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.