The British public is just as divided and confused over what “extremism” is and how it should be combated as the Government – and as our exclusive polling reveals, that could be a problem for the future.

Taken from issue 43 of HOPE not hate magazine


THE DIFFICULTIES the Government faces in properly understanding, defining and combating extremism are also shared by the British public, a new HOPE not hate poll for this magazine has discovered. 

With the exception of terrorism, there is little consensus around what extremism actually is, as well as around the differing grades of extremism and what should be done about them.

The HOPE not hate poll of 2,010 people, carried out in August by FocalData, found that opinions of extremism were largely shaped by people’s political viewpoints and age. 

Attitudes are fluid, complex and often contradictory

  • Extremism is a subjective issue: opinions often differ depending on personal political views
  • Consequently, there is little consensus around what extremism is, or how to combat it
  • There is also a lack of trust in the Government defining extremism
  • A significant minority (28%) supports potentially breaking the law or even countenancing violence in certain circumstances
  • Freedom of speech and the right to hold extreme ideas are widely supported 
  • People are worried that fake news is undermining democracy and overwhelmingly deny that conspiracy theories are just a bit of fun
  • The vast majority believe social media companies are not doing enough to tackle online extremism, with 77% wanting them to reduce hate on their platforms and 72% thinking they should be held legally responsible for the content they host
  • 78% of people think that community cohesion and building community resilience should be a central part of the Government’s counter-extremism strategy.

Lack of consensus

Asked to select three words/phrases which they most associated with extremism (from a list of 21), only “terrorism” (65%) was chosen by over half of respondents. “Hate” (44%) was the only other option selected by at least a third of respondents. The next three were “racism” (31%), “violence” (29%) and “radical politics” (21%).

There was little difference in responses between genders, though there were some between different age groups and political allegiances. Younger people were more likely to view “racism”, “homophobia”, “sexism” and “discrimination” as signs of extremism than older age groups, but were much less likely to select “intolerance”, being “anti-democratic” or even “terrorism”.

People who voted Conservative in last year’s general election were much more likely to select “terrorism” and “intolerance” as examples of extremism than Labour voters, with the latter group choosing “racism” and “homophobia” at far higher levels than Conservative voters.

Asked to indicate where they saw extremism most manifested, 64% said through “terrorism”, 52% said “hate crime”, and 49% said “religious fundamentalism”. Perhaps surprisingly, only 32% selected “online”. “Street violence” trailed behind at 22% and “disharmony in communities” further back with 18%.

Experiencing extremism 

Few people have directly experienced extremism over the past year, but a significant minority of people say they have witnessed it. 

Only 12% of respondents have experienced views or actions that purposefully damaged community relations or undermined the idea that people from different backgrounds could live together peacefully, though a further 23% had witnessed it. Over half of respondents (58%) have neither experienced nor witnessed it.

Even fewer people (8%) had experienced views promoting, endorsing or supporting extremism, though 24% said that they had witnessed this. One in 10 had directly experienced hate crime, with a further 25% having witnessed it. 

Just five percent (5%) say they have experienced views promoting, endorsing or supporting acts of terrorism or terrorist groups, with slightly more (18%) claiming to have witnessed it. Over two-thirds (70%) have neither experienced or witnessed this at all, though. 

Meanwhile, there was little difference over views promoting, endorsing or supporting the belief that Covid-19 was man-made in order to purposefully cause harm and/or a vaccine would be maliciously used to infect people – 42% have experienced or witnessed this over the past year, with slightly more (49%) saying they had not.

Rigid definitions

One of HOPE not hate’s criticisms of the Government’s counter-extremism strategy is that it is very rigid and narrowly defined. Its current definition is at odds with what people think, their subjective take on extremism and how it sometimes contradicts their own views.

The Government’s 2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy says that extremism is:

…the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. 

“We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.”

Central to the Government’s definition is supporting the rule of law, but our poll finds views here are a lot more fluid and multilayered. 

Even as people are concerned with extremism, there are also occasions when they believe that tactics the police and politicians would consider extremist are justified. For example, over half of people (54%) believe that non-violent civil disobedience is sometimes necessary to get the attention of those in power, with just 21% disagreeing. 

While younger people and those who voted Labour, Green, SNP and the Brexit Party feel this more strongly, there is still widespread support for civil disobedience among more conservative sections of society. Just under half of over-65s (48%) say civil disobedience is sometimes necessary, as do 44% of those who voted Conservative.

Attitudes to violence are also blurred when seen through the prism of a person’s beliefs. Just over a quarter of people (28%) agree that “in extreme circumstances, violence can be necessary to defend something you strongly believe”, though in this case 50% disagree.

Age and education

Young people have much more relaxed views to violence, with 43% of 18-24 year olds and 42% of 25-34 year olds believing that violence is justified in extreme circumstances. Conversely, only 12% of those over-65 feel the same.

People with higher educational levels are more likely to find violence acceptable than those with lower levels, with some differences among different voting groups, too: with 39% of those who voted Labour in 2019 agreeing, compared to 29% of Conservative voters.

We also asked a question we have asked numerous times before, about attitudes to violence connected with protests against proposals for a mosque in someone’s local area. A quarter of people say that violence or the threat of violence makes no difference to whether they would support or oppose a plan to build a mosque in their local community. 

Free speech, extreme views 

The Government’s rigid approach is also at odds with the how people view the importance of free speech and holding alternative views. 

Almost half of respondents (44%) believe that having extreme views does not necessarily make them extremist. Only 25% disagreed.

Likewise, 58% of people think it is not a crime to dislike or even hate. Only 14% of people disagree.

The complexity of defining extremism and what constitutes extremist ideas are shown when respondents were given a series of statements and asked to tick any they thought were extremist. 

Only half of people thought that “Black people have a lower IQ than white people” was an extreme statement. Even fewer (41%) believed that “The scale of the Holocaust has been deliberately exaggerated to make people more sympathetic to Israel” was extreme. 

Meanwhile, only 26% of respondents said that the statement “Multiculturalism will always fail, because different communities are too different from one another” was extreme.

Political views

Responses by political affiliation were mixed. Only 18% of Conservative voters thought that the statement “Abortion should be made illegal” was extreme, compared to 35% of Labour voters. Likewise, 41% of Conservatives thought that “Black people have a lower IQ than white people” was an extreme statement, compared to 55% of Labour voters.

However, it is among Brexit Party voters that the differences become really stark. Only 24% believed that “Black people have a lower IQ than white people” was an extreme statement, while 23% believed the same for the phrase “The scale of the Holocaust has been deliberately exaggerated to make people more sympathetic to Israel”.

There were also big discrepancies when asked to rate a series of organisations as extremist, with Conservative voters much more likely to view progressive and radical groups as extremist, whereas Labour voters were quicker to label right-wing groups.

For example, over half of Tory voters view Black Lives Matter as extremist, compared to just a third of Labour voters, while twice as many Tory voters view Extinction Rebellion as extremist compared to Labour voters.

Banning views risks a backlash

Attitudes to free speech need to be understood by the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement. Two-thirds of people strongly support free speech, with only the advocacy of terrorism and violence proving to be barriers to such absolute freedom.

This polling is a timely reminder that we cannot simply ban views we do not like without risking a potential backlash from the public. With the far right successfully adopting the free speech mantle over the last few years, we need to defend free speech, but highlight and frame its limits. 

We also need to do more to develop additional counter-narratives to simply banning views and actions we do not like but do not, in of themselves, promote violence. We might complain about the Right using “cancel culture” to attack liberalism, but we have often made it easy for them.

Lack of trust 

Part of the Government’s problem in winning the public’s support for its counter-extremism strategy is that people do not have a great deal of trust in it when deciding how to define extremism.

Only 14% of people strongly trust the Government to determine what extremism is, with another 35% partially trusting them. Over a quarter of people do not trust the Government, with the remainder unsure.

Age is again a key determiner, with young people less likely to trust the Government, and older people are more likely. Unsurprisingly, political allegiance is also a factor, with 65% of those who voted Conservative last year trusting the Government to define extremism, compared to just 41% of Labour voters. Meanwhile, 38% of Labour voters and 13% of Conservative voters have no trust in the Government defining extremism.

This low trust probably reflects deeper issues of wider political (dis-)trust. While there is universal support for the electoral system, with 68% agreeing that voting is the best way to have your voice heard by those in power and just 15% disagreeing, there is an equally strong perception that the political system is broken.

As the Government moves to update its Counter-Extremism Strategy, it needs to genuinely consult with people, even those with differing views, and develop a strategy to explain its decisions. Simply rolling out another narrowly-defined and rigid definition will at best fail to deliver the results it wants, and at worst be counter-productive.

Community relations

The British public strongly believes that “improving relations between different communities must be central to any counter-extremist strategy”. Over two-thirds of people (70%) agree with this statement, with only 5% disagreeing.

While the Government will certainly mention the important role communities must play in defeating extremism, this risks being empty rhetoric if it is not backed up by real funding and a change in mindset. A counter-extremism strategy that appears to be overwhelmingly focused around law-and-order, with definitions of extremism and rules being decided without consultation or community buy-in, will fail.

The belief in a more inclusive approach to counter-extremism is illustrated by the responses to questions about what should be done and how community relations can be improved. While people were keen for social media companies and the police to do more, they also wanted improved education in schools and more positive community initiatives “to bring people from different backgrounds together so they can get to know one another”.

Once again, speaking English was seen by many people as a key requisite for improving community relations, with 37% of people selecting it as one of their three policy “chooses” from a list of 19 options.

Seeking common ground 

Age and political views shaped the priorities of the respondents here. Young people and those who voted Labour and Lib Dem in 2019 more heavily supported community-based initiatives, while older people and those who voted Conservative overwhelming backed more law-and-order approaches.

The one area of common ground across most demographic and political groups was the failure of social media companies to adequately tackle online hate and extremism. 

Forty percent (40%) of people claim that they regularly come across extremism online, while 50% say that they are worried about the amount of extremist content online. 

While a quarter (28%) believed it was right for those over 18 to view extremist material on the internet if they chose to do so, more (41%) disagreed. There were some interesting differences of opinion among age groups, which probably reflect differences in attitudes to freedom of speech and censorship. 

Younger people were much more likely to hold the view that people should be allowed to view extremist material if they chose, compared to older people – 13% of 25-34 year-olds strongly agree and a further 22% partially agree, compared to just four percent (4%) and 17% of over-65s, respectively. 

The role of social media

Over three quarters of people (77%) think that “social media companies should do more to reduce hate on their platforms”, with just six percent (6%) disagreeing. Almost as many (72%) believe that “social media companies should be held legally responsible for the content on their sites”.

While age again is a factor, with older people more strongly believing that social media companies need to act and be held accountable, young people also feel strongly about the issue. Two thirds of 18-24 year olds think that social media companies needed to do more (with just 9% 

disagreeing), and 52% that these companies should be held legally responsible (with 14% disagreeing).

Age is also a major determinant in attitudes to fake news and conspiracies. While 68% of all respondents believe that fake news undermines democracy, only 45% of 18-24 years agree (compared to 83% of over-65s).

While only 20% of people think that conspiracy theories are “just harmless fun”, this jumps to 34% among 18-24 year olds. Conversely, while 75% of over-65s disagree with this statement, just 32% of 18-24 year olds feel the same.

Perceptions of Muslims

Much of the current criticism of Prevent and other elements of the Government’s counter-extremism approach is its unfair targeting of Muslims. 

While the poll did not ask specific questions about the Government’s Prevent or Channel programmes (part of its counter-terror strategy) – we felt knowledge of these programmes was too limited to get meaningful results beyond public perceptions – we did explore how people felt Muslims were treated by a range of range of institutions and within society at large. 

Most people believe that Muslims are dealt with fairly by the Government, the police, schools and courts. The one area where people think that Muslims are more likely to be treated unfairly is in the media. 

These figures are quite different from the experiences of most Muslims and once again age is a key determiner. Only 1% of people over-65 think that Muslims are treated very unfairly by the Government, schools and courts, with this figure rising to three percent (3%) with the police. Conversely, 47% of 18-24 year olds feel Muslims are unfairly treated by the police, with 42% believing the opposite.

That said, over half of respondents (54%) feel that Islamophobia is a problem in Britain, with 34% disagreeing. Responses to this question differ depending on one’s political views, with 46% of Conservative voters believing Islamophobia is a problem, and 43% thinking it is little or no problem. Meanwhile, 65% of Labour voters think it is a problem, with 27% thinking it is not. Only seven percent (7%) of Labour voters think it’s not a problem at all, with 13% of Tories holding the same view.

The complex future

This polling demonstrates the complexities of defining extremism and coming up with solutions. The public’s views are often nuanced, multi-layered and even contradictory. While no Government is ever going to produce a strategy that pleases everyone, a rigid and narrow definition, especially one that primarily focuses on law-and-order solutions, will not be accepted by huge swathes of the population. 

Likewise, the internet and social media has altered our perceptions of extremism, freedom of speech and regulation, and ignoring this when developing a strategy risks alienating – and potentially criminalising – those under 40 who view things very differently from older generations.

FocalData asked 2010 people in a national representative sample of society, weighted by age, gender and region between 7-11 August 2020.