By now most people will have seen, and probably participated in, the outrage at the anti-lockdown ‘mass gatherings’ that are set to have taken place today in 8 towns and cities across England. The gatherings have been promoted by the UK Freedom Movement, a group of anti vaccine conspiracy theorists who have existed online in some form or another since 2011.
Soon after news of the gatherings broke, an image began to circulate on Twitter of Jayda Fansen, former deputy leader of Britain First and the recent founder of a group called the British Freedom Movement, along with screenshots of a digital flier advertising the mass gatherings and of a Companies House record showing Fransen as the director of a company called Freedom Movement Ltd. The post went viral and was shared uncritically across social media platforms, despite the flimsy evidence presented. To confuse matters further, a different far right group led by Tommy Robinson ally Richard Inman was discovered to have the same name as the anti vaccine UK Freedom Movement, and so was also proposed as an another possible organiser of the gatherings.
In fact neither Fransen nor Inman are behind the mass gatherings. Both have denied any part in the events and have not promoted the events on any social media they control in the run up to today. Before its removal the UK Freedom Movement Facebook group did not promote either the British Freedom Movement or Inman’s UK Freedom Movement, although anti-semitic conspiracy theories were common in the group. Further, the group didn’t share members with either far right organisation and neither Fransen nor Inman were members of the group. Fransen’s British Freedom Movement was founded in April 2020 and Inman founded his group in late 2018.
There are a number of reasons why the story spread the way it did. The initial image told a simple story that fit into an easy narrative and played into fears of far right anti-lockdown protests similar to ones that have taken place in the US and Germany. The mechainisms of sharing information on the internet are also relevant. Despite an avowed commitment from social media companies to tacking fake news, preference is still given to the virality of a post, rather than it’s source. A final contribution was made by the sameness of the names of the organisations involved. The average information consumer would likely not feel need to check further to see if Freedom Movement Ltd and the UK Freedom Movement were different organisations, in fact the similarity of names would be evidence enough. By the time antifascist researchers had properly vetted the story it was too late. Some were even blocked by those on their own side for asking for more evidence for the story!
We will see today just how concerned we should be about the mass gatherings. If the events are of a similar scale to previous lockdown protests then they will have contributed less to the likelihood of a second peak than the colossally stupid VE day street parties. And, no matter how big the mass gatherings are, any damage they do will pale in comparison to the reckless policies of the state, who dragged its feet to institute any suppression measures, oversaw the weakest lockdown in Western Europe and have sought to sacrifice workers in retail, manufacturing and construction for the sake of a cratering economy.
This is not to say that British fascists have not seen opportunity in the Coronavirus crisis. As we discussed in a recent episode of our podcast, crises unsettle the order of what is possible and create openings for the far right to break through, indeed for any politics that goes against the hegemonic ideology. Fransen herself has set up a ‘community care assistance programme’ for ‘ANY Patriot’ citizen’ in an attempt to piggyback off the spontaneous wave of mutual aid groups thatv has sprung up across the country in March and has proposed an advisory service for those who have suffered ‘tyrannical policing’. In his denial of being behind the protests on his website Inman also condemned the lockdown measures as ‘draconian’ and supported ‘the right of all people to freedom of assembly’.
Fascist activists have also started to look beyond the present crisis. Mark Collett, leader of Patriotic Alternative and former head of the youth wing of the BNP, has speculated on the opportunity school closures provide to set up a home schooling network for the children of the far right to keep them safe from the leftist indoctrination of state schools. Collett also decried government lockdown policies in an April video as a ‘soviet style police state’ that is keeping white Britons unemployed while ‘thousands’ of migrants come to the country to work.
On its own, the flurry of misinformation over Jayda Fransen and the UK Freedom Movement doesn’t matter much. There is a need, however, for antifascists to develop a robust system of research and information dissemination that can provide a counterpoint to superficial research spread unquestioningly by viral posts and memes. The rise of open source investigation methods, prevalence of digital organising and saturation of information across databases and platforms has meant anti-fascist research has become easier than ever. But proper investigations go beyond trawling publicly available Telegram groups and searches on Companies House. While there is nothing much to be done about misinfomation on the internet, anti-fascist groups are most effective when basing their activity on strong fact checked research.
In the coming year this country will almost certainly suffer a savage economic downturn in which millions will lose their incomes and thousands will be made homeless or be left to rely on an already overstretched patchwork system of charity, mutual aid and food banks. The politics of Coronavirus are with us for the long term, and anti-fascists need to adjust to a new reality in which conditions of desperation will prove fertile ground for fascists to grow.