This week's focus is the increasingly visible anti-lockdown movement in the UK
Many of the themes we have observed previously remain salient this week. Critique of the NHS and anti-East Asian racism remain common across the far right but one topic has received especially much attention this week; anti-lockdown protests.
Last weekend saw another protest in Central London, with attendees gathering on the South Bank and attempting to march to Parliament Square before being halted by police on Westminster Bridge. Footage showed the hundred or so marchers chanting “Arrest Bill Gates!” (a chant also heard at similar protests in Sydney the next day), and banners indicated a strong showing from anti-vaxx and conspiratorial elements. The pro-conspiracy theorist media platform London Real had encouraged its followers to attend.
A round of mass-gatherings has been announced for Saturday 16 May, with online flyers for over 60 different locations being posted across social media. It is unclear how many of these will actually take place, as the vast majority appeared to have been hastily edited from the original advert for the Hyde Park gathering.
Rumours on Twitter that the events were being organised by either Jayda Fransen, ex-deputy leader of Britain First, or the UK Freedom Movement run by Richard Inman are both incorrect. Jayda Fransen’s new organisation is called the British Freedom Movement, and while it has been campaigning against what she calls “tyrannical policing” during the lockdown (see last week’s briefing), neither her own channels nor the British Freedom Movement website has given any endorsement of the protests. Richard Inman has also distanced himself from the event.
It seems most likely that the protests were linked to a new, heavily conspiracy-oriented Facebook group of the same name that has since been removed from the platform, where the protests were promoted, although we have not been able to pinpoint the original creator.
While the protests are not explicitly far-right, there are distinctly far-right elements to many conspiracy theories and any movements that have conspiracy theories at their heart will inevitably attract a far-right crowd. Moreover, even the less conspiracy-minded wing of the far right may choose to ally themselves with this movement on the basis of shared antipathy to the establishment.
A number of small but fast-growing anti-lockdown groups have emerged on social media in the past few weeks. It is notable how diverse the people leading the groups appear to be, with some groups moderated entirely by vegan activists, others by committed Brexiteers and still others by full-blown conspiracy theorists. While many members of these groups are simply advocating for a loosening of lockdown on the basis of economic necessity or civil liberties, others are promoting dangerous scientific misinformation, such as that the Coronavirus does not actually exist, or that any future vaccine will be used to sterilise or murder the population. When such conspiracies are present, sadly antisemitism is never far away. References to the New World Order are omnipresent in some anti-vaccine oriented groups, and some group members are quick to direct people towards antisemitic books and websites, including the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
An illustration of the diversity of opinions found in many lockdown groups could be clearly seen when a member of one group with over 4000 members posted a photo of a mural that compared frontline NHS staff to British WWII soldiers. The majority of comments agreed that it was offensive and inappropriate to compare NHS staff to the heroes of WWII. But a minority of members were vocal in asserting that neither NHS staff nor the Allied forces were fighting on the side of good. “I dont give a shit about either” said one member, “they’re both working for elite Satanists”. A number of Holocaust deniers took the opportunity to promote the idea that British troops had been “fooled about the enemy they were fighting”, with one member stating “6 million Jews was totally a lie, just like we are being lied to about the covid 19 statistics”.
Anti-Muslim activists unite around anti-lockdown narrative
Strength of opposition to the lockdown has been highest among a particular demographic of the far right: anti-Muslim activists. Jayda Fransen, Paul Joseph Watson, Katie Hopkins and Gerard Batten have all come out strongly against the lockdown and share their islamophobic focus commonly present in their activism.
This can be understood as an opportunistic decision aiming to gather as much interest as possible in a time when the coronavirus dominates the media. However, it is not entirely surprising that that the anti-Muslim movement, which aside of its Islamophobic rhetoric has portrayed themselves as freedom fighters and free speech activists as a way to legitimise their hateful ideas, now focus on the social distancing regulation. The anti-lockdown position fits well into their common populist narrative, seeing themselves as underdogs fighting against corrupt elites.
However, there is an obvious contradiction in that many of them have earlier on harshly criticizing Muslims and Jewish people for supposedly being unwilling to abide by the social distancing rules.
Britain First is somehow attempting to hold both positions at the same time, angrily denouncing a video showing young Asian men not following police instructions on social distancing whilst simultaneously requesting that their followers travel en masse to London for the start of Paul Golding’s trial next week.
Katie Hopkins appeared on a webinar with the far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center on Thursday, telling her American audience “what life is like under lockdown in the U.K, why she wishes Brits would be more like Americans, and why socialized healthcare is so toxically lethal”. This latter point forms part of a broader line of attack – criticism of NHS staff and the gratitude shown to them by the British public.