The truth about Corbyn supporters’ Facebook groups

2,000 abusive messages are too thousand too many. Is there any more to be said? It seems there might be.

Wendy Patterson
5 April 2018

Corbyn Hate Factory poster. Some rights reserved.On April 1, The Sunday Times published its front page article with the headline ‘Exposed: Jeremy Corbyn’s hate factory’ and stated that ‘The most comprehensive investigation conducted into 20 of the biggest pro-Corbyn Facebook groups — numbering 400,000 members — found routine attacks on Jewish people, including Holocaust denial’. 

Included in that sentence is a link to another article published at the same time in the Times claiming that ‘Anti-semitic and Holocaust-denying posts are rife on Facebook groups cheerleading for Labour’s leader’. The article goes on to say that ‘The dossier was compiled over two months by whistleblowers working with The Sunday Times in the groups, who gained access to restricted membership groups. They uncovered more than 2,000 racist, antisemitic, misogynistic, violent and abusive messages.’

In the rest of the short article examples are given of the ‘messages’ (this must mean posts or comments within the groups) they had uncovered. I condemn the examples given as abhorrent and dangerous as I do all hate speech wherever it occurs.

Responding to these charges

I was pleased to accept an invitation by Jewish Voices For Labour to write an article on this issue and feel I am qualified to do so because I have been running my Corbyn supporters’ group called ‘I’m backing Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister’ since August 2015. I am also a member of a number of other Corbyn supporters’ FB groups. My own group has 24k+ members ; as such it is a medium-sized group and I assume it is one of the 20 groups referred to in the article but as only two groups are named in the article I cannot be certain of this.

Firstly, I would like to address the claims made in the Sunday Times and the Times that within these groups there are ‘routine attacks on Jewish people, including Holocaust denial’ and that such attacks are ‘rife’.  The investigation uncovered 2000 incidents of ‘racist, antisemitic, misogynistic, violent and abusive messages’; this means that antisemitic incidents were fewer than 2000, probably a lot fewer but a breakdown is not provided. As a percentage of all the posts and comments on 20 of the largest groups, 2000 represents less than 0.05% of the total content on these groups. 

This figure is based on the number of posts and comments on posts in my medium-sized group each day multiplied by the number of days the group has been in existence (2.7 years). A conservative estimate is that the total number of posts and comments across all 20 groups is 4 million. This means that 99.95% of content is not problematic in any way. Taking into account the antisemitic content identified was less than 2000 incidents, and therefore less than 0.05%, we can see that the claim that antisemitic messages are routine or rife on these groups could not be further from the truth.

This fact about the content of Corbyn supporters’ groups means that antisemitism is non-existent within more than 99.95% of content and is impossible to find on the groups unless you conduct a 2 month investigation specifically searching for antisemitism. So any attempt to smear by association any members of these groups is clearly unwarranted, as the likelihood of group members seeing this material is very low indeed.

I hope that research into other political Facebook groups with respect to racist, antisemitic, misogynistic, violent and abusive content has been undertaken and published but I very much doubt that it will make the news.

All Facebook users know that hate speech and abuse occurs on this platform, as it does on Twitter and other social media platforms. As a responsible Facebook user, I have reported many incidents of hate speech directly to Facebook; these were not on pro-Corbyn or Labour groups but elsewhere on the platform. 

FB have responded to all my complaints, with the exception of one, telling me that what I have reported does not contravene their community standards and will not be removed. The type of racist abuse and hate speech inciting violence I have reported is truly abhorrent and dangerous and I cannot understand how FB could possibly decide it met their standards.

Around the time that Jo Cox was murdered I saw a comment on a Far Right FB group local to me which called all remain voters traitors who should be hung, drawn and quartered.  I reported this to my Police and Crime Commissioner who acted very quickly and I was very pleased by the action taken by the local police force in relation to this incident. All Facebook users have a duty to report hate speech and if Facebook will not act responsibly then we must report to other bodies who will take action.

How are Facebook pages administered?

Given that hate speech is a serious problem on Facebook, how have 'admins' of Corbyn supporters’ groups managed to ensure that 99.95% of their content is free of this scourge?

All groups have admins who are responsible for the content of their groups. I am one of 5 admins on my group. We work as a team and continually discuss all aspects of our admin work on our messenger group; this includes the screening of new member requests, taking action on reported problematic posts and comments (there is a button for this on all posts), monitoring of posts and comments, mediating in debates between members which are developing into displays of aggression or personal insult, removing members who have contravened the rules of our group.

We refer to rules as our ‘Corbyn standards’ of zero tolerance for racism, antisemitism, sexism, homophobia, all discriminatory language or personal abuse. The vast majority of transgressions relate to personal abuse and occur in debates between members and it is very rare that we have a problem with the contravention of the other rules. Of course, given the number of posts and comments which are made 24 hours a day, it is impossible for the admin team to check each and every one. This is why we encourage our members to report them so that they too play their part in helping to ensure nothing problematic slips in.

We also have a FB group specifically for admins of Corbyn groups where we share best practice, alert each other to problematic posts or members in order to ensure that a problem occurring on one group does not arise in the other groups. There are currently 84 admins in this group who are all dedicated to ensuring that our groups do not contain any hate speech and that we do not inadvertently admit people to our groups who are masquerading as Corbyn supporters to gain entry for nefarious purposes.

It all sounds like very hard work doesn’t it, and you may well be asking why on earth anyone would voluntarily spend their time being an admin on a Corbyn supporters’ group?  Well, I started my group in August 2015 to support Corbyn in the first Labour leadership contest and I am very proud of the contribution my group has made to the huge increase in Labour Party members and voters and of the part we played in the 2017 General Election campaign which delivered such a fantastic result for the Labour.  

On the day the General Election was called we had 7.5k members and by the time the polling stations opened we had over 24k. During the election campaign we were screening up to 400 new member requests per day, encouraging all our members to join the party and to share our campaigning posts setting out policies from the LP manifesto outside of the group to their family and friends. While the general view in the country was that Labour would face a heavy defeat at the polls, we believed that at worst it would be a hung parliament and that we could win. Given two more weeks of campaigning, I am convinced that Labour would now be in power.

Creating a community

In addition to its campaigning function, my group is a place of sanctuary and support for Corbyn supporters. In addition to articles from the mainstream and alternative media, members also post about their own experiences and those of their friends and neighbours and give their opinions on Conservative policies and negative media stories about Corbyn etc.  

For example, members have posted in despair about homeless people in their towns and cities on the coldest nights of the winter and described their attempts to help. Lots of other members immediately comment on such posts with advice on what can be done, the numbers to ring to get help for them, details of the nearest homeless shelters etc.  Members post about their relatives and friends who work in the NHS and have just come from work in a state of complete exhaustion in floods of tears at the impossibility of caring properly for people when the NHS is in crisis. An all too common story tells us about a disabled or very sick person who has been deemed fit for work by the DWP or has had their benefits stopped or been sanctioned for no valid reason. Members respond immediately with advice on how to appeal, advice lines they can call and support groups they can contact.

It is impossible to describe all the ways in which members feel supported within our groups in this short article but I sometimes think that participating in the group can be compared to how I feel on a demonstration against austerity or to save the NHS.  When I go on these demos I find myself within a community of like-minded people fighting the same cause, believing the same things, committed to making life better for everyone and caring enough to stand up and be counted.  Attending a demo nourishes my spirit, restores my optimism for the future and strengthens my resolve such that I can continue to fight the good fight. Corbyn supporters’ FB groups provide a similar community for thousands of people who are not able to attend demos or access other support networks offline and really value the groups as a constant source of reassurance that they are not going mad when they hear the news or read the mainstream press.

Highly creative, humorous and ironic posts are commonplace on Corbyn groups. Here is one very early response to the Sunday Times article: [see the image at the top of this article]. Of course all is not cosy and comfortable in Corbyn FB groups. Members are very, very angry about Tory policies and the state of the NHS, the housing crisis, cuts to education, poverty pay, the persecution of the sick and disabled and all the other ways in which people are suffering dreadfully under this government. They do not hold back on that anger when they express their views. We only intervene when our rules on language use are broken and we do not object to swearing.

We delete any comments that could be interpreted as inciting violence against anyone. Members are also absolutely furious with Labour MPs who attack Corbyn and brief against him. Very many people hold those Labour MPs directly responsible for the fact that Labour is not in power now. Consequently I think it is true to say that posts about the Tories, about anti-Corbyn MPs and about Tony Blair usually attract the most comments and the most angry and intemperate ones.

I hope I have been able to give readers who know nothing about Corbyn supporters’ FB groups a good idea about what they are, how they function and how rigorously they are monitored. Readers who would like to know more are very welcome to join my group (assuming you pass our screening process of course!).

The media frenzy about antisemitism in these groups totally misrepresents them and a great injustice is being carried out. In our groups when we despair at the latest attack on Corbyn and the lies and smears that are soaked up by the media and spewed out again in ever greater numbers, we tell ourselves that while ever Jeremy can stand it, so can we.

This article was first published on Jewish Voice For Labour on April 2, 2018. Sincere thanks to my co-Admin Lee Nixon for editing advice and image production, April 2, 2018.

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