Cultivating conspiracy: how Boris Johnson amplified the far right

Show caption The Labour leader Keir Starmer was mobbed by angry people shouting ‘traitor’ and ‘paedophile protector’. Photograph: Resistance GB/Guardian The far right Cultivating conspiracy: how Boris Johnson amplified the far right Prime minister follows Donald Trump playbook by tacitly endorsing wild conspiracy theory to score points Dan Sabbagh Tue 8 Feb 2022 20.51 GMT Share on Facebook

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What started out as a conspiracy meme on the outer reaches of the internet has, with the help of Boris Johnson, swiftly established itself amid the cocktail of ideas and conspiracies that define the new extreme right.

The protesters who surrounded Keir Starmer on Monday night mostly shouted the word “traitor” – once a term of abuse against pro-EU MPs during the Brexit crisis – as well as “paedophile protector”, a reference to false claims about the Labour leader’s links to the Jimmy Savile case.

The amalgam of thinking draws in anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine tropes, which police believe has created a fertile space for conspiracist ideas to circulate widely during the two long years of the pandemic – with uncertain consequences.

“We have seen an increase in the volume of online extremism and hatred, much of which sits below a criminal threshold, but which creates a permissive environment which makes it easier for extremists to peddle their brand of hatred,” counter-terror police said, citing materials from a briefing given last year.

But until Johnson’s attack at prime minister’s questions just over a week ago, the false claims about Starmer, who was director of public prosecutions between 2008 and 2013, had only a relatively limited circulation in far-right groups on the lightly regulated social network Telegram.

Adam Hadley, executive director of Tech Against Terrorism, said he wondered “how No 10’s team got hold of this in the first place” as it was, he said, “a fairly niche conspiracy theory being propagated by far-right conspiracy theorists and extremists on Telegram”.

Amplifying such extreme concepts is a phenomenon more familiar in the US, where Donald Trump – before, during and after his presidency – has been willing to lean into the QAnon conspiracy theory, which pushed the blatantly false idea that Trump was fighting a group of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who secretly run the government.

When asked about the theory in August 2020, Trump responded: “Well, I haven’t heard that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?” That culminated, arguably, in the storming of the Capitol after Trump’s election defeat.

The website of Resistance GB, whose co-editor in chief, the former Conservative councillor Will Coleshill, filmed and shouted at Starmer as he walked through Westminster, features occasional videos of the far-right activist Tommy Robinson. The group claims to be focused “on resisting erosion and abolition of British culture”.

One such film shows Robinson speaking at a rally in Telford at the end of January, where he claims he is speaking for “justice for victims of sexual exploitation”. But a few moments later, in response to another shouted question, Robinson goes on to make an unjustifiable anti-Muslim slur.

Another video, filmed in October after a group of anti-vax extreme right protesters had tried to run after Michael Gove, the communities secretary, in the street, demonstrates the breadth of ideas. A somewhat bemused Gove had been bundled to safety by police before the demonstrators could arrive in numbers.

“Very interesting … When people won’t speak, they are usually guilty,” says one woman, referring to Gove. “Children are dying, children are being seriously harmed, the [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] said children don’t need to be vaccinated.” Another man added menacingly: “If we was really this angry as what these people think we are, we’d have strung him up by the closest tree.”

Two academics who have studied extremism, Bettina Rottweiler and Paul Gill from University College London, believe “a stronger conspiracy mentality leads to increased violent extremist intentions” based on a study conducted in Germany, although they caution that “the effects are much stronger for individuals exhibiting lower self-control”.

Counter-terror police in the UK have similar concerns, warning that a similar fusing-together of ideas is used by Islamist terror groups to try to radicalise people online. Even before Monday’s incident in Westminster, officers were concerned about the subcultures that are emerging.