The UK far-right has experienced a marked transition in the past decade from parliamentary to more extra-parliamentary forms of activism. Initially expressed in the form of street protest movements in the late 2000s and early 2010s, signs of vigilantism and terror groupuscules have now been added to mix as the UK far-right transforms into a more fractured, post-organisational phase of movement development. Predominantly focused on anti-Muslim forms of mobilisation since the early 2000s, the UK far-right experienced a shift back to more biologically racist themes in the summer of 2020 as a result of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in June.
One group that has typified this trend is Patriotic Alternative (PA), a relatively new UK far-right activist organisation lead by Mark Collett and Laura Towler. Founded in November 2019, the group has engaged in activities mainly restricted to stickering, vlogging, and ‘prepper’-type outdoors activities. Most concerning, however, is the profile of its leaders and its discourse of ‘white marginalisation’ and ‘white lives matter’. A former leader of the neo-fascist British National Party’s (BNP) publicity wing, Collett, for example, has referred in the past to homosexuals as ‘AIDS monkeys’, declared his admiration for Adolf Hitler and called asylum seekers ‘cockroaches.’ Moreover, PA’s deputy leader and Defend Evropa blogger, Towler has recently written a series on the website about so-called ‘white genocide’, and talks in favour of declaring white people as indigenous. This GNET Insight will cover the online activism of one of the UK’s most recent far-right extra-parliamentary organisations – uncovering its particular form of biologised racism, modus operandi, and use of online propaganda to reach new, non-aligned audiences.
Online-Offline Dynamics of Patriotic Alternative’s Activism
Much has been already written on Patriotic Alternative’s unique style of activism and online politics. One of the first of these writings was Hope Not Hate’s profile of the group that noted that early attempts to develop the group’s reach were largely focused on building their online presence through their active blog – after which they turned to taking their activities offline through a number of conferences, a ‘White Lives Matter’ stickering campaign and leaflet campaigns in the North West of England.
Despite their main Facebook and Instagram accounts (with 16,864 likes for the former) being deplatformed on 10 February 2021, the group still has a significant and active following on mainstream, dark and alternative social media platforms (Twitter (10,900 followers), Telegram (4,056 subscribers), and Gab (989 followers)). Forming a trend among other global far-right groups, Patriotic Alternative’s main Twitter account encourages followers to register at their website in case of further deplatforming attempts.
Baking Contests, Film Nights and White Nationalist Grievance Politics
What is perhaps most surprising about the group’s online activism is the sheer banality of content. Advertising baking contests, film nights and video game sessions (alongside pieces of strategic propaganda around news events), the group appears to be capitalising on lockdown isolation through its own community activities. As Cynthia Miller-Idriss notes in her latest book, such acts of banal nationalism should not be dismissed as unimportant to such movements – forming a sense of belonging and identity and also lowering the barrier of entry for new recruits into white nationalist circles. Indeed, it was only several years ago that the former leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, turned his hand to such edible extremism to buoy his ailing leadership, and notably PA’s website also (!) has a similar recipe for beef stew.
Digging a bit deeper, the concerning key narratives present across Patriotic Alternative’s website and social media channels is a sense of white victimhood and ethnic threat that we have seen mobilised by the global far-right in reaction to the Black Lives Matters movement. Posts on its Twitter, Gab and Telegram pages are littered with grievance politics around a conspiratorial ‘anti-white agenda’, notions of ‘white guilt’ and stories of white marginalisation. Indeed, and according to its website, PA’s main aim is to raise awareness around “the demographic decline of native Britons in the United Kingdom, the environmental impact of mass immigration and the indoctrination and political bias taking place in British schools.”
Another key and novel aspect of PA’s discourse is the weaving of ecological narratives and imagery into its online presence. Whether it is organised walks, pictures of rolling scenery or pictures of wildlife, the aim of such idyllic countryside scenery is for strategic diversity-phobic implications. Its focus on a “re-imagined notion of [pastoral] yester year” airbrushes minarets, Mosques and Muslim centres out of its idyllic English pastoralism – with one PA Twitter post on 13 February adding: “We will do everything we can to ensure our sons, daughters & our grandchildren will live a healthy life in our homeland. #WeWillNotBeReplaced.”
Front-Facing vs. Back-Facing Social Media: The Quest for Acceptability
Unlike the online presence of many other UK far-right organisations in the past (e.g. BNP, EDL and Britain First), Patriotic Alternative do not seem to differentiate between the content posted on their different social media platforms – simul-posting the same content across both mainstream, alternative and dark social media. What is however noticeable is the difference in the prominence of ideologically rich content on their website versus social media, which tends to contain a more dilute version of the group’s neo-fascistic ideology. For example, the group’s Twitter description loosely states the aims of the group as “[d]efending the rights of our people.” However, and when compared to the contents of PA’s blog and ‘about us’ page, it is clear who the ‘people’ are in this framing: ‘indigenous’ white Britons. This front-stage (i.e. social media) versus back-stage (i.e. website) presentation has a rich seam in British far-right organisations. In the case of one of Patriotic Alternative’s predecessors, the anti-Islamic protest organisation of the English Defence League, researchers have notably found that posts on front-facing media channels at least “attempt to make distinctions between ‘moderate Muslims’ and what is usually termed ‘radical Islam’’’ whereas more back-facing, activist focused platforms typically characterised the Islamic faith as a whole as “inherently violent and threatening” and did not rely on the “more careful tenor” of its more public-facing, mainstream channels.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The emergence of Patriotic Alternative on the UK far-right has certainly caught the attention of extremism researchers and observers due to their overtly biologised forms of racial ideology and their ability to attract key recruits from other far-right organisations (e.g. leaders of the EDL, UK Yellow Vests and other international far-right organisations have appeared at their events and conferences). Indeed, some groups have even suggested that they might have the potential to unite the UK far-right movement behind an anti-BLM banner. Whilst such predictions may be premature, the reach and savviness of the organisation in presenting itself on social media has been under appreciated until now. More specifically, PA’s ability to serve up a more banal form of racial nationalism – through community events, bake-offs and gaming sessions – points to a softer form of recruitment that reduces the barriers to entry by non-aligned individuals. A lesson for policymakers and tech companies here is the ability to interdict such ‘softer’ attempts at recruitment without infringing human rights and dialing down their social media presence – either through bans or demoting such extremist leaning content. Such ‘borderline’ content is however a tricky nettle to grasp – and is one that needs to be dealt with delicately in order not to incur potentially more harmful backfire effects.