Twitter trolls, online mobs and “offensive” Facebook posts are constantly making headlines as authorities struggle to determine how to police social media. In a recent development, links posted on Facebook allow users to see which of their friends have “liked” pages, such as those representing Britain First, the British National Party and the English Defence League. When clicking the links, a list appears of friends who have liked the page in question. Many Facebook users have posted the links, with the accompanying message stating their intention to delete any friends found on the lists. One user wrote, “I don’t want to be friends, even Facebook friends, with people who support fascist political parties, so this is just a quick message to give you a chance to unlike the Britain First page before I un-friend you.” Tackling racism is admirable, but when the method is blackmail and intimidation, who is in the wrong? All information posted on Facebook could be considered as public property, but what are the ethical implications of users taking it upon themselves to police the online activity of their peers? When social media users group together to participate in online vigilantism, what implications are there for freedom of expression?
This online mob is exercising its right to freedom of expression by airing views about right wing groups. However, in an attempt to tackle social issues head on, the distributors of these links are unlikely to change radical right-wing ideologies, and more likely to prohibit right-wing sympathisers from speaking freely about their views. In exerting their right to free speech, mobs are at risk of restricting that of others. The opinions of those who feel targeted by online mobs won’t go away, but their voice will. The fear of losing friends or being labelled a racist backs them into a corner, where they are forced to act in a particular way, creating a culture of self-censorship. Contrary to the combating of social issues, silencing opinion is more likely to exacerbate the problem. If people don’t speak freely, how can anyone challenge extreme views? By threatening to remove friends or to expose far right persuasions, are the online vigilantes really tackling social issues, or are they just shutting down discussions by holding friendships to ransom?
Public shaming is no new tactic, but its online use has gone viral. Used as a weapon to enforce ideologies, online witch-hunts punish those who don’t behave as others would want them to. Making people accountable for their online presence, lynch mobs target individuals and shame them into changing their behaviour. The question is whether groups are revealing social injustices that would otherwise go unpunished, or whether they are using bullying tactics in a dictatorial fashion. The intentions of the mob in question are good; to combat racism. But does that make their methods justifiable? These groups often promote a “with us or against us” attitude; if you don’t follow these links and delete your racist friends, you must be a racist too. Naming and shaming those who don’t follow the cultural norm is also intended to dissuade others from participating in similar activities. Does forcing people into acting a certain way actually generate any real change, or is it simply an act of censorship?
With online mobs often taking on the roles of judge, jury and executioner, the moral implications of their activities are questionable. It may start as a seemingly small Facebook campaign such as this one, but what else could stem from that? One Facebook user commented, “Are you making an effort to silence your Facebook friends who are to the right of centre?” This concern that the target may become anyone with an alternative political view demonstrates the cumulative nature of online mobs. Who polices this activity and who decides when it has gone too far?
Comments under the Facebook posts in question invite plenty of support for the deletion of any friends who “like” far right groups, but very rarely does anyone question the ethics of this approach. No longer feeling they have to idly stand by, Facebook users may feel they can make an impact through strength in numbers and a very public forum. Do those who haven’t previously had a channel for tackling social issues suddenly feel they have a public voice? Sometimes it’s difficult to accept that absolutely everyone has the right to free speech, even those who hold extreme views. In a democracy, there may be political groups that offend us, but those groups still have a right to be heard. The route to tackling those views can’t be to silence them, but to encourage discussion.
A day out for Muslim families at the childrens’ theme park Legoland in Windsor was cancelled last week after multiple threats were received from far-right groups. The Daily Mail was labelled “hateful” by Muslim organisations for its coverage of the episode.
According to press reports members from the English Defence League and a splinter group known as Casuals United had both threatened to protest at the day-out, which was organised by the Muslim Research and Development Foundation (MRDF), and had sent threatening letters to MRDF offices as well as staff at Legoland.
A spokesperson for MRDF told Index: “They terrorised staff at Legoland, staff at MRDF and aimed to terrorise children and families on the day of the event.” He added: “Several articles in the national press helped fuel further hatred and resentment.”
The event, which was due to go ahead on 9 March, was cancelled after Legoland and MRDF consulted with the local police. “The owners of Legoland made the decision to cancel the event in consultation with the MRDF”, a police spokesperson told Index
The police are known to be investigating several malicious messages sent by members of the EDL and Casuals United in the run-up to the cancellation. “Thames Valley Police can confirm it is investigating reports of offences committed under the Malicious Communications Act (1988),” said the spokesperson. They confirmed that the investigation related to several social media messages sent in the days leading up to the cancellation.
It is understood from sources at Legoland that the Anti-Fascist League, who had planned a counter-demonstration against the EDL and Casuals United, was also considered a threat to the peaceful day out.
Fierce criticism has been levelled at trustee and chairman of the MRDF, Haitham al-Haddad, an Islamist preacher, over allegations of being anti-Semitic, homophobic and in favour of female genital mutilation. Al-Haddad describes himself as a Muslim community leader and television presenter, of Palestinian origin. He sits on the boards of advisors for several Islamic organisations in the United Kingdom, including the Islamic Sharia Council. He is the chair and operations advisor, and a trustee, for the Muslim Research and Development Foundation. Al-Haddad, who is outspoken in his criticism of British foreign policy, has been banned from speaking at a number of British universities because of his alleged views.
The MRDF, based in East London, undertakes research and publishing programmes, corporate retreats and development programmes, organises conferences, seminars and lecture tours and analysis of news, information and media material.
Grassroots far-right group the English Defence League had planned to hold protests outside the theme park if the day went ahead. In a press release on their website, they described al-Hatham as a “known hate preacher,” who “thinks Jews and gays should be killed, Israel destroyed, unbelievers converted or killed, women beaten into house slaves…and Osama Bin Laden should be held in high esteem.”
A spokesperson from Legoland told Index: “This was about lots of families having a day out. The park is closed from November to March and we open for private events. This one had no alcohol and halal food available, alongside non-halal. Other than that it was a normal event.” The spokesperson also added: “Anyone was able to buy these tickets – it was not a Muslim-only day.”
Legoland said 9000 tickets were available but it was unclear how many had been sold at the time the event was cancelled. Their spokesperson also confirmed that MRDF had paid a fee to hire the park exclusively. MRDF was responsible for selling tickets to their own members.
In a separate statement released on their website, Legoland made clear that they believed the far-right groups should be blamed for the event cancellation: “Sadly it is our belief that deliberate misinformation fuelled by a small group with a clear agenda was designed expressly to achieve this outcome.” The statement added: “We are appalled at what has occurred, and at the fact that the real losers in this are the many families and children who were looking forward to an enjoyable day out at LEGOLAND.”
The Daily Mail has also been slammed in an open letter to their editor, Paul Dacre, over “hateful” coverage of the events leading up to the cancellation.
In a piece written by columnist Richard Littlejohn on Tuesday 18 February, titled “Jolly jihadi boys’ outing to Legoland”, Muslim groups say the paper “deployed hateful Muslim stereotypes” and “used slurs commonly found in racist and far-right websites.”
The article referenced a coach that would be “packed with explosives” and that might “blow up” after stopping in Parliament Square. At Legoland, guests would be “reminded that music and dancing are punishable by death”. Later, girls would be expected “to report to the Kingdom of the Pharaohs for full FGM inspection” while boys would “report to the Al-Aqsa recruiting tent outside the Land of the Vikings for onward transportation to Syria.”
The letter of complaint was published by the Muslim Council of Britain, and co-signed by more than twenty five other Muslim organisations.
A boy hasdied today (11 February) after being shot by security forces in Kashmir during protests against the execution of a separatist. Ubaid Mushtaq, said to be 12 or 13 years old by doctors, died in a Srinagar hospital from bullet wounds following the 10 February protests in the village of Watergam, in which paramilitary forces opened fire on demonstrators.
The news of Mohammed Afzal Guru’s death in a New Delhi prison on 9 February ignited fierce objection and protests in three areas of India administered Kashmir, surrounding claims the men accused had not been given a fair trial. The Kashmiri man was from a village close to Watergam, and had been convicted of helping to plot an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 that left 14 people dead. Police said an inquiry has been launched into Mushtaq’s shooting.
Chinese authorities said Elton John dedicating his Beijing concert to Ai Weiwei was “disrespectful”
China has tightened its restrictions on foreign singers performing in the country after Elton John dedicated his Beijing concert toAi Weiwei in November. Chinese police questioned John after his Beijing performance last year, which he had dedicated “to the spirit and talent of Ai Weiwei”. Authorities then allegedly asked John to sign a statement saying that he had been inspired by Ai’s artistic achievements exclusively, rather than for his efforts to defend free speech. John was permitted to go ahead with his Guangzhou show in early December, but an editorial letter in the state-run Global Times said that the singer was “disrespectful” to include political sentiment in his performance, adding that authorities would think more carefully before inviting foreign artists to perform in future. Culture minister Cai Wu is now allegedly requesting degree certificates from international performers since John’s appearance, only allowing them entry into the country if they can prove they have been university-educated. Classical musicians have reportedly been required to submit proof of degrees when performing in the country since the start of the year.
A Hong Kong activist has been sentenced to nine months in prison on 7 February after burning a Chinese flag. Koo Sze-yiu was also discovered to have burned a Hong Kong flag, during two separate demonstrations against the government. In June 2012, Koo burned a Chinese flag outside the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government, in protest against the staged suicide of Chinese activist Li Wangyang, and on 1 January he was seen waving a Chinese and Hong kong flag with holes in both. He was charged with four counts of flag desecration. The maximum punishment for flag desecration is three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 HK dollars (approximately £4,000). Shortly after his arrest, a Chinese netizen was arrested for posting a picture of a defaced flag on to a social networking site.
A UK journalist isfighting a court application submitted by the police requiring him to hand over video footage of the English Defence League (EDL), it was reported today (11 February). Jason Parkinson has refused to hand over his footage, saying that journalists are “not evidence gatherers for the police”. He fought a similar case in 2011, where police attempted to seize his footage of the Dale Farm eviction of travellers in Essex. Greater Manchester police applied for a production order hearing on 18 February to view all published and unpublished footage obtained during an EDL and counter protest march by Unite Against Fascism in Bolton 20 March 2010. The National Union of Journalists intends to contest the application. Parkinson said that handing over the evidence “could overturn the incredibly important victory for press freedom” that was achieved during the Dale Farm eviction.
In Bangalore, India an artist was forced to remove his pantings from an art gallery on 5 February because they depicted Hindu deities in the nude. Anirudh Sainath Krishnamani was told by police that they received a complaint from a member of Hindu nationalist political group the Bharatiya Janata Party, claiming the paintings “hurt the sentiments of society”. Police threatened to shut down Krishnamani’s exhibition at Chitrakala Parishath gallery if he refused to remove the offending pieces, which police said were a potential law and order threat and could cause protests or an attack. The paintings removed included a picture of a nude goddess Kali as well as Shiva and Sati hugging each other. MN Krishnamani, Anirudh’s father and a senior supreme court advocate will contest the decision.
The English Defence League’s march into Tower Hamlets, scheduled for 3 September, has been met with a broad alliance of politicians and organisations — including council leaders from across the country, prominent trade unionists, religious leaders, the Canary Wharf Group, London Citizens and local LGBT organisations — calling for it to be banned. This week, a delegation from the Hope Not Hate coalition, led by London Assembly’s John Biggs and Rushanara Ali MP, presented a 25,000-name petition to Scotland Yard calling on Theresa May to ban the march, no doubt gaining inspiration from her recent decision on the Telford march earlier this month.
Of course, Tower Hamlets has been here before: Stepney in the 1930s, Brick Lane in the 1970s (and again in April 1999) and Millwall in the 1990s. The cosmetics are different but the fascist face beneath remains the same. The impact and attendant dangers of this march — into what the EDL claims is the “heart of militant Islam” and “the lions [sic] den”— are significant. The EDL is not planning a “peaceful” demonstration. The pattern is predictable: massive disruption to local communities and businesses, mobilisation of far-right activists from around the country ending in attacks on Muslims and other counter-demonstrators. So banning the march should be common sense: ban the march, stop the danger.
Unfortunately this logic is skin deep. When the Home Secretary banned the Telford march, it did nothing to prevent the EDL from staging a static protest. Nor did it prevent violent confrontations between the organisers and counter-demonstrators — there were 40 arrests. When the EDL’s Bradford march was banned last year, its members were still allowed to stage a static protest and, from their fenced-off park, they threw rocks and gas canisters at the police and counter-demonstrators. Some broke out of the pen and ran through the streets causing mayhem. During the Manchester demonstration in 2009, the police erected a steel fence around parts of Piccadilly Gardens in the centre of the city. The EDL circumnavigated the lockdown by marching from various assembly points (usually pubs) to the city centre. In the end, the bans achieved nothing.
I was born and raised on the Mile End Road, but I don’t believe the march should be banned for three reasons.
First, it will do nothing to prevent disorder and racist violence. If anything, it will still allow the EDL to hold a static demonstration as well as numerous parades into this area. And when they break out of it, they will turn Tower Hamlets, a densely populated inner-city borough with its warren-like streets, into a riot zone impossible to police.
Second, state intervention in protests is not something to be celebrated. Banning this march is a surely a harbinger of interventions in future protests not just those organised by the far right.
Third, the movement against the rise of fascism must not become dependent on the state. For inspiration, we have only to look at the Battle of Cable Street: the fascists came but they did not pass. Instead, local residents of diverse backgrounds united and fought back and dealt Oswald Mosley and his BUF the death blow.
If the EDL are to be defeated, it must be in the streets of Britain, in its front rooms, in its pubs. We are the ones that must do this — not the state.
Akkas Al-Ali is a playwright, director and dramaturg living in London.