Far-right activists across Europe are utilising an organised network of Facebook pages and dubious, plagiarised news sites to target British Facebook users with extremist content. Every day, a cluster of 13 Facebook pages with 2.4 million likes between them churns out close to 400 posts – most pushing distorted news articles, far-right memes and adverts for Knights Templar crusader merchandise.
Supplying these Facebook pages with this content is a group of five websites, all hosted on the same server and with the same design and way of working. On an average day, these sites produce more than 40 stories, most hastily cribbed from the right-wing British press or alt-right YouTubers. Each story is then posted on at least one of the Facebook pages, reaching an average potential audience of almost one million people.
This online operation has close links to Jim Dowson, a Christian fundamentalist and anti-abortion campaigner who has a knack for crafting populist right-wing brands with strong followings on Facebook. A founding member of Britain First, Dowson helped put in place a social media strategy that propelled the group to almost two million Facebook likes, more than any other UK political page, despite having just 1,000 members offline. Once a trainee Calvinist minister, Dowson has attached himself to numerous right-wing organisations in the UK, raising millions for the BNP through a call centre in Northern Ireland and later helping set up the Protestant Coalition, a short-lived Ulster loyalist political party.
After leaving Britain First in 2014, Dowson went on to help set up Patriot News Agency, an online media campaign run out of Hungary and Serbia that he claims helped elect Donald Trump to the US presidency. But Patriot News Agency is just one of a network of similar sites hosted on the same server, including British Free Press, This is England, News Bison and News Chicken. Each of these sites, and the Facebook pages that push out their content, espouse the same anti-Muslim message: Europe is in decline and headed towards an all-out war with Islam.
“They are consciously crafting propaganda with the intention of shifting people’s mentalities and bringing them around to their world view,” says Jacob Davey, a researcher at the counter-extremism firm Institute of Strategic Dialogue (IDS). “This shows that there is a concerted effort from these organisations to radicalise and reach new audiences.”
And, as of November 2017, that audience includes US president Donald Trump. On November 29, Trump retweeted three anti-Muslim videos posted by the Britain First deputy-leader Jayda Fransen. The retweets earned Trump the condemnation of Theresa May, and in an interview with Piers Morgan at Davos last month, he said he would apologise for the retweets, “if you’re telling me they’re horrible people, horrible racist people”.
For Britain First, Twitter has always been more of a sideshow, with the vast majority of the group’s online support concentrated on its Facebook page. In the organisation’s early days, it would post about puppies and events such as the death of the actor Lynda Bellingham as a way of bringing more followers into the fold. Although Britain First has partly abandoned this strategy, and now mostly posts anti-Muslim videos of dubious origin, it is still used across the cluster of Dowson-linked Facebook pages, most of them launched between 2014 and 2016.
The content shared by these 13 Facebook pages is designed for maximum shareability – and the strategy is working. On January 18, 2018, there were more than 5,400 shares of posts from these pages. On the same day, the network of sites put out 44 stories which were then posted more than 200 times in total across the related Facebook pages. They included stories about Pope Francis honoring a Dutch abortion activist (originally published on Breitbart), an Italian student auctioning her virginity online (originally published by The Sun) and a video about the Czech presidential elections taken from a far-right YouTube channel called “RedPill Shark”. Most of these stories were copied verbatim from the original sites, sometimes days after the story was originally posted.
“You can’t really call them fake news [stories], what they are is exaggerated and distorted,” says Matthew Collins, director of research at the anti-extremist organisation Hope not Hate. The news stories are carefully selected so that, when taken out of their original context, they fit a narrative that suggests that Christians should prepare themselves to violently defend their religion and that Europe is in a state of political and moral decline. On January 29, the ‘English and Proud’ page posted two news pieces criticising the EU alongside videos called “Can You Own a Taser in the UK?” and “The Limits Of Mass Migration & How To Solve Low Fertility”.
Once they’ve liked the page, users are then bombarded with posts advertising Knights Templar International (KTI), a far-right group that positions itself as defending Christianity against Islam. On an average day, the group, which only allows men to become members, shares almost 100 adverts across the network of Facebook pages, asking people to join for $89 (£63) a year or to purchase capes, mantles and other items of crusader memorabilia.
The Knights Templar International Facebook Page, which is verified and listed as a ‘religious organisation’ has more than 565,000 likes, making it the biggest of the 13 pages which share content originating from the network of dubious news sites. The group’s official webpage is hosted on the same server as those sites, and a company called “Knights Templar International Novus Ordo Militiae Limited” is registered to Marion Thomas, Jim Dowson’s sister-in-law. In October 2016, the International Report of Bigotry and Fascism re-posted a video from the group in which a camo-clad Dowson claims that KTI supplied “a lot of vests and ballistic stuff and drones and night vision [goggles]” to groups of men patrolling the Turkish-Bulgarian border.
“These online channels can be used to gather revenue that may then be channeled towards these dangerous activities,” says Davey. When asked about the Knights Templar International page, a Facebook spokesperson said that it “toes the line” of what is acceptable on the platform, but because the page does not use explicitly hateful language it does not violate Facebook’s guidelines. “We will err on the side of freedom of speech, even when it’s controversial,” the spokesperson added.
Have you been in a coma for a year?” Dowson says when asked on Facebook Messenger whether he is still involved with Knights Templar International, or any of the sites it shares a server with. “I never was really that involved,” he says. “I advise and assist then move on.” On January 12, 2018, Dowson posted a photo of a Knights Templar flag on Gab, a social network popular with the far-right. “REAL Knights Templars Hungary – New standard,” he wrote.
Dowson says he is now working with a international animal rescue NGO, whose name he will not reveal “for VERY obvious reasons”. While he was still with the group, Britain First built its Facebook following by sharing, among other things, images of abused animals, urging its followers to share the post to stop the cruelty. “[Dowson’s] style is all about shareable memes, social media graphics and understanding algorithms,” says Tony McMahon, a consultant on counter-extremism. In 1999, Dowson helped set up The Life League, an anti-abortion group that gained a reputation for encouraging its members to send photos of aborted fetuses to hospitals. “I think what [Dowson] learned from the anti-abortion campaigns is the power of images, “ McMahon adds.
Dowson insists that he has never set up any news sites and does not work for any site, feeds or platforms. He was stopped from returning to Hungary in May 2017 after the Hungarian Immigration Authority declared Dowson an undesirable individual in the country. Because of this, his influence over the online media operation may have waned, says Collins. Nevertheless, Collins says that the operation is still run by a team of six or ten people, plus volunteers, based between Budapest and Belgrade. “He found people who are running his operations for him who know exactly the way he wants things distorted,” he says.
Despite their likely Eastern European connections, the Facebook pages are directed squarely at British Facebook users. They have names like “English and Proud” (322,600 likes), “I Am Proud To Wear My Poppy” (250,000 likes) and “Make St. Georges Day a Public Holiday” (17,380 likes). Confusingly, “English and Proud” is listed as a London gay bar in its Facebook page description. It frequently shares homophobic news stories from the site “British Free Press”. Another page called “Lionheart GB” is listed as a halal restaurant. It mostly shares adverts for Knights Templar International, and memes directing people towards a petition to get Donald Trump to start building his proposed border wall between the US and Mexico.
But some of the most popular posts are neither political nor religious in nature. “How do you like your steak? Comment below”, reads one post on the “British Freedom” page. Another tactic is to post a photo of a politician with the caption “describe them in two words”. Theresa May, Tony Blair and Obama have all been thrown into this format, which usually brings in hundreds of shares and even more comments. Unlike the alt-right, which frequently targets a younger, tech-savvy audience, this content is aimed at older Facebook users. An analysis of anti-jihadi Facebook groups by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue found that the majority of followers who could be identified were in their forties. “If the base that you’re going after is slightly older and not particularly tech-savvy, Facebook is the platform you’d go for,” Davey says.
But Facebook may be inadvertently making it harder for far-right groups to spread propaganda on the platform. In January, the site announced plans to change how its news feed works, de-prioritising posts from pages in favour of posts from friends and family. In December, Twitter banned Britain First’s official account as well as those of its leader, Paul Golding and deputy leader, Jayda Fransen, as the site tightened up its policies on hate speech. Since then, the group has shifted some of its online support base to Gab, a social media site popular with the alt-right, where the official Britain First page now has 8,400 followers. On January 26, the group posted on Gab directing followers to Golding’s new Twitter account. On Instagram, which is also owned by Facebook, Golding and Fransen have only 5,317 followers between them.
Although these groups may not have a significant offline following – Britain First continually struggles to gather supporters at its public events – we shouldn’t dismiss their online presence, says Alex Krasodomski-Jones, a researcher at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media. “Our online conversations are significant,” he says. “And these kinds of groups are famously early adopters – they have a lot more to gain from these platforms than traditional parties.” Darren Osborne, the man found guilty of murder and attempted murder after deliberately driving a van into a crowd of Muslims outside a London mosque in June 2017, had researched Britain First and other far-right groups online, the jury heard during the trial. Osborne also received a Twitter direct message from Britain First’s deputy leader Fransen in the weeks before his alleged attack.
And despite their lack of traditional influence, these groups might be succeeding at influencing the political conversation in the UK, says Krasodomski-Jones, by pushing what would normally be fringe views into the Facebook feeds of tens of thousands of people. “The number of acceptable viewpoints that are open to be held in the UK is widening.” Ideas that might have seemed radical decades or even just years ago, are starting to make their way into mainstream political discourse. Helped along by algorithms that enable people to find more of the same content, the network of UK-centric, far-right Facebook groups with links to Dowson encompass more than four million likes.
Despite calls from the government for social media sites to up their game when it comes to tackling extremism, it seems that the cluster of far-right sites on Facebook is still swelling. Over the last six weeks, the 13 pages identified in this story have gained an extra 25,000 likes. For now, most of the sites linked to these pages are still active, but several on the same server have been left abandoned for months. But that’s the way these sites work: they go offline and then pop up again with some other variation on the same theme, with a readymade Facebook audience waiting for them.