26.06.24 Big Tech

Hate speech and climate denial: inside the Facebook network run by Reform candidates

Reform UK candidates and activists have been running a network of Facebook groups spreading misinformation, conspiracy theories and Islamophobia, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) can reveal.

The groups do not describe themselves as officially linked to the party, yet some are run by a candidate set to stand in next month’s general election.

Many more Reform candidates are part of the network as group members. TBIJ has identified 74 altogether, accounting for well over 10% of all the party’s parliamentary candidates.

The network consists of 11 groups with a combined membership of more than 63,000. Some bill themselves as forums for political discussion, others as fan groups for TalkTV and GB News.

Discussion among members frequently takes a racist tone, with one popular post deploring the “sickening” presence of halal food in UK shops and another reading “Vote Islam or vote Reform”.

Posts also often amplify the far-right idea, known as the “great replacement” theory, that white Europeans are being systematically replaced by people of colour.

The groups’ administrators, who have the power to add or remove users and delete content, include Andy Dawber, the parliamentary candidate for Wigan, who was running three groups at the time of reporting.

Mark Peart, who is standing in Blyth and Ashington, also ran nine groups and has used them to share party fundraisers and sell merchandise.

Both have run groups in which admins have the power to pre-approve posts as well as delete them.

As well as 74 parliamentary candidates, members of the network include a further six who stood in local elections and two party staffers. Some have used the groups to try to recruit people to volunteer or stand for Reform at a local and national level. Others have spread conspiracy theories and climate change denial.

“Reform must be transparent,” Humza Yousaf, the former first minister of Scotland, who was targeted in a number of posts in the groups, told TBIJ. “They must be open and they must tell us their involvement in these far-right groups.

“Have they sanctioned their candidates to be involved in such groups? Have they allowed them? Have they properly vetted them? Now they know the facts, what action will they take?”

As well as Peart and Dawber, two former candidates have run groups in the network, including local council candidate Lesley Crosby who currently runs five.

None of the groups mentioned Reform in their name until last week, when two changed their names to include a reference to the party (one group, run by Dawber, added “Vote for Nigel Farage and Reform”). Prior to this, banner images referencing Reform had been a feature of four of the groups, two of which described themselves as a place for party supporters.

However, none have ever explicitly disclosed the role of party officials in running the groups.

A Reform UK spokesperson told TBIJ: “Reform UK has never had any official involvement in any of the groups mentioned. So, we cannot be held responsible for their content.”

Admin rights for all 11 groups were gained between October 2023 and March by an anonymous account named Reform U.K. Be The Change, which also controls several other groups with a stated connection to the party. In most cases, the presence of this account as the administrator is the only sign at all that the groups have any link to Reform.

The network

Oliver Kemp for TBIJ

In a post in October, Peart did write that one group was being run by candidates and activists.

Dawber told TBIJ he has requested to be removed as an administrator to the groups, adding: “I am 100% confident that all my choices as an administrator have been appropriate.”

Peart told TBIJ: “I am confident in my judgement during my time as administrator and I never posted anything immoral.”

All of the other candidates named in this piece, as well as the account Reform U.K. Be The Change, were contacted for comment and did not respond.

‘A concerted effort to recruit’

Islamophobia is a recurring theme across the network. On the day of May’s London mayoral election, contested by Sadiq Khan, one post read: “Let’s all vote an English person in as mayor not a foreign one.”

Another post in May, in which a member said they “would rather see our historic churches demolished than be turned into Mosques”, was liked by Andrea Whitehead, who at the time was the Reform candidate for Leeds West and Pudsey. Two other parliamentary candidates have liked posts quoting Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech.

Transphobia and climate change misinformation are also prevalent, as are conspiracy theories involving “chemtrails” – harmful chemicals supposedly dispensed by planes – and elite-driven plots to push digital currency.

Chris Farmer, the Reform candidate for Gloucester, has repeatedly used the network to spread conspiracy theories. In April, he posted a message claiming Khan was helping the World Economic Forum create a “dictatorship justified by a ‘climate – health emergency’”.

An account promoted by Dave Holland, the parliamentary candidate for Mid Bedfordshire, has used the groups to share links to his website, where he claims Bill Gates wants to “reduce the population via the medium of vaccines”.

Holland has also spread climate change denial and dismissed calls for limiting carbon emissions. Discussing net zero on his website, he writes: “If CO2 was such an enemy of the people, why have we not banned fizzy drinks?”

Jane Duckworth, candidate for Milton Keynes North, liked a post from April that predicted a “civil war” if the UK did not stop allowing people from abroad to “pillage and rape our country both financially and physically”.

Georgie Laming, campaigns director for Hope Not Hate, told TBIJ: “[Party leader] Nigel Farage claimed the snap election was partly to blame for a lack of vetting of his candidates. Yet this investigation clearly shows Reform UK candidates and party activists have been part of a concerted effort to recruit candidates via a network of groups containing extreme racism, hate speech and misinformation.”

Reform UK has removed its support from multiple candidates in recent weeks after the emergence of historic social media posts. Earlier this month, Grant StClair-Armstrong resigned from the party after it was revealed that he had praised Enoch Powell and urged people to vote for the BNP.

A spokesperson for Meta told TBIJ: “We don’t allow attacks on people based on their race, religion, sex, or other defined protected characteristics, and will remove any content we find that violates these rules.”

‘The harm is already done’

The investigation raises questions as to how Meta is monitoring content on its platforms that violate its own community guidelines, particularly in the runup to the election on 4 July.

Some posts in the group have been flagged as potentially misleading by Meta’s independent fact-checkers, yet had not been taken down and in some cases received hundreds of interactions.

Pallavi Sethi, policy fellow at the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, told TBIJ: “Climate misinformation and conspiracy theories are still being amplified on Facebook.”

“Simply labelling misinformation isn’t effective because the harm is already done. Providing a fact-check alone is not going to change a person’s belief as the algorithms are reinforcing people’s beliefs by repeatedly showing them similar narratives.”

A report published by Global Witness in 2022 found that Facebook’s algorithm was amplifying climate change denial.

A spokesperson for Meta told TBIJ: “We believe that labelling misinformation can be more impactful than the alternative of just removing it […] By surfacing research from fact-checkers we’re providing people context instead of creating an information vacuum.”

Ahead of the general election, Reform is currently polling as the UK’s third most popular party behind the Conservatives and Labour at between 10% and 13%. However, it won just two councillors in May’s local elections after fielding more than 300 candidates.

According to the Times, Reform’s content on Facebook has gained more traction than that of any other party since the general election was announced. Its official Facebook channels had gained almost three times more engagement than Labour despite Reform not using paid political adverts.

This story was amended on 26 June to include comments provided by Meta after publication.

Reporter: Billie Gay Jackson
Additional reporting: Pri Bengani

Tech editor: Jasper Jackson
Deputy editor: Katie Mark
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Emily Goddard

Our reporting on Big Tech is funded by Open Society Foundations. None of our funders have any influence over our editorial decisions or output.