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. 

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.

Page last updated: Friday 14th May, 2021 at 1445 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.

Election by stealth?

Following the publication of an article on this website on 13th April, 2021 (read here), more information and tip-offs than usual resulted. It was the regular mixed bag of rare nuggets, plenty of hearsay, false trails and axe-grinding. A journalist’s stock in trade, writes Neil Wilby.

Amongst them was an innocuous looking link to a website belonging to a political party completely unknown to me, with a very limited amount of narrative accompanying it – and with what turned out to be a plausible, but mistaken, assumption.

It looked one for the ‘intel file’, except that the source is well respected and usually ‘on the money’. So it proved, yet again. Although not in the way either of us could have expected.

The link provided by the informant led to the Alliance for Democracy and Freedom website (abbreviated, by them, to ADF). A quick search uncovered that its headquarters are in Oldham, no less, a town from which I have been reporting for over a year now (read more here about how I became involved).

Not a single mention of this political party has been heard during all that time. From anyone. The siting of their HQ was, obviously news to me, also.

ADF occupy offices in Shaw Road; formerly housing the United Kingdom Independence Party, more widely known, of course, as UKIP. A short time later, it became apparent why.

On the ‘People’ section of the ADF website, my attention was immediately drawn to three of the seven biographies: Dr Teck Khong, Mike Hookem and, most particularly, Paul Goldring. His name is already familiar and, in fact, features in at least one article elsewhere on this website (read here).

Dr Khong has a high profile on Twitter (over 17,000 followers) and stood as a Conservative candidate in Bradford North at the 2005 General Election and as a UKIP candidate in Harborough in the 2017 renewal (he lost his deposit as party support collapsed nationally). He has a colourful background and, in the past, been accused of holding anti-Muslim sentiments (read more here). Beyond commenting below an article titled “How modern Islam has made UK citizens homeless in their own homes” (read more here), there appears to be no formal finding, as such.

Mike Hookem, who had a military and strong Labour Party background before defecting to UKIP in 2008 and becoming a leading light in that party, is, of course, most widely known for ‘an altercation’ with a fellow Member of the European Parliament (MEP) in 2016 which left Stephen Woolfe, another UKIP elected representative, in hospital. Hookem denied any wrongdoing.

More controversially, in 2015 he supported another UKIP MEP, Bill Etheridge – who posed on Facebook with a golliwog and, separately, quoted from Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech – in Etheridge’s bid to run the party, following the departure of TV personality and UKIP founding member, Nigel Farage. Hookem became Etheridge’s running mate.

In the same year, The Independent newspaper reported that Hookem had claimed a “migrant” pulled a gun on him and threatened him at the port of Dunkirk in northern France. Police later said the suspected gunman was a British gangster.

A fourth man on the ADF website is a former West Yorkshire Police officer, of whom I was aware for reasons other than politics: Stephen Place. Mainly, because he wrote a superb, graphic, moving, three-part blog about his first-hand experience at the 1985 Bradford City Fire Disaster and a book about policing in Bradford, ‘Dodge City: A copper’s tale‘. A subject about which I know a great deal, having spent days and weeks on end at the city’s Magistrates’ and Crown Courts.

He stood as a UKIP candidate in the Bradford South constituency at the 2017 General Election (also lost his deposit). Memorable to me, insofar as Gerry Sutcliffe, who still supports a miscarriage of justice campaign to which I am very adjacent (read more here), held that same seat for 26 years. Gerry retired from Parliament in 2015. Stephen Place also held high office in UKIP, being their Home Affairs spokesman.

Paul Goldring is standing in the Oldham local elections on May 6th as a candidate for the Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth party (the POOS), whose behaviour before and during the current local election is, most charitably, described as troubling: One of its leading lights, former soldier Gary Tarbuck, featured in a recent, shameful episode where a crude attempt to discredit Labour Party leaders, and the Muslim community in one of the most deprived wards of Oldham, spectacularly backfired (read in full here).

Goldring stood as a candidate in the same Royton North ward in 2019, whilst he was Chair of UKIP in Oldham. Now living in the area, having moved to Oldham from Telford around 6 years ago, he finished third in the polls.

In the circular way that journalists have, contact was made with Dr Khong first. But he didn’t respond (and still hasn’t) to these questions:

(i) Is Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth part of ADF?

(ii) What position does Paul Goldring hold in ADF?

Soon afterwards, similar questions were put to Mike Hookem. He quickly replied that the POOS ‘are not aligned to ADF’. He was less forthcoming, however, about Goldring’s position in ADF, stating, eventually, and after being pressed, that ‘he [Goldring] is a member’. Hookem had been sent a screenshot from their website that suggested, very strongly, that Paul is rather more than that. As does his previous senior role within UKIP.

These questions were then put to 68 year-old Paul Goldring:

(i) If I may ask, what is your position/title in ADF? You sit squarely [in an image I had attached] between Teck and Mike Hookem, so, one assumes, very senior? Thanks.

(ii) A second, obvious, question is, if you are standing as a candidate for Proud Of Oldham and Saddleworth in the May elections, what is connection between them and ADF Party?

The exchange concluded thus: “I’m writing up a piece overnight and would very much appreciate a prompt response to the above questions. Thank you. My press credentials are attached”.

All very polite and reasonable, one might say. But confronted, in the event, by a wall of silence. At the time, and since: That, of course, is Goldring’s (and Dr Teck’s) prerogative, as it is that of a journalist, and his or her readers, to draw inference from that. Not least from blocking such seemingly innocuous questions. Begging a question Royton voters will answer, of course; is he a fit and proper person to hold elected office if he is unable, or unwilling, to answer the simplest of questions about his political affiliations?

Regrettably, it is a trait common to others in their circle, such as the POOS Party Leader, Paul Errock. Whom, if he isn’t ignoring a straight question, answers a different one. Not least about his purported affinity for Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (sometimes known as ‘Tommy Robinson’). Likewise, one of the Party’s other directing minds, thoroughly disgraced Raja Miah: When asked to back up his invariably ludicrous, hate-filled claims with evidence, none is ever forthcoming. The permanently spiteful output on his Recusant Nine Facebook and YouTube channels is the subject of numerous complaints, bans and removal of defamatory material.

Less reticent is Sarah Shilton, whom describes herself as POOS ‘Party Chairwoman/Treasurer’. After the Tarbuck/Miah/Coldhurst lies were exposed in the Absent of Evidence article, she posted:

 “Seriously guys, I hope he [Neil Wilby] sees this or someone sends it to him. Mental health is a serious subject and if someone is showing signs of mental health issues we should be offering help”. For emphasis, she added this NHS Helpline weblink. Mrs Shilton did not challenge any of the evidence meticulously laid out in that piece – and neither has anyone else, for that matter. Distasteful, ad hominem attack was the sole response. Apart from this, of course:

But that is the price a journalist pays in Oldham for confronting a contrived, race-baiting narrative with plain, old fashioned facts and evidence.

Tarbuck, to his credit, did not refer at any time to the racist incident on his own Facebook page, or support in any other visible way what was said and done in his name by Raja Miah. But it does not bode well that he failed to denounce what was written in his name, either. Or take up his right to reply on what is an episode that leaves his credibility badly dented.

It is also concerning, given the POOS non-stop barrage of insinuations against others in authority in Oldham, that he continues to pro-actively support a proven, deeply corrupt ex-Labour councillor, Montaz Ali Azad, whom having left that Party in disgrace is now standing as an independent candidate.

So, what are ADF and the POOS hiding? Why are the key players so shy about the Paul Goldring link?

(i) On his Facebook campaigning page, run within the POOS ambit, there is no mention at all of the Alliance for Democracy and Freedom Party. In the limited number of posts he makes, all very jolly one has to say, the link is concealed. The electorate, in effect, think they would be voting for one party and its policies, but it appears that it may yet be another.

(ii) He posted this in his election page on Facebook on 21st March, 2021 [emphasis added]:

“I just want to remind everybody that I am an independent candidate with Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth and we are not a whipped party. What does that mean? Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth councillors do not dance to anybody’s tune but that of the voters we were elected to represent. That means that we have no bosses but you. We answer to nobody but you. Nobody at Party HQ tells us what to think and what to do. So if there is a major issue in Royton North that is being discussed in the council then I will keep you informed. I will ask for your opinion. If necessary I will hold a ward [mini] referendum to establish what the ward majority want. I will be your councillor and I will answer emails, I will return phone calls. I will represent Royton North and not some outdated ideology. Want to meet me in person ? Let me know and as soon as Covid lets me I will meet with you.

(a) There is no mention of his apparent seniority within another ‘non-aligned’ political party. Or to whose tune he dances. ADF or the POOS?

(b) It is not clear as to which Party HQ he refers. Paul has at least two.

(c) On all the evidence so far, Goldring cannot count communication as a competency. There is no telephone number listed for ADF HQ. He has no contact details on his election page, such as mobile number and email address. In the unlikely event that he is elected on May 6th, 2021, they would be published on the Council’s website. It might strike the reader as extraordinary that no such details are available during the election campaign. The weblink on his Facebook page inviting questions to Paul Goldring, bizarrely, takes the inquisitive to the POOS Home page on their website. There are no contacts details there, either.

(d) I’d like to come and talk to you Paul, about this article, the ADF and the POOS. Preferably, whilst you are out campaigning. I’ll bring a cameraman.

(iii) Likewise, on the ADF website, there is no reference to Goldring standing as a candidate in the Oldham elections for a party (the POOS) they say is not aligned to them.

(iv) Is Paul Goldring’s recent spell as Chair of UKIP, and the fact that he appears to be based at what are now the ADF’s offices in Oldham, a blow to the POOS claim of ‘independence’ and their ‘centralist’ (sic) positioning as a party?

(v) UKIP’s one-time ‘consultant’, the aforementioned ‘Tommy Robinson’, campaigned in Oldham in May 2019, and riots ensued in the Limeside area, as his far-right supporters clashed with Muslims. Goldring was, it seems, UKIP Chair at that time. Yaxley-Lennon was jailed two months later over contempt of court. This related to his actions outside Leeds Crown Court during a ‘grooming gang’ trial that very nearly collapsed as a result. For some weeks, I had been covering a perverting the course of justice trial in Court 11, next door to the ‘grooming trial’, not long before the Yaxley-Lennon incident took place. Protests by the far-right had taken place in and around the court at that time and the atmosphere was highly charged, on occasions, and made the court precincts and concourses not a good place to be.

(v) Is it also a blow to the POOS claim that they do not have a far-right element to their membership or aims as a party? Many of Oldham’s knuckleheads, some unpleasant and criminal characters amongst them, have gravitated to the party and regard Raja Miah as their unassailable totem. He feeds them relentlessly (and himself by pimping donations to his Facebook platform) with a now totally discredited grooming gangs ‘cover-up’ narrative (read more here).

(vi) Or, is the embarrassment over the Goldring connection to the POOS, and discredited Raja Miah, an embarrassment to the future ambitions of Alliance for Democracy and Freedom as a ‘clean skin’?

Records at Companies House (read here) show that ADF was incorporated in September 2019 as The Democracy Party, using an address in Exeter. Mike Hookem was one of its two founding Directors and remains in post up to the present day. He had announced his departure from UKIP the previous month.

The Democracy Party changed its name to its present form in March, 2020. There is one other remaining Director, Keith Lonsdale, whose biography also appears on the ‘People’ page of the ADF website. Two other Directors have been appointed and resigned after brief spells in office.

Another ex-military man, with many other professional accomplishments, Lonsdale is based in Belfast. It is said on the website: “Keith has stood for local election and has held regional and national posts in a large political party. He has been politically homeless since 2018 and is keen to get this new party [ADF] off the ground”.

The un-named political party is, of course, UKIP. Which makes a clean sweep: Five out of five key players in ADF, all prominent in a party that became increasingly far right and appears now to only attract those of that ilk.

If that is why any, or all of them, left UKIP, then it should be important enough to post on the ADF website and/or have the record put straight in this article.

Paul Goldring and Dr Khong were offered right of reply, via Mike Hookem. He declined to provide an email address to which the draft article could be sent and indicated that Goldring and Khong would not be so doing, either. He offered no explanation at all for such a refusal.

Mr Hookem also has my telephone number and a call back is still awaited. In the meantime, readers and voters in the local elections can form their own judgement regarding the ADF/POOS silence and the peculiar juxtaposition of Mr Goldring, about whom all is clearly not what it seems.

But much more on that in the sequel to this piece.

A full list of wards and nominations published by the Council’s Returning Officer can be found (here). There is also a helpful party by party breakdown of candidates and other interesting statistical information relating to both the forthcoming and 2019 local elections in Oldham.

Page last updated: Sunday 17th April, 2021 at 0855 hours

Photo Credits: Facebook, Twitter.

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.

© 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, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.