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.
The possible arrival of Pastor Terry Jones in the UK for an EDL rally has once again raised the spectre of the Home Secretary’s power to exclude unpleasant people from the country.
The last time we were down this particular path was with Zakir Naik, who was barred from entering the country in June because of his interesting views on Jihad and terror.
(By the way, if you are interested in Naik’s views, a large selection of his pamphlets is available outside the Islamic centre on York Way in London’s King’s Cross. I particularly recommend “Islam and Science”).
Anyway, the Naik dilemma afforded Home Secretary Theresa May an opportunity to put clear blue water between herself and her Labour predecessors, who had, from David Blunkett onwards, been seen as the greatest threat to civil liberties in the UK since King John.
May singularly failed in this, and now the Home Office is painted into a corner. Post-Naik (a much higher profile and more influential figure than Jones, incidentally), it risks being painted as “hypocritical” by Islamic groups.
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think hypocrisy is the worst sin, particularly when the alternative is the application of a poor principle. In this case, I think I’d prefer May to be hypocritical, and let Jones in.
Lots of people would disagree with this, not least Labour MP Jon Cruddas.
In somewhat Spartish language, Cruddas denounces Jones as “this Elmer Gantry of neoconservative extremism”.
After listing the arguments for allowing Jones into the country, Cruddas goes on the offensive:
“But we know what sits on the other side of the debit sheet. Mass disorder. Communities divided on racial and religious lines. Intolerance. Violence. Entire towns rent asunder.”
Really, Jon? Mass disorder? Entire towns rent asunder? Is that actually likely?
What we are dealing with here is the kind of rhetoric deployed in the past by the likes of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. There is our way, or there is, inevitably, fascism. Cruddas is using rhetoric as dependent on impending crisis as the EDL’s does, with its screeching on the imminent Islamicisation of Europe.
Cruddas’s piece ends imagining Jones rasing “a toast to the new liberalism” – presumably meaning useful idiots like me and Sholto Byrnes over at the New Statesman, who Cruddas denounced in his article for being a bit concerned about the use of “public order” as a reason to stifle free speech.
Incidentally, Jones has been excluded before – from the German Evangelical Alliance. They kicked him out because of his theological flakiness and craving for the limelight. Could it be that we have all fallen for a massive publicity stunt? And that the EDL has taken on the tactics of its arch-rival, Anjem Chaudhary?
A couple of weeks ago, a Times reporter asked me if Pastor Terry Jones, who at the time was creating a stir with threats he would burn a Koran, would be arrested if he did so in the UK. I told them it was unlikely, unless he had gone out of his way to do so in front of a mosque on Friday, or in a location with a lot of Muslims around, in which case the Public Order Act could be brought into play, and/or the Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Act.
I was half right. The Gateshead men, apparently English Defence League supporters, were arrested on suspicion of inciting racial hatred. Not religious hatred.
Legally speaking, it is at least technically possible to arrest someone of incitement to religious hatred. So why did the police not use this power in a case where the target was a religious text?
Back in 2005, when the Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was being debated, secularists campaigning against the bill (of whom I was one — I was working at New Humanist magazine at the time) worked to make the bill pretty much unworkable in practice. Consequently, Section 29j of the Act states:
Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.
We were quite pleased with this. And possibly right to be, as there have been very few actions under this legislation since it was introduced in 2006.
So are the police not even using this legislation? Were the Gateshead arrests made under the guise of racial hatred because they felt more likely to secure a conviction?
A source tells me the police are claiming that the burning of the Koran itself is the crux of the arrest: not the posting on YouTube. But I cannot imagine how the burning of a book, no matter how precious that book is to some people, is a crime in and of itself. And I certainly don’t understand how it’s a race crime.