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Monday 9 September 2019

digital democracy

Fake roots

Astroturfing – the covert orchestration of apparently spontaneous activism – is going digital in the Brexit crisis

By Xavier Greenwood

Three years on from the EU referendum vote, it feels like we are no closer to a resolution. Westminster is in crisis, traditional party loyalties are being smashed apart, and sooner rather than later voters will be called to the ballot box once again.

Out of this never-ending chaos it might seem, from some of Facebook’s most active political groups, that frustrated pro-Brexit activism has been springing up organically from all directions.

There’s Brexit HQ (12,247 members), The Brexit Central HQ: Public (1,101 members), Jacob Rees-Mogg Appreciation Group (22,324 members), The British People United (812 members), Boris Johnson Appreciation Group (849 members), We are the British People (4,632 members), The Brexit Party: Supporters (1,411 members), and even Sack Remain Rebels From Parliament (1,888 members).

Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg before a press conference in May 2016

But they share more than just political sentiment. They all have the same moderators, admins and creators. What looks like disparate groups of alienated Brexiteers turns out to be a far more orchestrated and opaque operation.

“Astroturfing” is the process of political actors with vested interests coordinating to resemble organic support. It has historically involved corporations and big-money interests. But the Internet is redefining it. All you need now is a Facebook group, a small but relentless leadership team, and passionate members who will engage with and share your content.

The term astroturfing is thought to have been coined in 1985 by the US senator Lloyd Bentsen, referring to piles of letters he received that were facilitated by insurance companies. “A fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and astroturf,” he said at the time. The practice itself is much older. Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar assassinates the dictator after receiving supportive letters purporting to be from the public but actually faked by Cassius.

The Republican congressmen Andy Harris speaks at a Tea Party rally protesting the Affordable Care Act in 2012

One of the most notorious astroturfing operations was the Tea Party movement. It gained national attention in 2009 when its protests against high taxation, government spending and President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms spread like wildfire across the USA. It looked like a spontaneous uprising born from political anger in the wake of the global financial crisis.

But it transpired that the movement had been funded and orchestrated by the billionaire Koch brothers, known for their deep libertarian influence on American politics, through their right-wing advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.

The younger of the two Koch brothers, David, pictured here in 2011, recently died

Astroturfing doesn’t always need to be on such a large scale. It doesn’t even require money.

One name who appears on the administration team of all the aforementioned Facebook groups is David Abbott. His public Facebook profile lists him as the director of Prime Lettings Ltd, a property management business. But Abbott is also a Conservative party councillor.

He was suspended from the Conservatives in April in the lead-up to the local elections, when he ran for a seat on Houghton Regis town council in Bedfordshire.

This came after the campaigner MatesJacob had highlighted Islamophobic posts that Abbott was alleged to have made in an unofficial Boris Johnson Facebook supporters’ group, where he was also an administrator. He claimed that Muslims’ philosophy was “to breed for Islam” and called them “Mohammedans”.

Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, in effigy, during the protest against the proroguing of parliament

When Abbott was suspended from the party, he also agreed to step down as an administrator of the Boris Johnson Facebook group, telling the Dunstable Gazette: “It is clear that being an admin of any group is high risk due to the potential of being tainted by association should any comments be missed.”

In April we reported on the Jacob Rees-Mogg Supporters’ Group, another group where Abbott is an administrator (it has now been renamed the Jacob Rees-Mogg Appreciation Group). Its members have advocated, among other things, deporting, running over, beheading, shooting, stabbing, and drowning Muslims.

Five months later it’s as if nothing ever happened. Abbott was elected on to the local council as an independent, then reinstated into the Conservative Party. He continues to manage several Brexit-supporting groups, including the Jacob Rees-Mogg group and a reboot of the Johnson group from which he resigned.

Vote Leave’s infamous Brexit battle bus

The descriptions of both groups claim that they are not associated with the Conservative Party, despite Abbott being an administrator in both. It is the same story with an unofficial Iain Duncan Smith supporters’ group, where Abbott is also an administrator.

It is not just explicitly political groups that can be weaponised. In April we wrote about a closed Facebook group in Merthyr Tydfil, which was used to topple the local Labour council, and subsequently hijacked to prop up the incumbent independents. It seems to be the thin edge of the wedge.

BeLeave and Cambridge Analytica whistleblowers Shahmir Sanni and Chris Wylie

Nuneaton Community Forum is a closed Facebook group for locals in the Warwickshire town of Nuneaton. It has 22,000 members, nearly a third of the electorate in a bellwether constituency currently held by the Conservatives. It sells itself as a folksy, grassroots community group: “Want to ask something? Want to air your opinion, have a good old moan or just generally talk about Nuneaton, past present or future? This is the place,” its description reads.

Maybe it started that way. Keith Kondakor, a local Green councillor, told me that, when the group was first set up a few years ago, there were four people in charge of running it. But now the only person left in control is Nigel Golby, who is the husband of a local Conservative councillor.

Two of those who had been running the group left during the 2015 general election campaign, where Nuneaton was a key marginal. The Conservative Party’s victory in the seat was seen as an indication that they were on course for an unexpected win at a national level. In the lead-up to the election, the group was “getting too nasty”, says Kondakor. “It was mainly coming from Nigel. There was a lot of nastiness about Diane Abbott.”

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott speaks to environmental activists from Extinction Rebellion

A third person running the group, Chris Brookes, stepped down a couple of years later so that he could stand in the 2017 general election as a Green candidate. “He stayed in the group,” says Kondakor, “but was thrown out just after I was thrown out – for asking why I was thrown out.”

Now, claims Kondakor, Nuneaton Community Forum is just “masquerading as a community group”. Several people online, including Kondakor, claim that criticism of the Conservatives has been deleted from the group, or allege that they have been banned altogether.

Recent years have brought increased concern that democracies are being distorted via social media. Most of the focus has been on large-scale operations: the Kremlin-backed troll group The Internet Research Agency, which sowed discord online and spread disinformation to influence the 2016 United States presidential election; or the British consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, which harvested the data of tens of millions of Facebook users, and worked on both Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Vote Leave’s Brexit campaign.

Similarly, the problem of deep fakes – videos so well doctored that they credibly present people saying things that aren’t true – is a big worry in politics. What, though, about fake roots, movements that have all the apparent authenticity of spontaneous activism and local free speech but are artificially created and curated? People power in the age of digital democracy can be powerful, even if the people aren’t real.

The group administrators mentioned in this article have not replied to requests for comment

Photography by Getty Images