I was an odd 15-year-old boy. I was bright at an age when it doesn’t pay to be intelligent, and I wasn’t interested in football or computer games at an age when it really does. I was interested in history, and literature. I was also obsessed, then as now, in politics, but I had no real means to do the typical teenage thing of wanting to argue about it, apart from with my parents. None of my few friends were that interested in politics, much less well informed. I was exploding with opinions, at that time of a variety which might fairly be described as ‘very confused democratic communist.’ I needed an outlet.
The result – and I appreciate that this is pretty tragic – was this: I started commenting on the Today programme message boards.
If I went seeking raucous political discussion, I certainly found it. The message boards were a relatively early BBC attempt at user outreach – this was eleven years ago, and we’re now onto our fourth Prime Minister since then. The Beeb was effectively hosting a free-for-all message board which had only a tangential relationship with what was actually discussed that morning on Today. Perhaps predictably, it was dominated by the far-right: people who opposed ‘political correctness’, were obsessed with Islam and Muslims, and hated immigration and immigrants. Often they were BNP supporters. There were enough people on the political left, as well as some mainstream Conservatives, to not allow them to dominate completely, and on some topics (such as the incompetence of Gordon Brown and the Labour Party) these people could be less poisonous, and we might even begin to agree, albeit from very different perspectives. But I did enjoy, at least to begin with, challenging their racist views, thinking that I could persuade them.
After a while, the BBC, probably noticing that the online discussion forum for their flagship radio news programme had become a fascist cesspit, closed it down, and I migrated to another chatroom run by one of the Today message board regulars. Here, the far right were even more dominant – I was certainly the only socialist. I used to spend a couple of hours each night after coming home from school arguing with these people, believing that I was engaged in a righteous cause. If that sounds bad, that’s because it was. If nothing else, I could have spent that time doing something far more productive – who knows, if I’d been practicing my French vocab I could currently be blessed with fluency and might even have avoided the car crash that was my GCSE oral. Eventually, the appeal started to wane as I finally found other interests.
Much politically has changed in the subsequent decade, and it would be wrong to draw too many straightforward equivalences between the insurgent populist right and the people I argued with on an obscure message board back then. And yet, I do think that the unhealthy amount of time I spent debating with – and more importantly, listening to – these people, over a long period of time, has given me a greater understanding of them. In that spirit, I offer a few observations.
The demographic profile of the commenters defied stereotypes. Of course, it’s impossible to know whether those hiding behind pseudonyms were really the people they said they were: I was pretending to be a decade older than I actually was at the time. Ostensibly, they certainly skewed older and many were retired, which left them a lot of time to be full-time bigots. But there was a good mix of male and female, and strikingly most of them were middle-class and many appeared to be in office jobs. Often they were university educated. Many had previously voted Tory, and a few admitted to voting for Blair in 1997. This was at a time when the BNP were portrayed as monolithically working class, with low levels of education, and very male. But while that might have been an accurate description of BNP voters as a whole, their loudest supporters were not – for example, Nick Griffin himself read Law at Cambridge, lest we forget. So while the mainstream press might have been shocked that the ‘alt-right’ can be ‘dapper’ and ‘intelligent’ (descriptions which are tinged with class associations), it was not a huge surprise to me.
These BNP-supporting commenters were happy to appropriate the language of liberalism – up to a point. Like many of the populist right parties in Europe (for example Geert Wilders’s PVV in the Netherlands), the commenters I argued with were more than happy to deploy ostensibly liberal arguments. They cast themselves as defenders of democracy, which they claimed was being trampled upon by the EU and the hated Labour government. They claimed to uphold secular values (very few of them had any religious belief at all, as far as I could tell – many were strident atheists). While they were anti-feminist, they saw themselves as the defenders of women’s rights against Islam and ‘mass immigration’. Homophobic remarks were not unknown on the message boards, but were rare, and not a focus of interest. More than anything, they argued that they stood for free speech, specifically the freedom to tell unpleasant truths, and deplored left-wing political violence. On the BBC message board, their libertarian free speech ideology found itself directly opposed to the hated ‘mods’ (who were actually rather too lax).
I am still uncertain how far this was a tactical approach, and how far it was sincere. It’s true that the far right is almost required to adopt such arguments, since it is a minority group itself and needs the protection of law to make itself heard and advance. At the same time, they were truly vehement, especially on the subject of free speech. There is an alternative explanation: most of the rank-and-file of the far right choose not to think hard about how far their views are incompatible with liberal democracy. Still, sometimes they were forced to confront the contradiction. One example I recall was that there was a list of anti-fascist activists and their personal details, hosted online by an openly fascist organisation, with the tacit encouragement to their far-right brethren to use it to target these activists for harassment and violence. I started an e-petition against this site, and naively shared it on the message board with the freedom-loving far right. There was a lot of umming and errring and handwringing about why exactly this was needed, and weren’t the anti-fascists just as bad – in other words, they were quite happy, on one level, to sanction violence against their political enemies, something which they claimed to abhor. This is, of course, exactly how the American ‘alt-right’ – and indeed, many supposedly mainstream conservatives – reacted to the Charlottesville march. It is, to say the least, unsettling that the line I once saw taken by a website full of BNP supporters is now being promoted by the President of the United States.
Their news sources were overwhelmingly from the mainstream media, especially the British tabloids. A lot of the reporting on the rise of the ‘alt-right’ has focused on the development of ‘fake news’ as a phenomenon, with shady online sources pumping out completely fabricated stories which justify a worldview that is racist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-liberal, and so on. However, at least back then, they relied overwhelmingly on mainstream news sources. In rough order of appearance, they would be: the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the BBC, The Sun. Traditionally, the lack of a radical right party in British politics (until the emergence of UKIP from 2012 onwards) has been attributed to our electoral system; however, an alternative explanation that has been mooted is that our openly ideological, undeferential, partisan, xenophobic press has effectively filled that gap in British politics. I find that explanation very credible.
I do remember some other sites making an appearance (for example, Little Green Footballs in the days when it was a right-wing blog), but these were rarely explicitly far-right, much less neo-Nazi. The posters almost universally hated the BBC, whose news coverage they regarded as being liberally slanted and deliberately covering up the ‘truth’ in the interests of liberal propaganda. However, they still used it, for example mining it for stories about ethnic minorities committing crimes, with the corollary that even the biased BBC had published these articles. The Guardian they of course had nothing but hatred and contempt for, which may be one reason that it’s my go-to news source today.
It was a very powerful echo-chamber. A typical thread would start with a link to a news article, normally about immigrants or Muslims, with a snide comment about the madness of liberalism. Then, this could develop into a thread in which they could argue – or, more often, agree and generally share their hatred. What was really powerful, however, was the volume with which these threads appeared. If you scour the Internet really diligently for every single anti-immigration article published in the Daily Mail and beyond, every single Islamist terrorist attack worldwide, every blog post ridiculing Islam, every single crime story involving a non-white perpetrator… you’ll spend all of your time immersed in hatred, but you’ll also have a lot of material with which to ‘prove’ your case. Rather than arguing against outright fictions, which are reasonably easy to rebut, a more insidious pattern was at work – unrepresentative stories cherrypicked by the Mail or the Express, skewed and spun to make racist or Islamophobic arguments. And as much as I might have argued that the plural of anecdote is not data (and I did), it was very difficult to rebut.
When I started to write this blog post, I wondered what they would have done without me – on the second message board, I was pretty much the only person who wasn’t on the far-right or at least open to their message. Who would they have argued with? The answer is, I think, that they wouldn’t have had to argue – they weren’t interested in debate, they were interested in hate. Arguing with lefties gave a soupçon of entertainment, but it wasn’t the primary reason they were there. Still, just because they all agreed on some level, it didn’t mean that these threads weren’t dangerous. If you’re predisposed to be hostile to ethnic minorities and other ‘out’ groups already, the radicalising effect of this barrage of propaganda must have been profound, and very difficult to escape from. Soon, a unpleasant (but not uncommon) antipathy towards Muslims and ‘political correctness’ becomes a much more vicious beast. To give an example, I remember being shocked by someone who celebrated at a boatful of men, women, and children on their way to Hajj sinking with all hands. You become the kind of person who rejoices at the drowning of peaceful pilgrims about whom you know nothing but their religion. From there, the road to gas chambers and mass graves is not all that long.
Every so often I wonder what became of the message board and its inhabitants – more and more these days, with the rise of the ‘alt-right’, Donald Trump’s victory, and Brexit. I’ve imagined that it’s probably long deserted and indeed, while I can’t recall the exact URL, there is a 404 page where I think it used to be. As for the posters themselves, I assume that they moved onto similar echo-chambers online, particularly Twitter, the terms of usage of which are lax enough to offer them a space in which to thrive. I have little doubt that, after the collapse of the BNP in the late Noughties, they mostly made the jump to UKIP; all of them, unless they had any flashing Damascene conversion, will have voted Leave.
If you’re hoping that I will be able to offer cast-iron ideas as to how to deal with the rise of far-right sentiment… I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. My only insight is that there is no magic bullet, no shortcut to making these people less appealing, never mind stopping them through the force of moral suasion. I never abandoned my anti-racist views, or stopped being repulsed by their arguments; still, I also knew that I was making no headway. To be the only dissenting voice in an echo-chamber is just to be drowned out yourself. As a result, I was left with an enduring scepticism of the most common pragmatic defence of free speech, that good arguments drive out bad. This is not to say that I don’t agree that free speech has a normative value. Furthermore, I do believe that the practical alternative – governments engaging in wide-ranging restriction of speech – is dangerous and likely counter-productive. It’s just that political discussion, as actually practised, is usually highly prone to logical fallacy and almost antagonistic to data. The last few years have proved ample examples of this process in action.
I am particularly resistant to the notion, held by some liberals, that engagement with racists and Islamophobes will convert them. That simply isn’t how human psychology works – there is even evidence that an individual confronting facts contradicting their pre-existing beliefs will hold onto them more strongly than ever. We are not as naïve about jihadists, who we know will not be won over by superior arguments from Islam. Rather, the process of deradicalisation is generally a long one, and often reliant on changing personal circumstances (marriage, employment, new friends) rather than intellectual challenge. The analogy is not a bad one. I would suggest that, as extremism is in part a social phenomenon, major content platforms such as Twitter have a responsibility to create and enforce community standards to break down this ongoing reinforcement of hate, apart from its restrictions on harassment of other users. None of that will change minds immediately, and many will find alternative platforms on the Wild West that is the Internet; but it will offer an opportunity for the less hardened to break from the echo chamber.
But more than anything, I draw this ominous conclusion: that, before Trump or Farage were household names, the radical right was always there. Liberals who bemoan the loss of a tolerant, open Great Britain, are both right and wrong. They’re right that our politics has become more insular, suspicious, and welcoming to xenophobic and outright racist views in the last few years, and that the Brexit referendum campaign, dominated by scaremongering about fifty million Turks, was a particularly grim Rubicon moment. However, those sympathetic to the far right have always been there; more importantly, so have the media outlets supporting them that are as British as roast beef. It’s not a bubble, it’s not going to go away, and in fact it was always here to some extent. There is a part of England that is forever the Today programme message board circa 2006, and it’s only when those who oppose the far-right engage with this reality that we can begin to make progress.