Disinformation discolours local elections

This article is an adaption from a post on the Valent Newsletter blog, a site dedicated to ‘dealing with Disinformation/Misinformation/Fake News…..and online manipulation’.

Full credit is given to both Valent and the author, Hamish Falconer. His article is linked here. It’s sub-heading is ‘A QAnon-style campaign helps topple a council leader’.

There are a significant number of articles, authored by its host journalist, Neil Wilby, on this website in much the same theme. Highlighting the repeated use of smearing and false narrative, by a Tameside-based political activist, to undermine leading local Labour Party politicians. Notably, the Leader of Oldham Council, Sean Fielding.

Valent’s monitoring of the local elections in the UK on May 6th, 2021 uncovered what they say is likely to be the first time a United States-style, social media powered, alt-right campaign has unseated an elected official from a major British political party. Their investigation found content behind this campaign getting attention from far-right groups across the country. 

The now deposed Cllr Fielding was accused by a network of social media pages of covering up child sexual abuse and a conspiracy to undermine the white communities of Oldham. His primary accuser is Raja Miah, a disgraced former chief executive of two free schools (read more here), both now closed. 

Miah runs a troubled Facebook page under the style of Recusant Nine, detailing these accusations against Fielding, and the wider Labour establishment in Oldham and Greater Manchester. It is presently suspended after the latest in a series of defamatory posts. Content is regularly removed by the social media platform and/or Miah – and this is the third, or fourth, Facebook ban in recent weeks.

The Recusant Nine YouTube channel is similarly afflicted.

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Miah’s pages link to the Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth (POOS) party and vice versa, and it was Mark Wilkinson, affiliated to the POOS (read here), who unseated Cllr Fielding last week by 191 votes. In October last year, Wilkinson was a ‘guest star’ on a Sunday evening Recusant Nine podcast.

Raja’s ‘right-hand woman’ and fellow agitator, Debbie Barratt-Cole runs a closed Facebook page titled ‘Oldham Together‘ with over 5,000 followers. In addition to those two, the other moderators are Paul ‘Boots’ Errock, POOS Party Leader; Sarah Shilton, POOS Chairwoman and Mark Birchall, a Recusant Nine subscriber who stood as a POOS candidate in the local elections.

All five are major critics of Oldham Council and Sean Fielding, with the child sex abuse ‘cover-up’ a loud, recurring theme.

Another social media platform, Chronic Oldham, is also persistently critical of the Council and its former Leader (read more here). Run by a local man, Damon Ashworth, it does, at least, base its criticism on research and data analysis. Both, notably, absent from the other blogs and fora. Its output is shared by the rest on a regular basis.

At first glance this may not feel new, say Valent; Oldham has seen successful independent council candidates before, and Labour has lost ground in many Brexit supporting towns and cities like this.

But what is striking about the Fielding defeat is the interplay of technology platforms, apparently race-fuelled accusations of child sexual abuse ‘cover-ups’ and crowd-sourced funding.

Miah’s claims are broadcast to Recusant Nine’s 3,752 followers and re-posted by a network of sympathetic and/or affiliated Facebook groups. He appears to solicit monthly donations via Patreon (there were 114 subscribers at the last count), along with one-off ‘Buy me a coffee’ and Paypal payments, with at least 45 separate donations since the election results, despite the suspension of his his Facebook platform (see donor list here).

Some of those coffee contributors are familar names, appearing as ‘trolls’ to attack any social media user, frequently using ‘pile-ons’ aided by a seemingly endless supply of recently created low-follower or no-follower accounts, who may have a contrary view to Raja Miah or, perhaps, show support to those Labour politicians under attack.

Following Facebook’s ‘demonetising’ of his account, on the grounds that the content was not original, Miah responded by soliciting donations off-platform and launching further paid advertising on the social media giant’s own site, decrying ‘censorship’ and further attacking Cllr Fielding and another regular target, local MP, Jim McMahon. This is one of the six paid ads that Miah launched in the run-up to the election (see full list here).

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One of these, an attack video against Cllr Fielding, was launched, and promoted, days before the election, reaching over 5,000 Facebook accounts (watch on YouTube here). It secured 583 interactions, more than treble the Council Leader’s losing margin. Subsequent financial contributors thanked Miah for his role in getting Mark Wilkinson, a retired police officer, elected. 

Also, a very short time before the election a ‘Statement’ was published by the Wilkinson-run Failsworth Independent Party (the FIPs), deriding Cllr Fielding and alleging ‘dirty tricks’ by both him and his activists. It was immediately re-posted on the Recusant Nine Facebook page.

The attack was ill-grounded, lacking in substance and appeared to contain several falsehoods (read more here). But, by the time a response was delivered by Labour Party lawyers, on behalf of Sean Fielding, it was all too late and the damage very probably done. 

Valent say that it is notoriously difficult to influence the way people intend to vote, but there are three reasons why sustained activity in smaller Facebook (or WhatsApp) 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 the University of Yale, thinks might be linked to political persuasion (read here) 

3. They encourage sustained engagement at a local level, as can be seen from the links between Recusant Nine and various other local Facebook groups like Spotted Failsworth (see here), which is likely to make conspiracy theories more believed and more durable. 

Valent goes on to say that investigators have carefully charted how a disinformation narrative about the United States elections went viral. Facebook’s own internal report documented the role of Facebook groups in that dramatic growth of support (read the report here).

Recusant Nine adopts many similar themes to those described by US disinformation investigators; child sex 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.

Other campaigning groups from across the country have all linked to the Oldham material: independents in Barnsley; far-right group ‘For Britain’ and UKIP in Stratford-upon-Avon; and the ‘Yellow Vests GB-UK’ in London. Some of their supporters are now visible on Twitter attacking those who challenge the Recusant Nine narrative.

Responding to this kind of sustained attack is hard: These social media pages are a hostile audience to fact checking, evidence and reasoned argument – and efforts to get Facebook to ‘de-monetise’ Miah’s Facebook page(s) seem to have had a limited impact.

An article that followed an in-depth investigation by Neil Wilby destroyed the myth that Oldham Council (and Cllr Fielding) had engaged in a child sex abuse ‘cover-up’ gained considerable traction, locally, but did little to shift the entrenched views of Miah’s hardcore support (read the ‘Get the White Vote Angry‘ article in full here). They simply switched their attack onto the author of the piece and claimed he was in the pay of either the Council or Sean Fielding. A proposition that is as ludicrous as it is untrue.

More needs to be done by Facebook, and across other social media platforms to give responses bite. Elsewhere, say Valent, there are promising efforts to contest these narratives early, which have gone some way to preventing the problem from becoming entrenched and unmanageable. 

This is what Sean Fielding has to say about the election that saw him ousted. 

“I am grateful to those Failsworth residents who supported me with their vote on May 6th. Whilst I was disappointed with the result we live in a democracy and I respect the right of voters to choose other candidates.
 
I would like to place on record my thanks for the support of the residents of Failsworth during my 9 years as a Councillor. I am proud to be able to point to things around town which only exist because of my involvement, such as the memorial boulder at Lower Memorial Park, the Ashton bus which I led the campaign to save, the reinstated youth service at Failsworth School and the green belt which was threatened with development until negotiations with Mayor Andy Burnham saw it protected.
 
It is no secret that I was disappointed with the tone and nature of the campaign against me. I found myself the subject of outrageous online conspiracy theories which undoubtedly influenced the election outcome. Worse than that, the weaponisation of the issue of child abuse for political gain by my opponents placed my family and property in danger, and my family and I are still considered to be at a higher level of risk today as a result of those triggered and mobilised by the opposition campaign. I am sure that this threat will subside in time, but these last eighteen months were a deeply distressing and anxious period for myself and many of those close to me. Politics should not be like this.
 
I am pleased that overall the Council remained under Labour control and even more delighted that the Labour Group will be led by Arooj Shah. I am proud that Arooj has made history as the first Muslim female Council Leader in Oldham. I wish her every success and know that with the support of the Labour Group in Oldham she will do a fantastic job.
 
On a personal level I will move on to new opportunities and look forward to beginning my new job in communications and research next week. Whilst no longer in frontline politics I hope to apply my progressive Labour Party values in this new role and shape public policy to improve the lot of communities like those I was proud to represent as a Councillor and Council Leader”.
 

The UK has not yet seen the kind of disinformation epidemic that the US saw in January says Hamish Falconer. If that is to change, groups like Miah’s will be the vector. Valent promise to be writing more, soon, on what effective responses look like. 

This is a developing news story and will be updated. Follow Neil Wilby on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Right of reply has again been offered to Raja Miah. He has declined all previous invitations.

The leaders of the three party political party group leaders in Oldham featured in this piece, Cllr Arooj Shah (Labour leader-elect), Kathleen Wilkinson (Failsworth Independent Party) and Sarah Shilton (POOS), have also been invited to comment.

As has the Returning Officer for the local elections in Oldham, Dr Carolyn Wilkins. With particular reference to the legality of the polling process in Failsworth West.

Cllr Shah, newly-elected Leader of Oldham Council, said:

“The rise of online disinformation online should be a concern to us all.

“The spreading of lies and fabrications is always damaging, and particularly when it is done in private groups or where any dissenting voices are quickly removed. It undermines democracy and discourages people from wanting to step forward to contribute to their community.

“Even worse, when the lies relate to crucial issues they damage trust in public services and potentially prevent people from coming forward and reporting crimes, thus putting young people at greater risk.

“As leader I am focused on building a stronger relationship with residents. I want Oldham people to see that the Council are acting on their concerns, and that we’re on their side. Until the social media companies or the Government take action to stop myths and disinformation spreading online, the best thing we can do is deliver what we promise, and focus on making Oldham an even better place to live.”

The respective representatives of the POOS and the FIPs did not acknowledge the request for comment. Neither did the Oldham Council press office on behalf of Dr. Wilkins.

Page last updated: Friday 21st May, 2021 at 1355 hours

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

This article contains public sector information licensed under Open Government Licence v3.0 (read more here).

© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby Media, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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