Hope, Not Hate | Brunswick

Hope, Not Hate

The CEO of an organization combatting extremism tells Brunswick’s Kirsty Cameron that counter-protests seldom win over observers. More effective, he says, is delivering a positive message of your own.

Planting undercover agents, uncovering terrorist plots, taking on neo-Nazis—these aren’t the tactics that advocacy typically calls to mind, yet Nick Lowles, founder and CEO of Hope Not Hate, has employed them all.

In 2004 he founded the London-based nonprofit that he says “exposes and challenges the politics of hate, particularly right-wing hate, and engages the communities that are susceptible to them.”

Hope Not Hate gained attention for its work in a 2010 UK election, where it campaigned to defeat the British National Party (BNP), a political party that had been gaining momentum while it amassed charges of fascism and neo-Nazism. It was an electoral loss that would see the BNP implode. At the end of 2009, the party’s membership—by rule open for whites only—exceeded 12,000. In the space of five years, that number had fallen to fewer than 500. Subsequent work by Hope Not Hate has seen its members infiltrate far-right groups and uncover information that helped prevent an assassination attempt and a bombing—the latter now a subject of a Netflix documentary.

While Lowles and his organization are UK-focused, the issues with which they contend and look to counter—conspiracy theorists, the use of social media to spread misinformation, the toxicity of online conversations—transcend borders. They are also becoming increasingly familiar challenges for the private sector.

Lowles spoke recently with Brunswick’s Kirsty Cameron about what he’s learned from participating in highly political, charged conversations for more than 30 years, and the tactics he’s found effective at combatting misinformation. They also discussed the accusations of extremism that had been leveled at Lowles and his organization.

Their conversation took place after the organization’s annual “State of Hate” report had been published. Among its disquieting findings was that the pandemic had accelerated the digital sophistication of far-right movements across the country. Yet in their discussion Lowles was far from pessimistic, speaking of the power of education and community-led initiatives to triumph over hate and fear.

Tell us a bit about Hope not Hate and how it started.
I actually began fighting the far right back in 1989 but antiracism has always been close to my heart. My mum was born in Mauritius and came over to the UK in 1961, and as a kid growing up in Hounslow with her, I experienced racism and I was always conscious of it. I remember, for instance, the National Front party political broadcast in 1979 when they said that all people born outside Britain would be sent home within six months of an NF Government. I was just a child at the time and had no idea that they had no chance of getting elected. The broadcast really scared me, as I feared my Mum would be sent home. It haunted me for a long time. 

Then in 1989 I met people who were involved with a magazine called Searchlight, which was an investigative magazine that specialized in infiltrating the far right and exposing their activities and for many years, I ran their intelligence, combating real violence. We put people undercover. We turned people. But it became clear a strategy of infiltrating and exposing the bad guys wasn't enough. We had to go into the communities where they were operating, we had to challenge them.

We did a study on why people were voting for the BNP and why people were opposed to it. An interesting thing that came out of it was we found that these people were generally put off by kind of left-wing slogans: "Smash the Nazis," "Nazi scum," et cetera. They found those aggressive. They wanted something more positive to support, something more appealing and less confrontational. That’s why we call ourselves Hope Not Hate.

You’ve been working on this for a few decades now. How do you think the groups you are challenging have changed over time?
There's much less allegiance to any one group or any one theory now. People join something or they get involved in something online but then it runs out of steam, or gets debunked, or people get arrested and they just move on to the next thing.

This kind of post-organizational far right means it's much harder to measure and to monitor because it's just continually changing. In the past we'd have one or two key leaders who you'd follow and everyone would follow them, you've now got this kind of disparate group.

The other key thing which has made it really difficult for us—and I think this is an ongoing challenge for us and society as a whole—is that there's less clear perimeters where the far right starts and where it finishes. In the old days it was racial politics and beyond the pale for the majority of society. Now there’s this continuing narrative of the “culture wars.” It makes it really difficult.

The only way to get people to think differently is long-term community engagement and education.

You mention culture wars—you’ve certainly been in the crossfire. In 2016, accusations by the National Union of Students that you were Islamophobic received national media coverage. What’s your response to those charges?
I was called Islamophobic because we were addressing the child grooming issue [building trust with a child or young person to manipulate or sexually exploit them] in northern towns, which was a massive problem in local working-class communities and had to be addressed by us as it was being weaponized and racialized by the far right.

Some on the very left, who don't operate in these communities, felt that any talk of grooming risked stigmatizing the local Muslim communities. They thought it was better to ignore it. I took the view that this was clearly wrong. Because if we don't speak up then the only ones talking about it are the far right. Also our silence does—at best—nothing to help the young women and girls being abused and—at worst—allows the abuse to continue. All too often the real victims,  girls and young women, were the ones forgotten in these fights between left and right. 

So those claims didn’t bother me because they simply weren’t true. I was an independent member of the Government’s Anti-Muslim hatred Working Group; our organization has worked closely with Muslim communities throughout Britain to defeat the politics of hate; a few months before the NUS’ accusations I had co-authored the most comprehensive report into organized anti-Muslim hatred at the time.

How has the pandemic affected people’s susceptibility to alternative narratives? Do you think times of uncertainty contribute to the rise of far-right politics? And when these theories have little basis in reality or fact, how do you persuade people to look at things differently?
Oh there’s definitely an element of that. The more you tell them they're wrong, the more convinced they are that they're right. There’s a mistrust of everything. The only way to get people to think differently is long-term community engagement and education, really. What we're trying to do now at Hope not Hate is balance fighting the current threats we're facing as well as anticipating where the problems are going to be down the line.

Whether it's conspiracy theories around COVID, whether it's the men's rights movement, what we are seeing now is hundreds of thousands of people who are not extreme, who are not far right, being introduced to these hateful ideas online. Once you start distrusting authority, you then become more open to other ideas.

How do you respond to far-right protests? Does Hope Not Hate have marches of its own?
In general, we have never supported anti-EDL [English Defence League, a far-right UK party] counter-protests because we just felt they didn't achieve anything. They didn't stop the protests. And optically, to ordinary people who live in communities, it's just two different sorts of lunatics shouting and squaring up to each other on the street! We have found it's much better to do community-focused, positive events the day before or the day after.

I think there's been a tendency in the antiracist or antifascist movement—and maybe on the left generally—to do things that we think are right and we don’t necessarily ask the question "how does the person we're trying to influence see them?" That's always secondary. 

We should not write our leaflets from a position of perfection and purity. Communications-wise, we have a lot to learn. We need to work on how to get our message across and, more importantly, how to appeal to and understand who our audience is, what sort of things that they understand or appreciate.

How have the tactics of Hope Not Hate changed and adapted over time as the political landscape has shifted?
One of our increasing areas of focus has been education in the last few years.

In Britain, we're still lucky that overwhelmingly, young people are open-minded, tolerant, inclusive, which isn't always the case in other countries. But things are changing. We are seeing a small but growing group of principally young men, but some women, who are getting drawn towards far-right politics—a misogynist, anti-feminist, and increasingly violent, narrative. That’s why we are doing stuff in schools, and particularly targeting schools where our data shows that people are susceptible to these kinds of ideas. Change comes from within communities. The more communities feel better about themselves, the more they feel okay about outsiders or newcomers in their community. 

In general, we have never supported ... counter-protests because we just felt they didn't achieve anything. They didn't stop the protests. And optically, to ordinary people who live in communities, it's just two different sorts of lunatics shouting and squaring up to each other on the street!

What other tactics do you use for intelligence? What do you find most effective?
We do a lot of online monitoring, online infiltration of course. But these days people are getting a lot more savvy that there are people watching them, whether it's us or MI5 or another intelligence agency.

We still place a lot of value on undercover intelligence. Having that kind of human intelligence means you get to hear about things you wouldn't otherwise get to hear about, but it also means you can assess it better. Because anyone can create any personas online, and sometimes it's hard to know if someone's making a joke or someone's serious,

We have between 15 and 20 moles inside the far right. Most of those people were extremists to start with and then they changed their minds, and they approached us with information, and they carried on. But in some of these cases I'm still handling people who've been in far-right groups for over 25 years. Next March, there's going to be an ITV drama based on a true story from three years ago, when we stopped a Labor MP getting killed. Someone was days away from killing his local MP. But we had an informant inside a group called National Action, a terrorist group, who told us, and we alerted the police. And the police stopped it from happening. 

I heard that one of your moles is also going to be in a Netflix documentary.
That’s right. There’s a Netflix documentary on the London nail bomber called Manhunt. And one of the people focused on in the program is someone that we had inside the BNP for ten years as a mole, who helped identify David Copeland, the London nail bomber.

He's never spoken out before. And I actually put him into the BNP in 1994. He was a young lad. He was an antifascist. He decided that was the best way to fight fascism, was to go inside and find out information. And he spent ten years undercover. He never took a penny. Most of his family didn't even know that he wasn't really a Nazi. And it's kind of interesting because, of course, most far-right activity now happens online and is fairly anonymous. But in those days you'd meet down the pub. 

How do you think businesses can help contribute helpfully to the conversation? Do you think companies have a responsibility to help solve political and social issues?
I think there's increasing number of companies that are looking at ways to be imaginative and effective, whether it's about racial or social justice, whether it's about the environment. It's a case of not just doing what you feel you need to do to “tick the box.” Companies have a platform for real change and positive change. They have audiences: their customers, their workforces. These companies are trusted messengers. Businesses can be agents for change and agents for good. I’m encouraged that we are now seeing that desire for impact.

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Kirsty Cameron is a Brunswick Associate, based in London.