn and anti-vaxxer Kate Shemirani, organising protests in towns and cities across the UK on a weekly basis.
Of the dozens of anti-lockdown protests across the UK, the largest were in London, where up to 10,000 people gathered. In addition to the size, the protests drew in a lot of young and middle-aged women, many apparently new to protesting.
This broad array of people was mirrored online. David Icke had 780,000 followers on Facebook, 900,000 on YouTube and 230,000 on Twitter. Fortunately, he’s now been removed from all these platforms. Stand Up X, one of the most energetic conspiracy street movements in the UK, had 40,000 followers on Facebook before it too was taken down and The Light, a self-styled “truthpaper”, claims to print 100,000 copies per edition.
As the year went on, the imported American conspiracy theory QAnon began to play an increasingly large role in the UK scene, with its proponents
playing key roles in anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine campaigning, as well as developing a own street movement protesting against child trafficking supposedly being carried out by an imagined cabal of elite Satanic paedophiles.
Our State of HATE report reveals that one of the most important QAnon advocates is UK-based Martin Geddes, who had 250,000 Twitter followers. Another QAnon advocate and all-round conspiracy theorist is Simon Parkes, whose YouTube channel jumped from 50,000 subscribers early in the year to an astonishing 670,000 in the tumultuous days following the US election.
Another Brit-born QAnon vlogger is Charlie Ward, who reached 170,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel by mid-September and, after his page was subsequently removed, migrated to the video hosting site Bitchute where he currently has over 106,000 subscribers.
Our polling found that at its autumn peak, 3.2% of British people strongly supported QAnon, while a further 2.5% declared themselves soft supporters. While this level of support was to drop after President Trump’s election defeat and the storming of the Capitol, the relatively high support for something that has been declared a “domestic terrorism” threat by the FBI is deeply concerning.
The street protests dwindled as the year went on, with frequent arrests and worsening weather taking its toll on morale. Unsurprisingly, the far right was closely linked to the anti-lockdown and conspiracy theory scene more generally, with major figures like Yaxley-Lennon adopting the language of the conspiracy theory movement.
The emergence of Patriotic Alternative (PA) was one of the most notable developments on the far-right scene in 2020. Patriotic Alternative is a white nationalist, neo-nazi group created in 2019 by Mark Collett, former head of publicity for the British National Party (BNP), and Laura Towler, a vlogger and former editor at the far-right site Defend Europa.
Before its various social media bans in early 2021, PA’s Facebook group had nearly 18,000 likes. Despite lockdown the group remained active throughout the year and held numerous large campaign days. For a period it appeared that PA was managing to unite much of the traditional, fascist far right in Britain, which had splintered and been in decline for some time. That said, many had also been at pains to distance themselves from PA due to its perceived extremeness. There have been a number of damaging internal fights, too. So while the group has grown quickly into one of the major players on the UK far right scene, it is unlikely to grow significantly in the coming year.
The traditional far right has become even more irrelevant than it has in recent years. The death of veteran fascists such as Richard Edmonds and Eddie Morrison exemplified the ending of an era, both in terms of organisations but also people. The BNP is kept afloat as a means to cash in on wills, while the National Front (NF) now barely exists. A range of smaller nazi groups all-but-disappeared, such as the Racial Volunteer Force and Combat 18, while others, such as Blood and Honour, continue to be in steady decline.
On the more moderate end of the far-right spectrum, the populist radical-right parties had something of a rootless, rudderless year. Having united around the pro-Brexit cause for the previous five years, the UK’s exit from the EU in January 2020 forced Britain’s populist radical right to seek out new crusades and rallying cries. This search was complicated by the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and public health measures to prevent it, which did not provide an easy platform to exploit.
Nigel Farage’s supposed retirement from politics post-Brexit will challenge those following in his wake, although polling suggests Boris Johnson has sapped a great deal of the electoral appeal once provided by Farage’s movements.
Despite the efforts of some on the pro-Brexit right to generate a populist opposition to lockdown policy and paint its proponents as “out of touch elitists”, all segments of the British public have remained overwhelmingly supportive of government interventions, and the arrival of the vaccine looks to have settled that debate for good.
As with other elements of the far right, the radical right sought to jump on the anti-BLM mood and anti-migrant politics through the lens of the “culture war”, with emotive talk about “woke ideology” and “cancel culture” – ill-defined terms that fuelled a suitably emotive and fractious debate to replace the Brexit wars. None of these topics have yet provided a visible boost to the electoral prospects of the radical right, however, with Reform UK support standing at 3% and UKIP less than 1% in recent polling. The arrival of actor Laurence Fox’s Reclaim party split these ‘culture warriors’ even further. They are also undermined by the increasing mainstreaming of far-right narratives by Conservative party politicians, such as Home Secretary Priti Patel.
However, while the electoral far right remains in the doldrums, with little hope of posing a genuine threat in the coming years, it would be wrong to say the far right as a whole is currently irrelevant. Measuring the far-right threat by its votes has always been a myopic approach, particularly when it takes just one extremist to plan or carry out violence or a terror attack.
During 2020, 12 people either in far-right groups or influenced by far-right ideology were convicted of terrorist offences. They included Paul Dunleavy, who was 16 at the time of his arrest and was sentenced to five years and six months in prison for preparing acts of terrorism and possessing terror manuals. Filip Golon Bednarczyk, 26, was sentenced to four years in prison after admitting one count of possessing explosives and seven counts of possessing terrorist documents.
Four others were convicted for membership of National Action (NA), a proscribed terrorist organisation. They included Mark Jones, NA’s former London organiser who had close personal links to the neo-nazi group linked to five murders in the US, Atomwaffen Division, and who had also visited the nazi Azov Battalion in Ukraine.
“We saw meteoric increases in engagement with conspiracy content online.”
Reflecting a trend in recent years, several of those convicted were teenagers. Jack Reed, from Durham, was sentenced to six years and eight months in prison for preparation of terrorist acts, disseminating a terrorist publication, possessing an article for a purpose connected with terrorism and three counts of possessing a document or record containing information likely to be useful to a terrorist. Reed was just 15 at the time he committed these offences.
More disturbingly, Reed incorporated a sadistic nature to his political outlook. In a separate trial, he was convicted of sexually abusing a minor as well as the family dog. Like many other recent nazis convicted of terrorism, Reed was influenced by, among others, the satanic nazi group, the Order of Nine Angles (O9A).
Another O9A-linked nazi convicted of terrorism was Harry Vaughan, who pleaded guilty to 14 terror offences and two of possessing indecent images of children. He was also an activist with the banned Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD).
Given that he uploaded self-made propaganda images to the SKD, posting a series of weapons and explosives manuals online and possessing videos of young boys being raped, Vaughan inexplicably escaped prison.
Vaughan’s light sentence, mirroring that of 23-year-old Luke Hunter, who was jailed for just over four years after being convicted of a string of terror offences, has raised some concern. Both were drawn from very comfortable middle-class backgrounds (Vaughan was a pupil at the elite Tiffin Grammar School, while Hunter’s father was a senior officer in Counter- Terror Command and his mother was an executive at Johnson & Johnson) and both were actively involved in encouraging others to commit terrorist offences.
It is hard to believe that Islamist terrorists would have been given such lenient sentences.
In August 2020, HOPE not hate exposed another British nazi terrorist gang, The British Hand, led by a 15-year-old teenager. He and two others linked to the group are now awaiting terror charges. In this report we also expose the National Partisan Movement, an international youth-led nazi group, which boasts 70 supporters from 13 countries, including the UK.
Noteworthy is also their focus on transgender people. Over the last years we have seen increasingly violent anti-trans rhetoric in fascist online communities. For the National Partisan Movement, trans people and the wider LGBT+ community are the focus of several of their first pieces of propaganda.
Telegram continued to be the platform of choice for the terror-advocating far right in the UK in 2020. While other platforms are used alongside it both for organising and outreach, Telegram continues to be the most important platform tying the violent elements of the British far right closer together. With its relative ease-of-use and sign up, and commitment to secrecy, it lowers the hurdle to engage with violent groups and allows individuals to easily receive a constant stream of violent propaganda and immerse themselves into virulently racist communities. Telegram has done little to stem the use of its platform for these groups.
2020 was a difficult year for the traditional far right, but one of opportunities for the more tech-savvy groups and conspiracy theorists.
Of concern is the greater opportunity for far-right growth over the coming year or two. The health impact of COVID-19 will soon be eclipsed by the economic fallout from the pandemic, both as the furlough scheme ends here in the UK and as unemployment increases. In the not-too-distant future, the Government will be reducing public spending and increasing taxes in order to reduce the huge deficit. As history has so often proved, economic hardship and pessimism can lead to a climate of fear and political hate.
Two other factors could potentially help the far right going forward. First is what happens to all those people who were introduced to conspiracy theories during the pandemic, especially those exposed to QAnon. While most will probably drift back to their normal lives, some will undoubtedly carry on down the rabbit hole, potentially to more extreme and dangerous conspiracies.
Then there is the impact of Brexit. While Brexit has been delivered and many of those campaigning for it have stood down (including Nigel Farage), the longer- term economic and the constitutional impacts are still to be truly felt. Brexit has increased the likelihood of the Scots pushing for a new independence vote north of the border, while the Northern Irish protocol has led to a virtual border in the Irish Sea and deeply rattled Unionists and Loyalists, raising the prospect of a border vote there too.
What impact the possible break-up of the United Kingdom has on the English remains to be seen, but the likelihood is that it will lead to an upsurge in a more bitter English nationalism. Given how the far right has repeatedly attracted support from those who identify as “English”, a constitutional crisis is likely to be good news for the extremists – and bad news for everyone else.
Last year, a newly formed group calling itself “Local Matters” (LM) began distributing leaflets and dropping banners in town centres across the north of England, urging the public to “Stop Global Abuse – Shop Local”.
LM described itself as a group of “activists agitating for radical, cross-spectrum policies for an environmentalist, regionalist, direct-democratic England,” outlining its views in a document, Localism: Manifesto for a Twenty-First Century England, which it claims was “printed in England using recycled paper”. The group’s propaganda encouraged the home-growing of vegetables, and railed against global corporations for greenhouse gas emissions, among other environmental concerns.
Beneath this inoffensive green sheen, however, lies something nastier. LM is spearheaded by former members of Generation Identity, a European far-right network that promotes “identitarianism”, a form of racial segregation. In an email obtained by the anti-fascist group Red Flare and published by VICE, co-founder Charlie Shaw describes LM as “a political project with a softer face […] The ideas are certainly identitarian, but it’s [sic] presentation removes any interest that a group like Hope Not Hate or Antifa might have”.
Unsurprisingly, the group blames overpopulation – and in particular immigration – for the UK’s environmental decline, proposing a solution: “Comprehensively put a stop to immigration in its entirety.” While LM is a microscopic effort, its selective environmentalism points to a wider trend. As public concern over the looming ecological catastrophe builds, the radical and far right in the UK, as elsewhere, are seeking to rebrand themselves with a green tinge.
Right-of-centre groups have historically been closely associated with the denial of anthropogenic [human-caused] climate change, despite the human role in global warming no longer being a matter of contention among the wider scientific community. However, forms of “green nationalism”, focusing primarily on conservation rather than climate action, are in vogue.
Particular strains of green thought have deep roots in far-right traditions, and longstanding anti-globalist, ruralist and environmental politics have been revitalised in the hope of capitalising on the popular sentiment and protest movements of the moment. In doing so, elements of the far right seek to justify their hatreds, and to redirect legitimate concerns for vital causes towards anti-minority sentiment.
In the UK and across the globe, much of the populist radical right continues to reject the scientific consensus on climate change, a position often inflected by conspiracy thinking, anti-progressivism and contrarianism.
Most visibly, global far-right figurehead and former US President, Donald Trump, sought to undermine transnational efforts to combat climate change, and has spread conspiracy theories on the matter, for example alleging global warming to be a Chinese plot to undermine American industry. Meanwhile, a 2019 study by the climate think tank adelphi found that a majority of European right-wing populist parties espoused ideas that conflicted with the scientific consensus on ongoing, human-induced climate change.
In the UK, Nigel Farage, the just-retired leader of Reform UK (formerly the Brexit Party) and a close Trump ally, has long expressed such scepticism, telling the European Parliament in 2013: “We may have made one of the biggest and most stupid collective mistakes in history by getting so worried about global warming.” Numerous leading figures of his various vehicles have taken similar or more extreme stances, and under his leadership UKIP pushed for repealing the Climate Change Act.
There remains an audience for this position. While HOPE not hate’s 2019 polling found that 74% of Britons agreed that “the world is facing a climate emergency”, 19% agreed that “there is no evidence that humans are influencing the Earth’s climate”. This group leans right, and is significantly more prone to conspiracy thinking. The overwhelming majority of climate deniers also agreed that climate change “is a propaganda campaign by mainstream media and global elites”, and were far more likely to support the statement “Jewish people have an unhealthy control over the world’s banking system” than society as a whole. This group also had more negative attitudes towards immigration and Muslim populations.
The knee-jerk rejection of climate science among sections of the right stems, in part, from the perception that climate change activism is dominated by liberal/left progressives and “elites”. Conspiratorial thinking is fuelled by an instinctive distrust of established authorities and official narratives which, on the radical and far right, coincides with a deep hostility towards left-wing positions, and oftentimes a contrarianism towards the mainstream. Efforts to combat climate change have therefore been portrayed as a left-wing, globalist scam to weaken the sovereignty of the nation, restructure society, and suppress the freedoms of ordinary people.
For example, the anti-Muslim UKIP splinter group, For Britain, states:
Particular scorn is heaped on radical environmental movements, most recently the global environmentalist campaign Extinction Rebellion (XR) and teenage environmental activist
Greta Thunberg. The far-right conspiracy theorist and former UKIP figure and InfoWars editor, Paul Joseph Watson, claims:
“Greta is just a human shield for the real agenda of the people who pull her strings. Neo-feudalism disguised as environmentalism. The raw lust for power and control disguised as right on hipster activism.”
Despite this strong tradition, populist parties are increasingly adopting selected green policies as public concern swells. Nigel Farage appears to have softened his stance on global warming, for example, while remaining highly critical of environmental movements. In 2019 his Brexit Party promised to “Invest in the Environment” by “planting millions of trees to capture CO2”, and introducing new recycling policies.
On the populist extremes, the fascistic British National Party (BNP), long claiming to be the UK’s “only true green party”, has moderated its former unequivocal rejection of human-caused climate change:
However, the adoption of green policies does mean necessarily entail the relinquishing of climate contrarianism. UKIP’s 2020 manifesto makes an explicit division:
The denial of climate change allows for the denial of responsibility, which is instead placed on immigrants and progressive politicians. UKIP’s manifesto continues:
The blaming of immigration for overpopulation, and therefore environmental destruction, is near-ubiquitous across radical and far-right groups that delve into green issues.
UKIP, like the BNP, applies a “localist” approach to environmental concerns defined by a narrow conservationism. As my colleague Patrik Hermansson explains, localism: “…selectively focuses on the national context while disengaging from transnational cooperative projects, and expresses opposition to climate action more generally”.
There is ample reason to support conservationist efforts in the UK, which has suffered some of the most severe cases of deforestation and declining biodiversity in the Western world. However, radical and far-right localist approaches tend to be highly selective in order to advance protectionist and nativist goals, and can play into very ugly politics indeed.
Local Matters (LM) defines its localism primarily through anti-globalism. However, a core facet of the Identiarian ideology that underpins LM is “ethnopluralism” – the idea that different cultures and ethnic groups should not mix in order to “preserve” them. The more overtly fascistic Patriotic Alternative (PA) has also adopted localist approaches, using “The Great British Clean-Up!” litter picking campaign to push its agenda, stating:
Far-right localism taps into a certain regressive romanticism as well, aiming to return to an idealised past rather than working towards a sustainable future, and views the landscape not only as a point of national pride, but intimately entwined with British identity. Darker, but related forms of nature mysticism rooted in the völkisch movement of the late 19th century were adopted in Nazi Germany, giving rise to the “Blut und Boden” (Blood and Soil) doctrine expounded by “Reich Peasant Leader” Walther Darré, which emphasised a mystical connection between race and land.
In far-right thought, modernity and its urban and industrial aspects are associated with liberalism, which constitutes an assault not only on landscape and wildlife, but on nation/race itself. Therefore, national and racial health can only be restored through ruralisation and the adoption of a barrage of regressive and racist policies.
Shades of this doctrine can be detected in Patriotic Alternative’s manifesto, which states:
In engaging in green politics, far-right groups and individuals present themselves as the defenders of the nation/race: “Our land is steeped in our history and only we can preserve it,” PA pronounces elsewhere. Alongside litter picking efforts, PA has adopted countryside hiking as a key activity, functioning as a form of exercise and community building, but also in the hope of reconnecting with the land.
Overall, the Blood and Soil mantra remains popular among the British extreme right. An article on the PA website names Walther Darré as part of “a rich pedigree” of far-right environmentalist thought. The small National Mountaineering Initiative group use it as a primary slogan, as did the National Action (NA) splinter Scottish Dawn, and the Hundred Handers propaganda campaign, which is headed by PA’s Yorkshire organiser Sam Melia, himself formerly involved in National Action.
Unsurprisingly, such ideologies are steeped in antisemitism and racism, with Jews and immigrant populations portrayed as cosmopolitan, rootless, urbanising people, devoid of respect for, or spiritual connection with, the land, and so posing an intrinsic threat to nature and rural traditions.
This rhetoric often overlaps with the “White Genocide/Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which alleges that sinister, often-Jewish elites are encouraging migration into the West as part of a plot to destroy the white race. An article on the PA website titled “Ecocide” takes aim at George Soros, a frequent target of antisemitic conspiracy theory, and his “co-conspirators”:
This vicious passage misapplies ecological concerns about the impact of “invasive” species to immigration, a common far-right tactic. For example, the red squirrel, which has declined in the UK in part due to the introduction of its American grey cousin, has become a British far-right mascot, used by PA and various “Trad” (Traditionalist) projects. The Hundred Handers has used the slogan “White Brits a Minority by 2066/Preserve an Endangered Species” in posters emblazoned with the branding and typeface of Extinction Rebellion (XR).
This latter case points to a less common, but longstanding far-right tactic – infiltrating, or otherwise subverting, legitimate environmental movements and radical subcultures. The Hundred Handers’ appropriation of XR branding simultaneously aims to insert fascistic talking points into environmental discussions, and to smear XR with association to hateful politics; other such posters produced by the group read “House the World/Destroy the Environment”, and “Save the World. Sink the Boats”.
In recent years, former leading members of NA have sought to infiltrate branches of the direct action wildlife protection group, the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA). Marginal far-right actors have sporadically attempted to infiltrate the HSA since the 1980s, as well as other radical groups.
Several of the slogans used by the Hundred Handers are also used by a loose accelerationist, eco-fascist subculture that has emerged across the globe in recent years. This advocates a genocidal revolution in the face of looming ecological collapse.
Strains of eco-fascism draw on “deep ecology”, a current of thought that regards humans as just a part of global ecosystem and no more important than any other. One extreme deep ecologist is the late Finnish fisherman Pentti Linkola, who followed the Malthusian theory that overpopulation has brought us to the cusp of an “imminent ecological holocaust”.
Linkola’s answer was drastic depopulation and the installing of brutal dictatorships to safeguard the planet. The first English translation of Linkola’s work was published in 2011 by Arktos Media, the premier alt-right publisher, which is registered in the UK, and has since become a key influence on modern eco-fascist thought.
Eco-fascists promote violent direct action, drawing influence from a terroristic style of extreme-right politics that has proliferated online, and on the messaging app Telegram. Drawing on Blood and Soil traditions, Jews and immigrants are viewed as parasites and invaders, and are particular targets for violence: “Love Nature, Kill Non-Whites” and “Save a Seal, Club a Kike” are common slogans.
While extremely marginal, there have been eco-fascist attempts to organise in the UK. In 2019, a short-lived, cross-border eco-fascist group, The Green Brigade, emerged, combining Nazism with the desire to destroy “the system that exploits our land, animals and people”. The group has been linked to the arson of a mink farm in Sölvesborg, Sweden. Activists have also distributed posters in London and Scotland.
The violent rhetoric of proliferating eco-fascist online spaces may seem overblown, but there is good reason to treat it seriously. Both the Christchurch and El Paso terrorists, who murdered scores of victims in twin attacks in 2019, framed their murderous hate crimes as solutions to environmental issues. The El Paso killer even named his manifesto The Inconvenient Truth, an apparent reference to Al Gore’s 2006 environmental documentary, and the Christchurch killer explicitly identified himself as “an Ethno-nationalist Eco-fascist”. His heinous attack took place on 15 March, coinciding with a global school strike to protest climate change, headed by Greta Thunberg.
Growing public concern for environmental issues is both welcome and long overdue. However, we must remain vigilant of the bigoted fringe that seeks to corrupt noble causes, shift blame towards minorities, and divert good intentions into destructiveness of another kind.
At best, the radical right and far right’s green sheen provides a softer face to divisive politics. At worse, it can elevate gutter prejudices and violent impulses to a sacred mission to defend one’s spiritual home.
Logo of the Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and the Blood and Soil ideology
In November last year a new far-right channel appeared on Instagram and Telegram. At first glance, most of its content looked indistinguishable from other far-right groups we monitored on Telegram. However, on closer inspection, the US-based group, calling itself the National Partisan Movement (NPM), explicitly said it was recruiting and accepting new members between the ages of 14 and 19. Central to the group’s messaging was the rejection of older generations of fascist leaders.
An early post on its Instagram account had the following caption:
The messaging was clear: young people only [Gen Z – “Generation Z” – refers to those born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s].
While shocking, it was not the first time we had come across this problem. In September last year, HOPE not hate exposed an entity called The British Hand, a terror-advocating youth group that primarily recruited its (young) members via Instagram. Likewise, when investigating this new group, we found this same pattern of using Instagram as a recruitment and outreach platform (Telegram was simultaneously used for organising and for the group’s internal chat). Clearly, when it comes to attracting terrifyingly young people into the far right, Instagram is becoming the platform of choice.
While the NPM is led by a 15-year-old boy from America, most of its members reside in Europe. In total, the group counts just over 70 members. The youngest is 12. Approximately 15 members are based in Sweden, which is the group’s second most active country after the US, though importantly the NPM’s second- and third-in-command are also based there. These two men, Filip and Thomas, 17 and 18, respectively, have previously engaged with the nazi Nordic Resistance Movement and eco-fascist activism. In the UK the group has at least eight members. These members have promoted material from proscribed nazi terror group National Action.
The young age of the NPM’s membership is deeply worrying. Vulnerable young people are being exposed to a diet and environment of constant hatred. Yet the group is not solely made up of teenagers. There are also a smaller number of older members in their late 20s. One of these is the well-known American fascist Colton Williams, who has previously been a part of the nazi Traditionalist Workers Party in the US. He acts as an “advisor” to the group and promotes fascist literature to its young members.
The NPM is but the latest example of an internationally-connected, violence-romanticising, far-right group led by young people, organising actions both online and off.
HOPE not hate has followed the group for some time and observed messages from its internal chat, regional chats, Snapchat groups and regular voice calls between members and leaders. The online infiltration has given us a better insight into this type of youth-oriented, far-right group, several of which have appeared in the last few years.
The internal Telegram chat of the NPM pings hundreds of times per day. Since the members are spread from North America to Eastern Europe, the group covers at least nine time zones, and messages arrive in a steady stream at almost all hours. Members are organised into “squads” – smaller groups – but most activity takes place in the main chat group as well as on Snapchat, where the messages disappear after they have been read.
New members are vetted via a questionnaire and in some cases a video call. The vetting process was made more stringent while we were inside the group, requiring new members to join a video call with one or two of the leaders, answering questions and showing at least part of their face. Once inside, members were then asked to join various chat groups and regular voice calls during which the leaders and members discussed upcoming plans. In these voice calls, we were introduced to the organisational structure of the NPM. It was divided into “platoons” and “squadrons”. These discussions also featured regional leaders reporting on the actions they had undertaken during the last week and what they planned on doing in the near future.
As a new member you were given two main rules, the breaking of which would supposedly lead to expulsion: first, do not share any personal information that could identify you, and second, do not “fed post” (send messages or express ideas that are illegal and could attract law enforcement’s attention). The group’s leaders were adamant that they did not want to follow the path of far-right terror groups. Specifically, Atomwaffen Division was singled out as a bad example by leader Thomas. One member wondered why the NPM could not “take a more aggressive [sic] position like feuerkrieg [sic], MD [Misanthropic Division] or AWD [Atomwaffen Division]” but was quickly shut down by leader Thomas, who said: “Idk [I don’t know] abt [about] you but me tom [sic] and Filip don’t want 10 years in prison.”
However, this rhetoric of non-violence is as thin as a sheet of paper, and even after just a few hours in the group, we saw how the leaders also expressed outright genocidal ideas, with a clear desire to use violence expressed by some members.
Despite deriding Atomwaffen, an accelerationist neo-nazi group in the US that advocated terror and was linked to several murders, Thomas has engaged in a Telegram chat connected to Atomwaffen’s latest iteration in Europe and recruited members from it. Other members of the NPM have also been active in this chat, including a 14-year-old from Kentucky who sent a horrifying Snapchat video of what appears to be an execution of a black man and posted a link and screenshot of it in the NPM group, urging others to join his group.
Despite the age of many of its members, posts in the group regularly express antisemitism, Holocaust denial and support for mass murderers. One member wrote on 4 March 2021: “The extermination of any other non-white race is necessary Heil Hitler ! Heil Breivik ! Heil Brenton Tarrant!” [referring to the 2019 Christchurch mass murderer]. Other participants shared clips of the proscribed British nazi terror group National Action and memes depicting mass murder.
Within the confines of the private group chat, hate has been directed towards black people, Jews, Muslims, trans and gay people in a similarly extreme manner. A short video posted by one member showed a man in a skull mask and glasses looking into the camera and announcing: “The real tragedy of Pulse nightclub was that too many got away”, referring to the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016 where 49 mostly Latinx and gay people were killed.
One of the first videos on the NPM’s Telegram channel showed a group of masked figures setting fire to, then stomping on, a Pride flag, and the conversation in the group frequently ventures into anti-trans hate. One member asserted that transgender folks are “not people” and posted a picture of a noose which he captioned: “Send this to blacks and trannies.”
Despite the pretence to eschew violence, in truth the NPM is a viciously extreme and openly violence advocating group.
Like the British Hand – which HOPE not hate exposed in September 2020 – the National Partisan Movement makes use of multiple social media accounts and platforms, and uses them for different purposes, cherry-picking between their features to make the most of their strengths.
Telegram’s group chat and voice call feature, combined with relative anonymity, is used for organising, while Instagram’s wide use in their target age range and focus on visual media makes it useful for propagandising. Its direct messaging function is often used for the first steps of a recruitment before this continues on Telegram or over a Discord video call.
With its ephemeral messages Snapchat is used by several of the NPM’s regional groups for less serious chatter, such as sly images of teachers in the classroom and talking about video games. But it is also utilised for the most extreme conversations, too. Using Snapchat, one member shared a video of an execution. Most of the Swedish members post pictures of their own faces here as well. The short-term nature of disappearing messages gives them a feeling of security. The service also notifies participants if someone takes a screenshot of the conversation, thus providing another means by which to root out potentially disloyal fellow members.
Instagram plays a central role in the organisation and is the source of recruitment for many of the NPM’s members. While some individual members’ accounts have been banned from the platform, the official recruitment account has been active for several months at the time of writing. This follows a trend observed by HOPE not hate. Coverage of terrorist groups on social media has, for good reason, recently centred around chat app Telegram and video-sharing sites such as YouTube. The largely unmoderated Telegram has been fertile ground for the emergence of explicitly violent groups in Europe and North America.
Instagram is useful for spreading propaganda in the form of simple images and videos, plus the platform’s recommendation feature prominently directs those peripherally connected to the group’s main account if one starts following a member or other similar accounts. The Swedish and American members have launched multiple Instagram accounts and screenshots shared in the chat group show conversations taking place with new recruits via Instagram’s direct messages.
As an organisation that was formed during the global pandemic, with its plans for offline meet-ups mostly hindered by social distancing rules, it is perhaps no surprise that the majority of the NPM’s actions have been online-focused.
“Anyone wanna raid my friends [sic] class on google meet?” one American member wrote and another responded: “Are there any n****s in your class?”. It’s a regular occurrence in the group that someone will call for a “raid” of an online classroom of their own school (or that of a friend who has shared login details) to lessons conducted via one of the many different video conferencing tools in use.
Called “Zoom bombing”, this involves hijacking video calls to share upsetting material through the video or via the chat function. Since the spring of 2020, it is something that has begun happening frequently as schools, religious, civic society and local government groups move to online meetings. For the far right, targets are often minority communities and the raids are intended to cause fear and distress, but it can also be used in order to spread far-right propaganda and normalise their ideas.
This practice shows how far-right groups are exploiting features and vulnerabilities that come with online platforms to spread hate, in a situation today where more and more events take place online. For the NPM it means that its members can join in abuse online wherever they are based. These “raids” happen several times a week and Swedish, Dutch, British and Finish members might join in the raid against a school on the East coast of the US.
Zoom bombing should not be discounted merely as an advanced form of prank calling, but as an invasive and harmful tactic, in-part because it targets people in spaces that are supposed to be safe. It clearly demonstrates how there is no clear boundary between hate and threats spread online and offline.
However, the NPM’s activities are not merely isolated to the online world.
Postering, stickering and graffiti is done by members in the UK, US and Sweden in the hope that it will raise interest in the group.
More serious is the case of one member bragging about having vandalised a transgender support centre in Ontario, Canada, throwing rocks through its front window and painting graffiti on its facade. The Canadian member bragged about going back to the centre a few days after the first attack, this time doing nazi salutes in front of its security camera and continuing to vandalise the building.
Members have also discussed acquiring weapons. One American member explicitly wrote that he was planning to buy a weapon at an upcoming gun show and asked for advice from other members. There is no minimum age to own a rifle or shotgun in Kentucky where he was based, but the fact that the boy had a picture of Brenton Tarrant, the mass shooter who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019, as his profile picture makes the prospect more threatening. He had also previously shared Tarrant’s video recording of his live shooting to the group. Upon acquiring this information we reported the individual to the relevant authorities in America.
Similarly worrying is a British member who has posted pictures of himself holding an airsoft rifle and shared posts to the group from Defense Distributed, a project that makes instructions available on how to 3D print weapons and how to modify non-lethal weapons, such as airsoft rifles, to make them deadly.
Many of the NPM’s members are brought in by peers of a similar age, or join of their own accord after seeing the propaganda. But inside NPM there are adult far-right activists who play a role in educating them in fascist ideas. Even between the teenagers there is a large age gap, ranging from as low as 12 up to 17 and 18. This comes with power inequalities.
Colton Williams, a 28-year-old American who was previously a regional leader of Matthew Heimbach’s Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP), is an active member in the organisation, despite falling outside of the accepted age range. Williams has spent several years engaging with violent segments of the far right in the US and is described by the NPM’s leader as an “advisor” to the group. He later started his own organisation, the Legion of Saint Ambrose, after several conflicts with Heimbach. Notably, he was more hardline than even Heimbach on racial “purity” and disagreed with the inclusion of members he considered to be “race-mixers”. In private chats in the TWP he also encouraged other members to rape women and appeared at the violent Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 – where anti-racist protester Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist – and took part in the street fighting there.
The NPM chat messages show how Williams discussed ideology with the much younger members, urging them to read key Fascist and National socialist texts such as Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He also forwarded messages from other violent Telegram groups into the chatroom. Williams did not just suggest literature but also told the adolescents in the group that periodic fasting was an important part of improving their physique, which is then taken on by several of them who later describe that they have begun fasting.
Worryingly, Williams is not the only older far-right activist in the NPM who guides the group’s teenage members. Another is a 26-year-old from Lisbon, Portugal whose username is “Hatred”. About a week after joining the NPM, he shared a picture of the Order of Nine Angles (O9A) and Temple ov Blood texts. O9A is a nazi-satanist group, while Temple ov Blood is a US offshoot but still closely connected to the mother organisation.
Both organisations have served as inspiration for some of the most extreme nazi terror groups of the last decades. Temple ov Blood was an important influence on Atomwaffen Division (AWD) and some of its texts were made into required reading for the group. The picture shared by “Hatred” depicted Hostia, Iron Gates (two O9A books) and Siege (written by James Mason and widely circulated through AWD circles). Iron Gates opened with the depiction of a murder of a child and was found in the possession of the recently convicted leader of the Feuerkrieg Division in the UK.
Despite of, or possibly because, they were being led by a 15-year-old, these older members gained outsized importance in the group and have been looked up to by many of the younger members. They are at a clear advantage, which they have used to influence the group in a violent direction.
Monitoring violence-endorsing far-right groups online today comes with many difficulties. Basic details – such as country of residence for a user – can be hard to come by. To judge the severity of threats in contexts that are inundated with them, and inundated with irony, is not straightforward. These aspects are only made harder by groups run by young people.
It is easy to discard their engagement with extreme far-right ideas as a “phase”, driven more by a need to rebel than genuine ideological conviction. Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss of American University, who has studied far-right youth culture, argues that expressing far-right ideas and taking on its language “may provide agency for youth who feel constrained or let down by the adult world” and that “far-right engagement may thus be thought of as a mode of resistance and cultural subversion” for young people.
Factors other than ideology can indeed pull young people to the extreme right and it is also an understandable assumption that many will then move on from the political views they held as children. Young people also usually have a lower capability to acquire weapons than adults and might exaggerate their extremism in order to gain respect from other members of a group.
However, their capacity for violence is far from non-existent. Events in recent months have shown that even when violent ideas are expressed by minors, they should be taken seriously and not simply brushed over. A boy from Cornwall was convicted in February 2021 for being the leader of the Feuerkrieg Division in the UK, a terror-advocating group that put up propaganda in the south of England but organised primarily on Telegram. The boy was 13 when he committed his first terrorism offence and while he never committed an actual attack, he recruited members to the group, including 17-year-old Paul Dunleavy who was jailed for preparing acts of terrorism in November last year.
At the same time, these young people are victims themselves. Children as young as 12 or 14 do not have the agency or experience of an adult and as in the case of the NPM, are also partially fed ideology by older and more experienced individuals. Groups like the NPM make it easier for children and teenagers to find others that share similar views to themselves. They form spaces where very young people, already with some level of conviction towards far-right ideas, can solidify those through a constant stream of material passed between, and from, peers as well as more experienced participants.
However, it is not an easy task to accurately judge the severity and risk of groups like the NPM. Its outside image is harsh and threatening, with social media profiles filled with stylised silhouettes performing nazi salutes in front of a snow-clad landscape and with bold slogans demanding action. Inside the secret chat group, however, the conversation is often juvenile and awkward. Someone asks if anyone has ever had a girlfriend.
Conversations of undue Jewish control in the media get interrupted because someone’s parents ask them to come for dinner. Another shares a picture of a botched attempt to scribble the NPM logo on a lamp post, captioned: “i did my best”.
Often in the group’s voice calls they use language that sounds more threatening in writing than when spoken by the prepubescent voice of a 15-year-old. Which makes it sound like these are boys trying to make their lives more into the video games they play, than a fascist utopia they’ve actually read or heard about. The fact that several of the members still use their real names or recently stopped doing so is an indication that many of them are still new to this world. Another case of naiveté is that of the 14-year-old member writing in the main chat asking for help to buy a weapon.
On the other hand, their lack of experience is not a reason to discard their intent. There is a risk that what they lack in credibility they may try to make up for with action. They might feel a need to prove themselves, within the group and the wider movement, and in some cases might not fully understand the consequences of doing so.
The NPM and its members are aspiring to be noteworthy fascists and that desire takes them on a path to violence. Genuine and deep ideological conviction or understanding is not necessarily required to take action on one’s ideas and commit violence, as we have already seen in the case of the transgender support centre. However speedy their radicalisation has been or how genuinely they hold their beliefs, they have created a group where one is encouraged and directed to act on their hate.
Journalists under attack: A disturbing new trend is for the far right to intimidate, abuse and threaten journalists, particularly women
Following years of increasing threats, abuse and harassment, at the end of last year editors, unions and free press campaigners called for harsher legal penalties for those who repeatedly threaten or attack journalists.
They made the call following the successful prosecution of far-right activist (and Patriotic Alternative regional organiser) James Goddard, who was ordered to pay £780 in fines and costs and issued an indefinite restraining order, after threatening behaviour towards The Independent’s home affairs and security correspondent Lizzie Dearden.
Editors had made a similar call in the wake of numerous examples of media harassment following anti-Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations last summer, when editors across the country spoke out in the wake of online abuse and comments being made by readers, as well as attacks against photographers and news crews.
Telegraph reporter Ed Clowes said on Twitter that he had “never seen a protest so hostile to press”, describing one encounter with a protester, who he said grabbed his press badge, as “menacing”.
Meanwhile, Leeds Live reporter Ben Abbiss was threatened by a group of counter-demonstrators opposing a BLM protest he was covering. He was “hounded out” and given a police escort after being accused of being a member of Antifa. Beer was poured over him and he was threatened with being kicked down steps. A fellow reporter, Susie Beever, was threatened the year previously, in which she was told she would pay “the ultimate price” for covering such a rally for the website.
Journalists covering Tommy Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, know full well how his supporters can react and have complained of intimidation from his followers.
At one point during his contempt of court hearings, a BBC camera crew outside the Old Bailey in central London was attacked and forced to leave by Yaxley-Lennon’s supporters, who branded them “BBC paedo scum”, and “fake news wankers”.
Dominic Casciani, the BBC’s home affairs & legal correspondent, wrote in response: “At every hearing in this saga, journalists have been abused. People have been spat at, had cameras attacked. A cameraman was punched. Today it was beer can throwing. Lies have been told about us, our reports and events in court.”
In August 2019, Guardian columnist and author Owen Jones was assaulted in a late night attack by a group of men who attacked him as he left a pub in London.
Jailing the ringleader for two years and eight months last July, the judge ruled the attack was “wholly unprovoked… by reason of [Jones’] widely published left-wing and LGBTQ beliefs by a man who has demonstrable right-wing sympathies”.
Another man was also jailed last year for three months in Northern Ireland for sending Jones a threatening message on Instagram.
More recently, a survey by Newsquest Oxfordshire editor, Samantha Harman, who asked regional journalists about their experiences with online abuse related to their work, found that 84% want more to be done to tackle the problem.
Many said they had experienced anxiety or depression as a result, with 89% getting abuse on Facebook, 80% on their own sites and 67% on Twitter.
Former Society of Editors executive director, Ian Murray, said that the aggression and violence targeted towards journalists was unacceptable and called on politicians and civic leaders to speak out in support of the media.
There seems to be a disturbing trend of male far-right activists targeting female public figures. James Goddard already had a long track record of attacks and threats against the media before he was sentenced in November. In June 2019 he was found guilty of common assault against a press photographer, at one point telling him: “When there’s no police around here, I’m going to take your head off your shoulders.”
Goddard had “come to fame” by harassing former anti-Brexit MP Anna Soubry, calling her a Nazi and traitor, and chasing her down the street just a few yards from parliament. Before she was abused by Goddard at a court in March 2019, where he called her “vile” and “scum of the earth”, Dearden had already faced years of online abuse from various far-right activists, including threats to find out her home address, rape and murder.
Dearden has written of the effects of such abuse:
Despite such appalling abuse, Dearden has carried on producing exclusives, such as revelations about Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s finances (Yaxley-Lennon has also just been issued with a stalking prevention order over threats to Dearden and her partner).
A report published in November by the International Center for Journalists and the United Nations found that online violence against female journalists was “increasingly spilling offline, with potentially deadly consequences”.
A fifth of female journalists surveyed internationally reported offline abuse and attacks that they believed to be connected with online incidents.
“Online violence is the new frontline in journalism safety – and it’s particularly dangerous for women,” said the report.
In May last year, a newspaper reporter and her infant daughter were placed under police protection following dozens of threats of violence from far-right extremists.
Amy Fenton, former chief reporter at The Mail in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, faced threats of violence over her coverage of trumped-up grooming allegations in the town.
Far-right supporters of Yaxley-Lennon had targeted the town, accusing police and the media of a “cover up” when police found no evidence of grooming (a woman was later charged with several counts of perverting the course of justice over false allegations of rape).
“Over the last week I’ve received in excess of 100 death threats,” said Fenton in May. “Not only have they threatened to ‘throat punch’ me, slit my throat, and set me on fire, but they have involved the welfare of my little girl and that is beyond acceptable.” Two separate individuals have now been jailed over these incidents.
In the latest, and perhaps most grim example to come to light, in February this year sinister graffiti appeared in a number of locations in east Belfast, featuring the name of award-winning crime reporter Patricia Devlin scrawled alongside cross hairs.
It’s not the first time that Devlin, a highly-respected reporter on the Sunday World newspaper, has faced threats. Just two months earlier, she had faced serious threats from Loyalist paramilitaries and in October 2019, she was sent a message to her personal Facebook account, threatening to rape her newborn son. It was signed with the name of the neo-Nazi terror group, Combat 18.
Martin Bright, head of content at Index On Censorship, who knows Devlin, said:
In 2019, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) had already warned that media and camera crews were coming under attack on “an increased basis” from far-right activists, and police needed to take a strategic approach to dealing with the growing problem.
The union’s general secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, has called on law enforcement agencies to do more to tackle what she described as a “coordinated surge in violent extremism against journalists and media workers” as British politics becomes more polarised.
Last summer, in the midst of a pandemic that was disproportionately impacting black and ethnic minority Britons and as the country was gripped by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, HOPE not hate commissioned a poll of Britons from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, weighted by ethnic background and region to be nationally representative of the UK’s BAME population.
We wanted to better understand the mood of BAME Britons, often poorly represented by small sample sizes in national polls, and to pick apart differences in opinion between ethnicities, heritage backgrounds and religion, but also between generations, those born abroad and the UK born.
“The issues of systemic racism or discrimination in social and political institutions raised by the BLM movement risk being overlooked.”
Our research reflected how the shared experiences of being a minority fostered a mutual empathy and solidarity, with the differences between ethnicities and generations reflected in how people understood and expressed common experiences of discrimination and racism. We saw support for the BLM movement across ethnicities and age groups, with widespread optimism and expectations for change that the protests would lead to lasting improvements for ethnic minorities in Britain, particularly among younger BAME Britons.
Nine months on, we decided to revisit the questions we asked in the summer, commissioning Focaldata to carry out an online poll of a representative sample of 1,014 BAME respondents between 10 and 14 January 2021, weighted to be representative of the UK’s BAME population, to better understand how BAME expectations from the BLM movement have been realised.
Racism is an everyday reality for those from minority and ethnic communities living in modern Britain. Our poll finds that around 40% of BAME Britons have experienced or witnessed racial abuse, racist violence or racism at work in the last 12 months.
More than one in 10 BAME Britons say that they have personally experienced racist violence in the last 12 months (11%), whiled fewer than half of all BAME Britons can say that they have not witnessed or experienced racist abuse (46%) or racism at work (48%) in their day-to-day lives over the last year.
Black respondents were more likely to report experiencing or witnessing racist abuse, violence or racism at work than those from other BAME groups. Almost one in five (17%) black respondents reported personal experiences of racial abuse and racism at work over the last year, while 13% had both experienced and witnessed racial abuse and 11% had witnessed and experienced racism at work.
Young people are the most likely to see violence driven by racism. Fewer than a third of 18-24 year olds (32%) could say that they had not experienced or witnessed racist violence in the last year.
It is unsurprising, then, that a majority of BAME Britons agree that black and Asian people in the UK face discrimination in their everyday lives (64%), with only 16% disagreeing and little difference between age groups. Black Britons were most likely to agree (67% overall agreed), compared to 62% of Asian respondents. BAME women were slightly more likely than BAME men to say that black and Asian people in the UK face discrimination in their everyday lives (f:67%, m:61%) suggesting the gendered nature of experiences of racism.
A smaller majority also agree that Britain is institutionally racist (54%); just 12% disagree. Black respondents were most likely to agree that Britain is institutionally racist (60%), with a third (31%) strongly agreeing, compared with 15% of Asian respondents, 21% of those from mixed backgrounds and 26% of those from other ethnic groups who strongly agreed. While older respondents were more likely to say that they did not think Britain was institutionally racist, they were also more likely than younger age groups to agree with the statement.
At the same time, 45% of respondents agree that Britain is one of the least racist countries in Europe (24% disagreed). Older respondents were more likely to agree (63% of over-65s vs. 38% of 18-24s) and Leave voters were also more likely to believe that Britain is a less racist place than other European countries (54%) than Remain voters (38%), suggesting that for some Euroscepticism ties to a perception of worse race relations in mainland Europe than in Britain.
While there is no single ‘BAME’ experience and different ethnic groups and generations have had very different experiences, our polling makes it clear that racism continues to shape the experiences of Black and minority ethnic people in Britain.
It is now almost a year since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while being arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. The killing sparked protests that spread across the world, a response that galvanised long brewing resentment and anger at deep-rooted and systemic racism, anti-Blackness and white supremacy. In the UK, thousands joined protests, not just in London and the major cities, but in smaller cities, towns and even villages, to assert that Black Lives Matter.
Alongside calls for an end to police brutality and racism in the criminal justice system, an end to racial health disparities that have become so clear during the pandemic, and reforming the education system to deliver Black history, protesters chanted the names of those who had died at the hands of British police, but also those who had been failed by the Windrush scandal, who had lost their lives to coronavirus, and who were victims of the Grenfell fire. The movement also drew attention to Britain’s colonial past and wealth that was built on the foundations of slavery.
“The role of the BLM movement in changing the conversation on race and racism in Britain, in particular in raising consciousness of anti-blackness”
The visual symbolism of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston’s statue plunged into the river Avon and graffiti on a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square quickly became a focal point for media discussion and public response. While many of these conversations were not new, these discussions distilled the calls of BLM into a more simplistic conversation around the protection of statues and monuments.
This was quickly exploited by the far right. The Democratic Football Lads Alliance (a collection of football hooligans) called a protest, ostensibly in defence of the monuments in London, which resulted in violent clashes with police. And it was not just the far right attempting to derail the conversation. The statues narrative fed into a broader attempt to spark a ‘culture war’ on the political right, posing progressive values, or ‘wokeness’, as a cult: an epidemic, anti-western, totalitarian and even “cultural Marxist” (a far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory). Most recently, the Home Secretary took this line on the protests which she condemned as “dreadful” and accused protesters of attempting to “rewrite history”.
Nonetheless, polling carried out over the summer by HOPE not hate found that the British public was ready for a more progressive debate on racism in the UK. A majority (65%) agreed that the debate around tearing down historical monuments – because the figures depicted were seen as racist – has distracted from important discussions on racism in Britain. Just 12% disagreed. We found that public understandings of structural racism were weak, and continue to centre on a racism of “intent”: a binary of “racist” or “not racist”, with far less awareness of systemic racism or discrimination in social and political institutions.
Yet our latest polling shows how nine months on, BLM has changed the conversation on racism in Britain. While many are unenthusiastic about the impact of the protests meeting expectations for change, and there is little faith in the Government’s response, BAME Britons – especially younger groups – have seen the messages of BLM taken on board, especially among white friends and colleagues.
The Black Lives Matter movement has loudly and clearly brought long overdue conversations to the forefront of public consciousness, and our polling over the summer found that it had brought hope for change to many, as a majority (57%) of BAME Britons said they expected the protests to lead to real change.
In our January poll of BAME Britons, we found that support for the BLM movement has remained strong since the summer, as 61% – including 71% of black respondents and 56% of Asian respondents – said that they supported the protests. This support has fallen slightly since the summer, when 73% said they supported the protests. While BLM does not present a singular voice for people who have experienced racism, we found consensus in support across ethnic minorities, and overall opposition remains low (11% overall).
Our findings suggest that there has been a small increase in ambivalence among some who feel disillusioned with the movement, which has perhaps not triggered the societal changes they’d hoped for. While 39%, including 38% of black respondents, said that the movement had led to real change, many were pessimistic about the impact BLM has had on race relations in the UK. A majority across all ethnic groups felt that the BLM movement last year has not led to real change in Britain (61%).
This doubt is clear when asked if people feel the Government has taken racism more seriously as a result of the protests. A minority (27%) felt that it was taking racism more seriously, though most felt that it had made no difference (43%) and 19% felt the Government was in fact taking racism less seriously after the protests. And most (63%) do not expect Boris Johnson to deliver on his promise to tackle racism and inequality.
While most BAME Britons have seen little change in the lived realities of racism, and have little faith in the Government to act on the demands of BLM, it is clear that the protests have had an impact in shaping the conversation on race and racism in Britain today.
In the summer poll, just half of BAME Britons thought that the protests would make white people take racism more seriously (50%). While our latest poll shows that many are also doubtful about the response to BLM from media and white friends and colleagues, around a third said that white colleagues had taken racism more seriously (32%), while 38% felt the media was taking racism more seriously.
The role of the BLM movement in changing the conversation on race and racism in Britain, in particular in raising consciousness of anti-blackness, is reflected in our polling. Black respondents were more likely to have seen white friends and colleagues take racism more seriously (38%) than Asian respondents (30%). At the same time, black respondents were less likely to have seen the Government address the issue seriously (23% of black respondents; 30% Asian respondents).
And disappointment around the Government’s response to BLM is not just proxy for political loyalties. Conservative voters were also sceptical about the Government’s efforts; of those who voted Conservative in 2019, 38% said they felt the Government was taking racism more seriously, but 38% felt there had been no difference and 12% said they were taking racism less seriously.
A perceived lack of response from key actors shows when respondents are asked about how, if at all, racism has changed in Britain over the last year. The majority of BAME Britons felt that racism has in fact increased (26%) or stayed the same (42%) in Britain over the last 12 months. Just 16% said they felt it had decreased. Around a third of black respondents felt racism had increased (30%) while a quarter of Asian respondents (25%) said the same.
Our polling shows a mixed picture nine months on from the BLM protests. While support for the movement remains high among BAME Britons, hopeful expectations from the summer have not been met in reality, and there is little faith that the Government will take any meaningful action to address racial disparities. Nonetheless, particularly among younger BAME Britons, there is a sense that BLM has had an impact in changing the conversation on racism in the UK, with many seeing a shift in how seriously racism is taken by white friends and colleagues as well as in the media.
At the heart of the protests this summer were a new generation of activists, as young black Britons led BLM protests in towns and cities across the UK. Having grown up online, young Britons are engaging with activism in new ways, using social media to organise and amplify their voices. The ‘Fridays for Future’ school strikes around the world, led by young activists, had empowered many, offering a political awakening to shape a society for their futures, with racial justice at the core of calls for climate justice.
Large youth turnouts at the protests also reflected a difference in generational attitudes. Overall, younger people tend to be more socially liberal, and have a more open view on issues such as multiculturalism and immigration, as well as more fluid understandings of gender and sexuality. Younger people also have a more complex understanding of how historical racism bears on systemic discrimination today than older people, who are more likely to focus on debates around statues as ‘political correctness gone mad’.
In a nationally representative poll of 2,104 people for HOPE not hate Charitable Trust by Panel Base between 17-18 June 2020, we found that 70% of 18-24 year olds supported the anti-racist BLM protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, but only 37% of those over-65 felt the same. Younger people were as likely as older age groups to agree that black and Asian people face everyday discrimination, but were far more likely to see racism as a structural issue than older cohorts.
Given their outlook, perhaps it is not surprising that young BAME Britons are most supportive of BLM. In our January poll, younger BAME respondents remain the strongest supporters of BLM (70% of 18-24s support compared to 50% of over-65s), though even among young BAME people this support has fallen since the summer, when support among 18-24s stood at 86%. A majority want more public discussion about racism: 55% felt that race and racism weren’t spoken about enough compared to just 27% of over-65s.
Promisingly, younger people are more likely to have seen an impact of the protests than older age groups. In our BAME poll, just 3% of over-65s said that they thought racism had gone down in the last year, compared with a quarter of 18-24s (26%) and 25-34s (25%). This encouraging response from younger respondents may reflect that more of them said they had seen their white friends and colleagues and media take racism more seriously as a result of the protests, though it sits in contrast with the experiences of many others.
Our polling also showed that fewer than a third of 18-24 year olds (32%) could say that they had not experienced or witnessed racist violence in the last year.
Despite this reality, our poll shows how the conversation on race has clearly changed for young BAME Britons. Younger respondents were more likely to feel that white friends and colleagues (43% of 18- 24s) and the media (45% of 18-24s) had taken racism more seriously as a result of the protests.
“The issues of systemic racism or discrimination in social and political institutions raised by the BLM movement risk being overlooked.”
Nonetheless, young BAME Britons were less likely to think that the Government had taken racism more seriously as a result, with 40% of 18-24s saying there had been no change in how the Government approached racism, and a quarter (25%) saying that they were in fact taking racism less seriously as a result of the protests.
While much of this reflects young BAME Briton’s political views – less likely to be supportive of the Conservative government than older BAME groups – the Government’s discourse around BLM certainly sits at odds with young BAME Britons whose understandings of structural racism are not shared. The Prime Minister responded to the protests by stating that UK is not “a racist country”, using the word ‘thuggery’ to describe protesters, while Priti Patel most recently described the protests as “dreadful”, turning the conversation around BLM into one about the place of historical statues.
While these attempts to push for a ‘culture war’ style of politics are cynical, the clear shift among young people, in recognising change in the media they consume, and among their white friends and peers, should offer hope. Young people have not only demanded change, they are creating it.
The BLM movement brought longstanding questions of race relations and racism in British society to the fore. But as the coronavirus continues to have a disproportionate and devastating impact on black and minority ethnic Britons, and the overwhelming economic impacts on BAME Britons becoming clear, the optimism for change that many felt in the summer could likely be replaced by greater anger and frustration, and the furthering of mistrust with the government and authorities.
In June the Prime Minister announced a new cross- party Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, to look at “all aspects of inequality – in employment, in health outcomes, in academic and all other walks of life”. Yet this announcement immediately came under criticism. Former Tory party chair Lady Warsi said she feared the commission would will result in a “whitewash” that may simply search out “the answer that they want to hear: there’s no such thing as racism”.
Indeed, the issues of systemic racism or discrimination in social and political institutions raised by the BLM movement risk being overlooked. Munira Mirza, who has previously criticised the concept of structural racism, was given the job of setting up the panel, while the commission chair Tony Sewell has also previously suggested that the notion of structural racism feeds a sense of “victimhood”.
This is the first government attempt to address the deep ethnic disparities that plague our society, but they have, for many, many years, been laid bare in repeated reports, inquiries, investigations, and in the lived realities of black and ethnic minority Britons.
The new commission must do more to listen, and respond to black and minority groups who have been clear about how about how racism shapes their everyday experiences, and our society as a whole.
In March this year, Loyalist paramilitary groups informed the British and Irish governments that they were withdrawing their support for the Agreement in protest at Northern Ireland’s Irish Sea trade border with the rest of the UK.
While the letters to the British and Irish leaders called for “peaceful and democratic” opposition to current arrangements, there is a suggestion that the letter from the Loyalist Communities Council (an umbrella group that represents the interests of Loyalist groups, the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando) was written because they themselves are under internal pressure from younger, more militant Loyalists.
David Campbell, the LCC chairman, wrote in the letter:
Campbell said that the Northern Ireland Protocol had breached safeguards in the Good Friday Agreement designed to protect the status of both Catholic and Protestant communities and patience within the Loyalist community was at its lowest ebb since 1985, when Unionists and Loyalists staged mass rallies against the Anglo-Irish agreement.
While there appears little overall appetite for an imminent return to armed conflict, some Loyalists have openly spoken about returning to armed action and ignoring the consent principle in the GFA if the status of Northern Ireland being part of the UK continues to be put at risk.
In a rare interview in 2019 with HOPE not hate, the UVF’s East Belfast Battalion made it very clear, both on and off the record, that it was prepared to fight any idea of a “united Ireland”. They and others believe a military campaign in the Republic would dull any appetite there for a united Ireland. Anger at the Brexit deal, which keeps Northern Ireland within the EU trading club thereby creating some boarder checks with Britain, has been seen as a further sign among Unionists and Loyalists that Irish unification was increasingly likely.
Anger over the Brexit deal extends well beyond the paramilitary groups. An exclusive poll conducted by Focaldata for HOPE not hate found that 63% of people in Northern Ireland were opposed to the Brexit plans as they now stood, while 69% thought Brexit was going to be bad for the province.
More worryingly for those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, more people think Brexit makes a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland more likely than those who think it is less likely or won’t make any difference.
Opinion is split on whether Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely, with 44% believing it does, while 18% think it is less likely and 26% who say it will not make any difference.
A game changer could be if the SNP wins May’s Scottish elections and moves towards independence. Almost half of people in Northern Ireland (44%) think Scottish independence will make a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland more likely, with just 33% disagreeing.
While the polling shows there is increasing anger and tension in Unionist and Loyalist communities about Brexit and the new sea border, there appears little actual appetite to escalate the frustrations towards military actions – at least at the moment.
To understand the situation in Northern Ireland today, it is important to reflect back on how the Loyalist community has acted and reacted over the last 30 years.
On 13 October 1994 the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) issued a statement announcing a ceasefire by Loyalist paramilitaries.
The statement, issued on behalf of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Red Hand Commandoes (a small affiliate of the UVF) included a sincere and “true and abject remorse” for the deaths of innocent people.
Then-British Prime Minister John Major’s government would enter into “torturous” negotiations with the UDA’s (now defunct) political wing, the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP). The UDP’s representative went into those discussions believing and publicly claiming that Loyalists deserved a larger share in any financial and community-based inducements, due to having gone to the negotiating table before Republicans. It was a naivety which would perhaps come to define the Northern Ireland Office’s relationship with Loyalists for decades to come.
The UVF also sent two political negotiators, both former combatants, with one in particular being marked by civil servants as “impressive”.
The hopes of the paramilitary negotiators, having seen the seamless transition from the armed approach of the IRA to Sinn Fein’s ballot box strategy, was they too would be weighed as political representatives with political views and not merely as bag men negotiating the surrender of arms in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement. They fell and failed at the feet of the hegemony of 70 years of ‘Big House’ Unionism.
Twenty seven years on from those talks and 23 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, no representative of any Loyalist paramilitary political wing sits in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. Yet as was once said of the IRA, the Loyalist paramilitaries never really went away.
The UVF and Red Hand Commandoes, responsible for some 500 deaths during the period of the Troubles, would go on to assume a ‘non-military existence’ only in 2007. Their statement recognised the mainstream Republican offensive had ended and concluded “and thus the union remains safe”.
Despite still being an illegal organisation responsible for over 400 deaths, the leadership of the UDA was invited to join the Queen at a war memorial in Dublin in 2011. While bewilderment and outrage greets every initiative that involves either the inclusion or consultation with paramilitaries, their ongoing existence is not a matter or question of governments or the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) community simply tolerating their existence.
The inability of Loyalists to shift mainstream Unionists’ interests and allegiances towards their working class communities remains the most significant reason the power in some PUL communities still derives from the paramilitaries. Similarly, it may be argued, many funding grants and initiatives from a wide range of statutory and philanthropic bodies are made to community representatives and organisations still linked to paramilitary organisations or staffed by former paramilitaries.
The peace process has allowed or encouraged this period of ‘transition’ to ‘normality’, but it appears to be an inexhaustive process and while paramilitaries, contrary to arrangement or agreement, continue to recruit it will have to be inexhaustible.
The ‘demilitarising’ and ‘transitioning’ of Loyalist paramilitaries has done little to dull their organisations’ ardour for criminality and murder. There is also acknowledgment even from within the organisations’ themselves that there is widespread criminality and drug dealing by those associated with them.
The UDA in particular – coincidentally organised on a not-dissimilar model to New York’s five mob families – has both a ‘mainstream’ faction, which engages with the peace process and government initiatives, and an equal amount of renegade ‘Brigades’ and companies that litter Northern Ireland with the victims of their criminality.
Similarly, the UVF (the oldest paramilitary group in the entire island of Ireland) has since the Good Friday Agreement become the largest paramilitary group and presents a both conciliatory and confrontational approach in its relationships. It has also killed some 30 Protestants since the 1994 ceasefire.
To agree a ceasefire was one thing for the Loyalist paramilitaries; holding it was another, but the decommissioning of weapons was enough to split factions of the organisations (similarly with Republican groups). Accepting the structures of the Good Friday Agreement was never an agreement on their part that one day they should hold their hands up and acquiesce to a united Ireland.
Their refusal to go away, disband and fade into the new society is more rooted in the part-governance of the province by Sinn Fein (who Loyalists openly decry are the IRA) than just simply the benefits of largess and crime being paramilitaries brings.
It’s rooted in the belief that “England” would eventually abandon Northern Ireland in the same way it had abandoned control over the Free State [the Irish Free State established in 1922].
The UVF’s negotiator marked as “impressive” by British civil servants back in 1994 was David Ervine, who would for a short time represent the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), the UVF’s political wing, at Stormont. During an interview with this writer 10 years later, Ervine would opine such was the “English” [never British] habit of abandoning people or places, that the future of Northern Ireland was only ever secure in the hands of the European Union and not in the care of the “English” government. Had Ervine lived longer (he died in 2007 aged 53), Loyalism would probably look and survive far differently today. He died not long before the UVF declared the Union safe.
In 2017 the DUP entered into an agreement which saved Prime Minister Theresa May in a hung parliament. It also ensured Brexit would be accomplished, despite 55% of Northern Irish voters voting to Remain.
The DUP was particularly conscious that the majority of Protestant voters in Northern Ireland voted Leave (60%) and not just Theresa May’s party was Conservative & Unionist, but also weighed significantly by the fear that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could win an election and force through a united Ireland.
Contrary to what many believe, senior figures in both the UDA and UVF [PUP] have stated they were in favour of and voted for Remain. Given the overall nature of the Brexit campaign, where complexities were abandoned for questions over loyalty and patriotism, many PUL voters felt Brexit would necessitate a stronger border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Since 2017 the realities of Brexit have antagonised both Republicans and Loyalists. The increasing push for the introduction of the Irish language Act by Sinn Fein in the North, and the party’s increasing electoral success in the Republic, have surpassed irritation and antagonism and some of the more extravagant fears of Unionists feel increasingly about to be realised.
The introduction of a sea border between Britain and Northern Ireland this year was not without consultation, but it seems to have blindsided both Unionists and Loyalists who demanded a ‘full Brexit’ and all the composite difficulties it entailed. For the DUP in particular there has been a massive haemorrhaging of electoral support linked to the Irish Sea border and the new Northern Ireland Protocol.
Such is the slump for the DUP, Sinn Fein could even take the post of First Minister in next year’s Assembly Elections. A poll result that would almost certainly hasten the unification of Ireland.
The sense of panic and anger in the PUL community has seen a shift to the right in polling intentions which would further damage the DUP and, worse still, the intimidation and threats of workers at ports tasked with enacting border checks. As David Ervine prophesied, for many there, it feels as though the English have abandoned Northern Ireland. The hurt and pain is even more tangible than Peter Brooke’s [former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland] pronunciation in 1990 that Britain had “no selfish strategic interest” in the province.
The British government has been consulting with Loyalist paramilitaries since the beginning of 2021, a “consultation” to gauge both their anger and, no doubt, any willingness to return to war. It is, of course, a consultation that worries and infuriates many, even if it does has a practical purpose.
The initial noises were that although angry, there was no will to return to conflict. Though the UDA did (ominously) say it would be prepared to take its dissatisfaction “to Dublin”, the scene of some of Loyalism’s worst atrocities.
The paramilitaries also argue that any border between Northern Ireland and Britain is in direct breach of the Good Friday Agreement. They also conceded that perhaps they would not want a firm border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, much though they may once have thought.
The DUP’s MP for East Antrim, Sammy Wilson, was reported to have written to colleagues in early March about the use of “guerrilla warfare” to undermine both the Sea border and the protocol. He refused to apologise.
In early March, the Loyalist Communities Council, which supersedes the Combined Loyalist Military Command, told both the British and Irish governments it was no longer recognising and was “renouncing” the Good Friday Agreement. While this is not a declaration of intent to return to conflict, it does provide further fuel to mounting unease and discomfort on the issue as to how those that swore to defend Northern Ireland will respond to another of its long list of darkest hours.
On 12 February this year, HOPE not hate revealed the existence of a huge and mysterious social media network that was targeting QAnon conspiracy followers via the Telegram messaging app.
The so-called Sabmyk Network, which now has over one million subscribers across 136 channels in English, German, Japanese and Korean, posts a constant stream of QAnon content copied from other sources, interspersing it with posts about a previously unknown pseudo-religious narrative: the “Sword of Shawunawaz”, the “Atmumra Dynasty” and a Messianic figure called “Sabmyk, the Orion King”.
The network is worrying on multiple levels. It had amassed a huge audience over the course of just a few weeks, adding new channels and tens of thousands of followers on a daily basis. The largest channel in the network, the Great Awakening Channel, has over 134,000 subscribers and posts shared across the network regularly receive over 200,000 views.
Despite their near-identical content – each shares almost every post from the others – many of the channels are also deceptively branded to target different countries and demographics. The vast majority have names and profile images that identify them as QAnon-based, but the first channel to catch our attention was named and branded to resemble the anti-Muslim group Britain First, while others targeted evangelical Christians or UFO enthusiasts.
Alongside the anti-vaccine, COVID-denial and antisemitic conspiracy theories that are sadly ubiquitous on regular QAnon social media, the Sabmyk mythology promoted by these channels appears to be entirely new, leaving significant questions about the purpose behind its creation.
Our initial reporting on the topic drew an angry response from a channel in the network, which lambasted HOPE not hate as a “dirty propaganda machine” and suggested that our investigation was ordered by George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who serves as a hate-figure for QAnon and the wider far right. As one post said:
The toxic content, unknown ideology, calculated and deceptive marketing and huge audience amassed by this network made it vital to unmask the person or persons behind it, to better understand their intentions.
Now HOPE not hate can reveal that the person behind this operation is the German artist and photographer Sebastian Bieniek, an obsessive self-publicist with a long history of social media manipulation.
The mythology behind the Sabmyk element of the network had been seeded on social media over the course of 2020, supposedly the work of a 55-year-old female Iranian artist living in Germany called “Ameli Achaemenes”. A Facebook profile in her name was set up in 2018, followed in 2020 by a string of websites and Facebook pages relating to aspects of the Sabmyk mythology: the so-called “Atmumra Dynasty”, the “Sword of Shawunawaz”, etc. The only apparent photo of Achaemenes showed what appeared to be a woman with her face covered by a niqab.
But further research revealed that Achaemenes was herself a fictional creation, one of a dizzying array of false identities and social media accounts created by Sebastian Bieniek over the course of more than a decade. Another of his characters that we discovered in the course of this investigation was “Vincent Van Volkmer”, supposedly an 87-year-old artist who attends exhibitions and anti-lockdown protests dressed as a bee, complete with painted latex face mask to conceal his identity.
Achamenes and Van Volkmer were two of at least four fictional artists invented by Bieniek; the two others, “Arthur Sosna” and “Elias Maria Reti”, also have multiple social media accounts and fictional biographies but seemingly do not appear anywhere in person. The amount of work that has gone into creating all four characters is impressive, with glossy well-produced websites, detailed biographies and a distinct artistic style for each. Bieniek sells artworks under all four names through a string of Ebay accounts, a trade which appears to be fairly lucrative: the six accounts we have identified have made sales totalling €24,000 in the past three months alone.
Yet even this is not the full extent of Bienek’s strange obsession for deceptive roleplay. Along with dozens of social media accounts and websites for his characters, Bieniek has created countless false identities to promote his own career as a painter, photographer and performance artist.
His German Wikipedia page has been deleted at least four times, most recently in January 2021, and an investigation by Wiki editors in 2019 concluded that Bieniek had used at least 30 fake ‘sockpuppet’ identities to create and edit pages about himself in 44 different languages over the previous decade. Notably, those same accounts had also been used to create and edit a Wikipedia page for one of his artist alter egos, “Elias Maria Reti”.
But it is Facebook where Bieniek achieved his earliest and greatest success in viral marketing. His main page has an impressive 430,000 likes, a number which dwarfs that of many genuinely acclaimed artists on the platform. This too was reached by deceptive means: in 2011 Bieniek wrote a book called RealFake that detailed his campaign to deceptively promote his own work.
A review of the book said it revealed how Bieniek had:
It is hard to know exactly where Bieniek’s artistic expression ends and his obsessive egotism begins. His performance art plays up to a boastful public persona, such as a video in which he stares into the camera while repeating the phrase “I am the winner” over and over. Yet his decade-long anonymous pursuit of a Wikipedia presence appears to be less of a performance and more a reflection of his deep-seated desire for attention and recognition.
It is clear, however, that the mythology he originally invented as part of the backstory for his “Ameli Achaemenes” character has developed into a far more sinister project, one for which the endgame is unclear. In recent weeks the channels have made a series of posts detailing the “Signs of Sabmyk”, the means by which believers will be able to identify the anointed Messiah of this pseudo-religion.
One such post claimed that Sabmyk would have “17 v-shaped scars” on his arm, the result of a “prophetic ceremony at the age of 24”. In a now-deleted section of Bieniek’s website, the origin of this cryptic statement becomes clear: the “prophetic ceremony” in question is a gruesome art exhibit that Bieniek put on in 1999 called ‘Hand Without A Body’, which involved the then-24 year old artist cutting v-shaped wounds into his arm for 16 days in a row.
This discovery indicates that Bieniek (perhaps) sees himself in the role of the messianic Sabmyk, a worrying but perhaps predictable development given his track record. It is unclear what Bieniek’s long-term goals are for this project, and whether he believes any of the conspiracy theories and misinformation that he is pumping out to a million subscribers. Yet it is important to note that the QAnon movement itself might have begun in a similar fashion. The person who first posted as the eponymous “Q” has never been positively identified, but it seems likely that their original motivation was a desire for attention and personal entertainment, rather than a plot to create a globally influential conspiracy movement.
HOPE not hate will be providing the full list of Bieniek’s accounts to social media platforms and calling for them to be removed on the basis of inauthentic and coordinated platform manipulation. But the successes of his project to date is a chilling reminder of the opportunities for deception and manipulation that exist on social media, particularly the unregulated badlands of alt-tech platforms like Telegram.
Reading a report like this can give an impression of overwhelming grimness, with British society awash with hateful and divisive characters. However, that would be a total misrepresentation of where we are right now. For everything that is included in this report, it’s vital to acknowledge that 2020 also brought out the best in our communities and in our nation.
For most the onset of the pandemic meant an opportunity to get involved in supporting the vulnerable in our families, streets and communities. Not to mention the absolute superstars who, by dint of their jobs, put themselves on the frontline for all of us – from everyone working for the NHS to care workers, supermarket staff, delivery drivers, public transport workers and the emergency services.
When our children and grandchildren learn about the COVID-19 pandemic in years to come, there will be much to teach about solidarity and about how our country can pull together in a crisis.
It is also important to remember what is good about our country. HOPE not hate Charitable Trust’s recent European State of HATE report, produced earlier this year in conjunction with Expo (Sweden) and Amadeu Antonio Foundation (Germany), found that the UK had the least negative attitudes towards immigrants, Muslims and Roma of any of the eight European countries surveyed.
Our own polling for this magazine, finds similar results. Almost half of Britons (43%) have a positive attitude to Muslims, compared to just 22% who have a negative attitude. A slightly bigger number (49%) have a positive attitude to refugees and asylum seekers, compared to 29% who have a negative attitude. And 35% of people have a positive attitude to people from the Traveller community, as opposed to 29% who are negative.
Compare this to Italy and France: in Italy, 67% have a negative attitude towards Roma, and 62% in France, while only 6% in both countries had a positive attitude. In Germany, 39% hold a negative attitude towards the Roma, compared to just 12% who take a positive view.
None of this is to say that there are not still big problems that we all have to tackle in the UK, as this report clearly shows. However, it is vital that we harness the good to overcome the bad – HOPE has to beat hate.
HOPE can both be a great antidote to hate as well as acting as a mobiliser. We came up with the name HOPE not hate back in 2004 precisely for this reason. Our polling in areas where the far-right British National Party (BNP) was winning local elections made it clear that even in these areas, a majority of people rejected the politics of hate. But highlighting the BNP’s politics of hatred was not enough alone to win people over. We needed to offer an alternative – an alternative vision – and HOPE gave us that.
“HOPE” gave us an alternative worldview to the vision of hate offered by the BNP. HOPE suggested a world where people came together in solidarity, collaborated and overcame their problems through dialogue. Not the conflict, competition and anger encapsulated by the BNP.
We have tried to carry that positive vision ahead in everything we do. Our education work challenges prejudice in the classroom. Our community work seeks to bridge divides. And our policy work attempts to address some of the underlying issues that create the conditions that extremists then exploit.
Even our research and campaigning offer hope. By exposing, challenging and confronting extremists, we hope to reduce their ability to spread hate. By ensuring they are beaten at the ballot box, we are aiming to create a space for those with more positive and inclusive policies to step forward.
When we look at challenging and overcoming the hate and extremism highlighted in this report, it is important to understand that there is no single solution or simple remedy.
Many people are drawn to extremism because of other factors affecting their lives, factors often outside their immediate control. Some will not understand, or accept, that what they are doing is wrong or needs changing. There are, of course, a few who are very dangerous and for them arrest and potentially imprisonment is often the only solution.
Just as there are multiple reasons why people are drawn into extremism, so there are numerous ways that extremism can be combatted. Some cases will require legal intervention, including arrests and imprisonment, but most extremism needs to be addressed in other ways, addressing the concerns and grievances (real or imagined) that give it oxygen, challenging disinformation and conspiracies that sour the political landscape, and bringing communities together to break down barriers and misconceptions.
It is a combination of all these, coupled with a message and vision of hope, that are required to defeat the nihilism of hate.
It is for this reason that we are increasingly concerned about the noises coming out of Government which seem to suggest it is about to deprioritise counter- extremism work inside communities, instead preferring to tackling online hate and hate crime. While these are important issues that must be addressed, they cannot be done at the expense of community engagement and more localised initiatives that bring divided communities together and push extremists to the margins.
Of course, you can criminalise the key perpetrators of hate and deny them the online platforms to propagandise and spread their extremist poison, but this does nothing to address the underlying issues that give rise to extremism in the first place.
Tougher laws and increased enforcement can certainly be part of any strategy to defeat extremism: they cannot be the main plank of an anti-extremism strategy. You can’t legislate hate away, not least because such approaches have a habit of backfiring in the longer term. People become more alienated from the system and over-focusing on a legalisative approach can play into the “cancel culture” and “thought police” narrative which is already so persuasive in the extremist mindset.
HOPE not hate is set up to reflect a myriad of approaches – research, education, community engagement and policy work – that we feel are proven and necessary to truly combat extremism. We also believe that it is the combination of these different elements that makes us stronger and more effective.
HOPE must lie at the heart of this strategy: the promise and vision that hate can be replaced with something better. It is, after all, the absence of hope that makes many people so susceptible to hate. And with the threats highlighted in this report, coupled with the economic impact of the COVID pandemic, Brexit and a possible constitutional crisis, the need for HOPE, and we think “HOPE not hate”, is required more than ever.
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