London knife attack boosts British far-right groups on social media


Members of the English Defence League wear balaclavas at a protest outside a pub in Woolwich on May 22. (AFP/Justin Tallis)

The suspects in Wednesday's brutal knife attack on a British soldier told a bystander that they wanted "to start a war in London tonight" -- and in some circles, they certainly have brought tensions to the surface. Britain's right-wing English Defense League, a controversial, anti-Islamic organization, is enjoying an unusual level of social media exposure in the wake of the attacks, and is using the attention to organize a series of "demonstrations."

According to Topsy, a Twitter analytics firm, the EDL was mentioned more times Wednesday than at any point in the past year. The group generally sees fewer than 500 posts a day; Wednesday, it was mentioned more than 15,700 times, and some of its messages were seen by an estimated 1.5 million people.

For the most part, the messages invited followers to join protests in Woolwich and demanded that Muslims leave Britain, a common EDL line. A Facebook event organizing a rally to "support our troops" also earned nearly 1,000 RSVPs.

Between 75 and 100 people showed up at those protests, where they sang "nationalist songs," Sky News reports.

There has, of course, been considerable backlash to EDL's actions. Nick Raynsford, a local member of Parliament, told Sky News the group should "go home and grow up." A group called "EDL News," which opposes the EDL's activities, has tweeted dozens of biting criticisms, flagged offending messages for police and condemned anti-Muslim graffiti.

Other viral messages mocked the EDL. "You're not in Star Wars," one man in Belmarsh wrote. Another, who identifies himself on Twitter as a Somali Muslim living in Nottingham, posted a sarcastic picture of himself giving a thumbs-up sign.

But far from a fringe debate, the social media sparring seems to indicate greater tensions in British society -- especially in London. A 2007 Gallup report found that, while 74 percent of Muslim Londoners called themselves "loyal to the country," less than half of Britons agreed. And a 2011 study of the EDL by researchers at the University of Northampton and King's College London concluded that the group's anti-Muslim message resonated across wider swaths of mainstream British society:

"The English Defence League’s ‘new far right’ activism is largely driven by a single issue, namely a potent anti-Muslim agenda. In the wake of 9/11 and 7/7, this prejudice has been strong within British culture, and resonates troublingly amongst elements within the wider public today ... The presence of a wider culture of anti-Muslim prejudice is crucial to the EDL’s on-going viability. Should anti-Muslim sentiment significantly decline in the UK, it is likely that any wider support for the EDL, in its current form, would also decline."

The impact of Wednesday's knife attack on that anti-Muslim sentiment remains to be seen. But as the study's authors point out, past incidents -- like 9/11 or the July 2005 subway bombings that killed 52 people in London -- have only further inflamed tensions.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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