From Cable Street to Cable Broadband

Daniel MacArthur-Seal
6 October 2009

The summer of 2009 was host to a wave of violence and protest organised by the far right in Britain, leading Communities Secretary John Denham to draw comparisons with the fascist agitation of the 1930s that culminated in the Battle of Cable Street. Recent months have seen the arrest of two lone individuals, Neil Lewington and Martyn Gilleard, found to be in possession of homemade explosives. On a larger scale, the emergence of the English Defence League, who coordinated a series of protests ostensibly against Islamic extremism, but which heavily featured less targeted Islamophobic sentiment, has provoked fears of a renewed series of race riots.

Regardless of the politicised nostalgia espoused by the far right, today's right-wing extremists have harnessed the power of Britain's twenty-first century connectivity, making virtual inroads after decades of dormancy. In place of the mass rallies orchestrated by the likes of Albert Speer and feats of propagandistic film making exemplified by the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's A Triumph of the Will, modern day fascism has turned to online forums and viral video.

Members of the far right quickly adapted the newsletters and pamphlets traditional to fringe movements to online formats. After its dissolution in magazine form, Redwatch was founded as prominent website by members of the extreme right, listing the personal details of left wing and anti fascist activists. Websites in their most basic form, as sources of information, were ripe for the expression of age-old fascist grievances such as holocaust denial. The far right's internet presence is continuously expanding, with 163 websites promoting racial or religious hatred listed in Raymond Franklin's compendium of extremist sites, the Hate Directory. One such site, Jewatch, has gained such prominence that it is only displaced from pole position by the Wikipedia entry for the search term "jew"when entered into either Bing or Google search engines.

The recent rise of social networking websites has allowed far right groups and campaigns to gain a profile in a politically neutral environment. Facebook was subjected to a barrage of criticism in May 2009 when its hosting of holocaust denial groups came under scrutiny, several of which were closed by the company as a result. Like many forward-looking campaigning organisations, the English Defence League, who organised demonstrations across England over the summer, has a link from their webpage to their Facebook group. A spokesman for the group claimed in a recent File on Four documentary that the EDL was coordinated by a committee communicating over a secure internet server. The expanding presence of fascism on social networking sites has been coined ‘Hate 2.0' by the Simon Weisenthal centre, a Los Angeles-based Jewish rights organisation.

The extreme right's online presence not only provided a motive for the crimes of Lewington and Gilleard, but also the means, making bomb-making guides and tactical handbooks for fascist terrorists easily available. David Copeland, the nail bomber convicted of planting three deadly explosives in London in 1999, had turned to the internet for information on how to make detonators for his explosive devices, providing a prototype which Lewington and Gilleard would follow. Both had no extensive formal affiliations with far right groups, but felt, thanks to their online interactions, part of a community resisting multiculturalism in Britain. Their arrests indicate an alarming trend, termed ‘broadband terrorism' by the analyst and legal adviser at Lewington's trial, Dr Matthew Feldman.

There has been a widespread failure, Feldman argues, to recognise the extent to which internet access has changed the playing field between the authorities and the extreme right. Whereas the potential of the internet to facilitate the distribution of child pornography has received swathes of coverage, the web based spread of racial hatred has received no such attention, despite the host of renewed possibilities it gives those attempting to heighten racial tensions in Britain.

With a lingering loyalty to a no-platform policy, the response of the political establishment in Britain remains indecisive. Police chiefs have publicly talked down the threat of fascism, despite its apparent revival, warning against giving the movement ‘an oxygen that serves their purpose'. Their views now seem dangerously outdated, ignoring the fact that the far right's rapidly expanding internet profile has, in effect, outflanked the censorship of mainstream media.

Instead, the internet has presented the far right with an arena in which they set the terms of the debate. The confrontation of extreme claims, which would define any BNP appearance in the mainstream media and is likely to animate Nick Griffin's presence on Question Time late this month, is left to rogue comments by internet users with limited credibility.

While national bodies set up to monitor Green activism and Islamism are expanding their purview to target the far right after a summer of violent incidents, far right groups have remained largely immune behind internet firewalls and the anonymity of the web. The only significant point scored against the far right online has been the leaking of BNP membership lists over the internet, a development that seems to have had a limited negative impact on the party.

Thus, while modern communications have been welcomed in many contexts for giving a voice to the voiceless and subsequently strengthening civil society, the use of the internet to spread racial and religious hatred, and the means to violently act in accordance with such sentiments, illustrates the darker potential of internet communication. If the pernicious consequences of fascism's online renaissance cannot be guarded against, the sustenance to civil society provided by online communication may be all but cancelled out. 

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