May 29, 2019

VERY FINE PEOPLE (profanity alert)

What happened when I met my Islamophobic troll: In 2017, I started getting regular messages from an anonymous Twitter user telling me my religion was 'evil'. Eventually I responded - and he agreed to meet face to face. (Hussein Kesvani, 23 May 2019, The Guardian)

After weeks of talking, True Brit agreed to meet me at their home.

I stood in front of a house on a quiet, suburban road just a few miles outside of Birmingham city centre, finally about to meet my anonymous online interlocutor. A middle-aged man opened the door, wearing a pair of three-quarter-length khaki shorts and a plain blue T-shirt with two yellow stains on the front.

True Brit immediately shook my hand and welcomed me into his home, warning me not to take off my shoes in case I accidentally stepped in cat poo. He introduced himself as Phil. He was short, with broad shoulders that rolled forward as he moved into his default slouch. In harsh light, a slight paunch was visible. He had thin wisps of light brown hair that barely covered his receding hairline and uneven stubble covering his face.

Phil lived on his own. On his kitchen walls were drawings by his young daughter and photographs of them together at theme parks, restaurants and outside Cardiff Castle. Since Phil's divorce a year earlier, his daughter had moved to a different area of Birmingham with her mother. Phil said that the end of his marriage "broke me emotionally".

He didn't want to talk about it much, but told me that since then, he had spent most of his time alone and at his computer, watching YouTube videos, reading articles and browsing message boards. "I started off just wanting to read about politics," he said as he made us tea. "I voted for Brexit - the first time I'd ever properly voted - so I used to spend my time reading about the whole process, how the government would negotiate with the EU. I wasn't really that political, but it was just seeing everything that happened during the referendum. All the fighting, name-calling and the hypocrisy from the media - how they were insulting anyone who voted leave, but they just don't understand what we go through."

Phil told me how he had been let go from a steady, decently paid job a couple of years earlier, and had struggled to get back on his feet as a self-employed handyman. At one stage he was claiming benefits, which had made him embarrassed, as if he "had lost all dignity", being made to fill out endless forms at the local jobcentre and attend countless interviews for jobs he didn't want, just so he could claim the little money he was eligible to receive.

Around the same time, amid his marital trouble, Phil began spending more and more of his free time browsing websites that "weren't the mainstream media or the biased BBC". He started off reading obscure blogs he found on Google, including, which posted about the Illuminati and accused "elites" - politicians, celebrities and journalists - of having secret meetings where they ultimately planned to control the British population. From these blogs, Phil moved on to reading about the "great replacement", a rightwing conspiracy theory claiming that white British people are being discouraged from getting married and having children, as part of a sinister plot to replace them with non-white Muslim migrants and refugees.

It wasn't long before Phil switched from blogs to more active communities on Facebook and YouTube, where he found abundant videos about the great replacement from YouTubers such as Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. Phil told me that he spent hours on YouTube, "researching the imminent demographic change". From these videos, he had learned that "Islam is taking over the UK by stealth", and that "their followers are being encouraged to have lots of children and outbreed non-Muslims". They were all statements I had heard before on conspiracy websites and rightwing YouTube channels.

What was strange to me was just how much time Phil was spending online. He spent most of the day in his bedroom, where the paint was peeling off the wall and a thin sheet lay crumpled on his single bed. On his table lay several cups of days-old tea, one of which was beginning to show white spots of mould. But what immediately caught my eye when I entered his room was an unfurled union jack flag taped to the edge of his desk.

This was the table where Phil, under his True Brit alias, would sit at his computer and write to me. Now, as I sat with him, he showed me that he spent his time messaging scores of others on Twitter with the same kind of content. I saw that his direct messages had all been sent to notable Muslim and leftwing figures. It was clear that he used Twitter for little else. "Most of the time, they just block me," he said. "Some of them swear at me, call me names or accuse me of being a troll." Phil retweeted almost every anti-Islam post he saw, often without even reading their contents. He said retweeting "doesn't mean I agree with it", but rather that he wanted "to make the debate about Islam open to the public". He also found that as he continued to retweet anti-Muslim accounts, he would amass more followers, especially if a big rightwing figure retweeted him in turn. "One of my tweets was favourited by Katie Hopkins a while back," he told me. "I ended up getting 20 new followers off that - imagine if she had retweeted it to her followers!"

When I asked Phil if anyone had influenced him while he was developing his views about Islam, he claimed that he had come up with his "own views based on my own research", and that he wasn't against Muslims. Nor was he racist, because "Islam isn't a race - it's a set of ideas". He said he hadn't deliberately searched for material on Islam. Rather, he said, "I'd go on YouTube, and I would just see a new video every day showing [male] Muslim migrants attacking women, or robbing a shop, or burning a car. It happens all the time, and you can find it quite easily." He showed me his YouTube homepage, replete with recommendations - based on what he had watched previously - of footage from EDL marches, clips from the rightwing US programme The Alex Jones Show and videos from alt-right YouTube personalities. These videos appeared in YouTube's recommended sidebar too; Phil had autoplay on, so they would run on from each other. On the whole, he estimated that he watched at least an hour of these videos every morning, "just because they were there".

Posted by at May 29, 2019 12:00 AM