Disinformation in the May elections

A QAnon-style campaign helps topple a council leader

Our monitoring of the May 6 local elections in the UK uncovered what is likely to be the first time a US-style, social media powered, alt right campaign has unseated an elected official from a major British political party. Our investigation found content behind this campaign getting attention from far-right groups across the country. 

Sean Fielding was council leader in Oldham and accused by a network of social media pages of covering up sexual abuse and a conspiracy to undermine the white communities of Oldham. His primary accuser is Raja Miah MBE, a former CEO of two now closed Oldham schools who runs a website called Recusant Nine detailing these accusations against Fielding and the wider Labour establishment in Oldham. Miah’s pages link to the Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth (POS) party and vice versa, and it was Mark Wilkinson, affiliated to POS who unseated Fielding last week by 200 votes. 

At first glance this may not feel new; Oldham has seen successful independent council candidates before, and Labour lost ground in many Brexit supporting places like this. But what is striking about Fielding’s defeat is the interplay of tech platforms, race-fuelled accusations of child abuse, and crowd-sourced funding.

Miah’s  claims are broadcast to Recusant Nine’s 3,800 followers and reposted by a network of sympathetic Facebook groups. Miah appears to solicit monthly donations via Patreon, along with one-off ‘coffee’ and Paypal payments (with at least 45 separate payments since the election results). Facebook appear to have at one point ‘demonetised’ his account: Miah responded by soliciting donations off-platform and launching further paid advertising on Facebook’s own platform decrying ‘censorship’ and attacking Fielding (one of six paid ads that Miah launched in the run-up to the election). One of these, an  attack video against Fielding was launched and promoted days before the election reaching over 5000 accounts, and securing 583 interactions, more than double Fielding’s losing margin. Subsequent financial contributors thanked Miah for his role in getting Wilkinson elected

It is notoriously difficult to influence the way people intend to vote but there are three reasons why sustained activity in smaller Facebook groups like this might be effective: 1. They are using the kind of divisive, emotive content that tends to transmit further, faster, and deeper online. 2. They start early (and keep going) something Josh Kalla a data scientist at Yale thinks might be linked to political persuasion 3. They encourage sustained engagement at a local level (as you can see from the links between Recusant Nine and various other local Facebook groups like ‘Spotted Failsworth’) which is likely to make conspiracy theories more believed and more durable

Investigators have carefully charted how a disinformation narrative about the US elections went viral. Facebook’s internal report documented the role of Facebook groups in that dramatic growth of support. Recusant Nine adopts many similar themes to those described by US disinformation investigators; child abuse conspiracies, postal fraud, and deliberate undermining of white communities. If this kind of material is to become a more prominent feature in the UK’s online ecosystem, it will be nurtured in groups like this. Groups from across the country; independents in Barnsley, far-right group ‘For Britain’ and UKIP in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the ‘Yellow Vests GB-UK’ in London have all linked to the Oldham material. 

Responding to this kind of sustained attack is hard: these pages are a hostile audience to fact checking and efforts to get Facebook to ‘de-monetise’ Miah’s Facebook pages seem to have had a limited impact. More needs to be done by Facebook, and across platforms to give responses bite. Elsewhere we’ve seen promising efforts to contest these narratives early which have gone some way to preventing the problem from becoming entrenched and unmanageable. 

The UK has not yet seen the kind of disinformation epidemic that the US saw in January. If that is to change, groups like this will be the vector. We’ll be writing more on what effective responses look like soon.