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Did Brexit benefit the far-right?

Submitted by on 29 Sep 2016 – 09:00

Monitoring and analysing the rise in followership of Britain’s far-right groups on Twitter, Melanie Smith, Researcher, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, notes that these extremist groups will continue to sow discord and disharmony, both online and offline

Since the Brexit vote on the 23rd of June, British police, NGOs and researchers have been exploring the impact of the campaign and election result on the rise of racist and xenophobic incidents. The police reported a fivefold increase in reports of hate crime in the five days following the announcement of the vote. In addition to the shocking and tragic murder of Jo Cox MP, there were reports of threatening phone calls to minority community centres, numerous Islamophobic attacks, and Polish families receiving flyers reading ‘Leave the EU, no more Polish vermin.’

Despite the increased media focus on xenophobia and racism, there has been little or no research published on whether the Brexit campaign and vote have actually resulted in a measurable increase in support for far-right street movements or political parties in the UK. Between the 28th May and 28th June, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) analysed the social media accounts of several influential UK far-right groups to investigate how these events have impacted their support.

Researchers analysed the official twitter accounts of the British National Party (BNP), the English Defence League (EDL), Aryan Revolution UK, Britain First and British Unity. Despite the vast differences in output, popularity and political tone between these groups, some uniform trends were identified.

Firstly, all five movements gained followers over this period; Britain First’s Twitter account saw the largest increase with 15%, followed by Aryan Revolution UK and the EDL, with 13% and 5% respectively. Britain First’s 15% increase saw a significant upturn in the days after the murder of Jo Cox, with another, more gradual increase following the EU Referendum result.

While followership does not always equal endorsement, these five groups and movements have all gained potential exposure through their new followers’ networks. This exposure can in turn impact the reach of far-right and anti-immigrant material, for example Britain First’s 15% followership increase resulted in a 291% increase in potential impressions for their content. This type of exposure can also galvanise potential offline support and activity.

Our analysis revealed that despite the rise in female engagement with extremist movements, the vast majority of contributors to the conversation surrounding these groups are middle-aged males. Geographical analysis showed that North West, Yorkshire & the Humber and Greater London residents – all regions with large migrant communities – dominate the discourse around British Unity.

ISD also observed that the use of derogatory xenophobic terms between April and June showed a continued focus on anti-Muslim or Islamophobic sentiment. Research into Islamophobic crime over the course of several years does indicate rapidly escalating levels of verbal and physical abuse, including a 300% increase in ‘offline’ incidents in 2015.   However, our analysis revealed that terms such as ‘gypsy’, ‘poles’ and ‘paki’ became more prominent towards the end of the data collection period, perhaps indicating a surge inspired by the referendum. The rise of these derogatory terms online was mirrored in recent official reports, coupled with incidents reported through hashtags like #PostRefRacism and #PostBrexitRacism, which indicated a surge in hate crime toward ethnically Polish, Romanian and Greek communities.

Perhaps most interestingly, our analysis revealed that there were large spikes in derogatory terms around May 6th-7th, the date of the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London, but the greatest spike occurred around the 12th of June, the day of the terrorist attack in Orlando. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the far-right often exploits Islamist-inspired attacks – as well as presenting events such as the election of Mayor Khan as examples of ‘Islamisation’ – to shape and disseminate their propaganda.

While the long-term effects of the vote to Leave the EU on the activities of UK far-right groups remain to be seen, the events that took place between the 28th of May and the 28th of June appeared to measurably increase support for the online presences of these movements. With growth in followership and potential impressions, comes increased visibility for groups like Britain First, British Unity and the BNP, thus enacting a feedback loop where exposure often leads to general – if slight – increases in support.

Managing diversity and integration is one of the biggest challenges currently facing governments throughout Europe. Failure to cope with these challenges is debatably at the root of the Brexit vote, and is reflected in the rise of xenophobic speech, hate crime, and the online followership of far-right groups. However, these challenges will not be solved simply by leaving the European Union and closing borders. Far-right groups will continue to sow discord and disharmony, both online and offline. While monitoring xenophobia is essential, understanding if and how these sentiments translate into support for these movements is vital to preventing the rise of far-right groups in the UK.