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Big local lies: how misinformation is wrecking community politics
Slow Views

Big local lies: how misinformation is wrecking community politics

Friday 3 September 2021

The terrible decline of the regional press and the rise of unregulated social media activity mean that local democracy can be trashed by determined individuals

At first glance, Lee Heggie and Raja Miah have little in common. One is a computer repairman in the Welsh Valleys, another is a former charity leader with an MBE in Oldham. But thanks to the vacuum left by newspapers whose ink has run dry, along with the soapbox power of the internet, both are prominent political figures in their communities. We treat them as outliers at our peril. 

The story starts in early 2019, when I was commissioned to write a piece for Tortoise about Merthyr Council Truths, a members-only Facebook group based out of the town of Merthyr Tydfil in the Welsh Valleys. Tortoise had been given a tip-off from the journalist Paul Mason that a closed Facebook group had upended local politics in a sort of modern revolution.

I went to Merthyr Tydfil to meet Lee Heggie, the leader of the rebellion. By day he worked at a windowless computer shop in the local market, but by night he ran a freewheeling Facebook group of 17,000 people – which at the time amounted to 40 per cent of the local electorate. Heggie was a compelling and disconcerting totem for the community: a 9/11 truther (“definitely an inside job”) ambivalent about the Earth being flat (“I’ve never been up there to have a look”).

Heggie, who is no longer an admin, set up the group in 2016 and scored an immediate hit with disgruntled locals: Merthyr Council Truths had 8,000 members within 48 hours. First the group came for the parking wardens who were ticketing the market traders, then it came for a civil enforcement company which was allegedly fining people for feeding birds, and finally it set its sights on a Labour council popularly regarded as complacent and self-serving.

In the 2017 local elections Merthyr Council Truths dethroned that council. Several passionate members of the group, including two former administrators, won seats as independents. Labour lost its majority. “The election did demonstrate that people were very disillusioned with Labour,” said Tanya Skinner, who defeated the council leader to win her seat. “Merthyr Council Truths was very often a place where those views were aired.” Lyn Williams, who runs an annual culture festival in the town that commemorates the workers’ revolution of 1831, agreed that the Facebook group played a pivotal role in the election. “It was the first time that councillors and the council itself were held to so much scrutiny by local people.” 

But there was more to Merthyr Council Truths than jaunty people power. From the off it was a source of misinformation, usually on the subject of race. Baseless rumours that the YMCA building was being converted into a mosque and that the local primary school was forcing children to pray to Allah caused consternation among locals prejudiced enough to believe such claims. It was a place of censorship too. Several people told me that Merthyr Council Truths, having initially opened up political debate in the area, had become a means of shutting it down. After the independents came into power in 2017, dissenting voices either had their comments deleted or were removed from the group. “It’s very much a dictatorship,” said a former administrator. “Those who don’t subscribe to the views of the administrators are banned.” Heggie admitted more than 1,000 people had been thrown out.

My reporting in Merthyr Tydfil led me to think that the issue at the heart of this was closed groups: member-only networks where hatred and misinformation could foment, away from people who disagreed with the party line. There was a news peg to that too: Mark Zuckerberg had just published his “privacy-focused vision” for Facebook. It made me think that you could fix the problem merely by bringing people out of the shadows. But I’ve come to realise I was barking up the wrong tree.

I realised that because of Raja Miah MBE, a man in Oldham who has built his own brand of lawless digital politics. This week Tortoise published Smear, the story how Miah snuffed out a rising star of the Labour Party, Sean Fielding, by baselessly associating him with voter fraud, Asian cartels and grooming gangs. It was co-published with The Mill, a news website that covers Greater Manchester. Fielding is one of three Labour figures whom Miah relentlessly targets. His grudge with Labour appeared to start after the council helped expose a litany of failures which led to the closure of two free schools that he ran. His campaign against Fielding reached its dramatic finale in May when the Labour council leader lost his seat thanks, in large part, to Miah’s relentless campaign. Miah is now targeting Arooj Shah, who replaced Fielding to become the first Muslim woman to be elected as a council leader in the north of England.

Sensational though Miah’s claims against Fielding might appear to Oldham outsiders, they have built Miah, who calls himself a “recusant”, a captive audience. He reaches thousands of people with his posts and live broadcasts, and he makes a fair bit of money too: by our calculations he is earning just over £1,000 a month from his supporters. (That excludes the unknown amount he earns from the merchandise that he sells on his site.) It’s clear he has a loyal fan club that doesn’t take well to skepticism about his allegations. Miah shared our podcast on Twitter – calling us the “fake liberal metropolitan elite” – and, as if responding to a bat signal, a dozen or so accounts popped up accusing us of media spin and image laundering for Fielding.

Raja Miah has given me second thoughts about the conclusions I drew after Merthyr because his campaign isn’t secreted in some dark corner of the internet. Sure, his posts find their way into Oldham’s local Facebook groups – some of which are closed – but by and large any member of the public can see what he’s doing. In my Merthyr story, I described how private Facebook groups gave people the power to subvert organisations and authority without scrutiny or responsibility. But Raja Miah has that same power, in plain sight. (In fact Miah’s accusations being open to everyone has allowed them to be shared into public Facebook pages associated with For Britain, Ukip and the Yellow Vests.) He continues to operate with impunity: in July he was arrested on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order offence and malicious communications, but he wasn’t charged.

The Merthyr and Oldham stories, ultimately, are not so much about open and closed communication as they are about power. Lee Heggie and Raja Miah accumulated a lot of that, unchecked by the old-fashioned institutional constraints to which people who rise to the top through conventional routes are subject. For the Labour Council in Merthyr, for Sean Fielding in Oldham, it was hardly a fair fight – however much Heggie and Miah cast themselves as underdogs. Our electoral laws aren’t set up to deal with such figures. It may be that existing regulations and laws would not find any fault in Heggie and Miah’s exercise of what they regard as legitimate “people power”. The trouble is that most of the relevant legislation and rules predate the age of social media and digital politics (a real problem in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum, given that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act had been passed in 2000, four years before Facebook was even founded). 

Most of the existing legal and regulatory instruments are completely unfit for purpose in the world of 21st century technology. In this respect, the law is blind in the worst possible way: it simply cannot detect the kind of harms, misinformation campaigns and political grotesqueries that are becoming increasingly common, not least in fierce local contexts. The draft Online Safety Bill is an opportunity to start addressing this structural problem, but one has to ask whether the political class has the digital literacy required to address the problem systematically.

One more reflection on these stories. They are reminders of how staid our information ecosystem has become. If it weren’t for Paul Mason coming to us with some hearsay about Merthyr, if it weren’t for Joshi Herrmann’s brilliant original story about Raja Miah in The Mill, we would have put those election defeats in a bucket with all the other Labour losses. Yes, council defeats often reflect national malaise – but we also live in a country where there has been a net loss of at least 265 local newspaper titles in the past fifteen years. Precisely at the time when social media has empowered every kind of political tomfoolery, malicious or otherwise, the regional newspaper industry, which might tell us what’s really going on, has been filleted.

That’s a loss for us as national journalists trying to make sense of the world, but it’s a loss most of all for those communities who – instead of a local paper – have to settle for a man with a microphone and a set of grudges.

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Photograph by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images