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How It Feels To Be Trolled By 40,000 Brexiters On Facebook

I found out the hard way just how ugly politics on social media has become, post–EU referendum.

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I have a public Facebook profile. These past few weeks I've been using it to post my thoughts about the EU and why I think Brexit is a mistake.

Right up until the morning after the referendum, when the result became clear, the interactions were broadly supportive: mostly friends, and a few subscribers, discussing the referendum and the implications of a Leave vote.
Facebook: lukeslewis

Right up until the morning after the referendum, when the result became clear, the interactions were broadly supportive: mostly friends, and a few subscribers, discussing the referendum and the implications of a Leave vote.

Over the weekend, comments started flooding in from people who'd voted Leave disagreeing with me. Not just a few. Tens of thousands. Almost all of them angry and abusive.

The trash talk I could handle. I mean, "cockwomble" is quite a good insult, to be fair.

The violent threats, however, were not so easy to laugh off.

More troubling was the breathtaking Islamophobia that erupted when I posted a photo of London mayor Sadiq Khan addressing crowds at Pride.

The post that aroused the most anger was this one, posted the morning of the result, in which I said the Brexit vote made me feel ashamed to be British.

Facebook: lukeslewis

It had 44,000 comments. I'd gone viral among right-wing English nationalists.

The onslaught of abuse tipped over into being genuinely frightening when people started posting comments on a photo of my daughter.

A large number of the comments said the same thing: I was a "traitor" who should leave Britain.

One commenter accused me of committing "sedition". Interestingly, a number of the people accusing me of betraying Britain weren't living in Britain themselves. I had "traitor" comments from the USA, Sweden, and Spain.

One commenter accused me of committing "sedition". Interestingly, a number of the people accusing me of betraying Britain weren't living in Britain themselves. I had "traitor" comments from the USA, Sweden, and Spain.

I was variously told to fuck off to Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Germany, North Korea, and Outer Mongolia. And to "join ISIS".

There was also a class element. I was accused of being a "silver spoon cunt" who'd led a privileged life.

A number of commenters slagged me off for having gone to private school (I didn't, for what it's worth). Others assumed from my job title – Head of European Growth – that I was actually employed by the EU and now stood to lose my job.
Facebook: lukeslewis

A number of commenters slagged me off for having gone to private school (I didn't, for what it's worth). Others assumed from my job title – Head of European Growth – that I was actually employed by the EU and now stood to lose my job.

The most common theme, however, was the notion that, in supporting Remain, I was betraying those who had fought in wars to defend Britain.

This came up time and again. I find it a puzzling argument. Surely what the Allies fought for in two world wars was peace in Europe – which is precisely what the EU was put in place to defend, and in which aim it has miraculously succeeded for over half a century. This 96-year-old RAF veteran, for example, supported Remain, telling Channel 4 News: "I remember how far we have come. I know what we stand to lose."
Facebook: lukeslewis

This came up time and again. I find it a puzzling argument. Surely what the Allies fought for in two world wars was peace in Europe – which is precisely what the EU was put in place to defend, and in which aim it has miraculously succeeded for over half a century. This 96-year-old RAF veteran, for example, supported Remain, telling Channel 4 News: "I remember how far we have come. I know what we stand to lose."

To be clear, I don't believe the angry comments I'm receiving are in any way equivalent to the real-life abuse being reported by minorities across Britain, post-referendum.

I can block trolls and delete their comments if they go too far (Facebook's community guidelines are clear on the subject of hate speech). People facing racist abuse in the street don't have that privilege.

But it all contributes to a growing sense that the referendum debate has poisoned public life. Hate crime is demonstrably on the rise.

To be sure, aggressive English nationalism is nothing new.

Anyone who spends any time reading comments on newspaper sites will know that angry racist trolls have always existed.
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Anyone who spends any time reading comments on newspaper sites will know that angry racist trolls have always existed.

What has changed is the context for such views.

Organisations such as the EDL used to be on the far fringes. They were the targets of derision and mocking memes. Anyone spouting racist insults in public could expect to be shouted down. Neo-Nazi events in Britain were generally shambolic failures, with activists outnumbered by anti-fascist demonstrators.
Henry Langston

Organisations such as the EDL used to be on the far fringes. They were the targets of derision and mocking memes. Anyone spouting racist insults in public could expect to be shouted down. Neo-Nazi events in Britain were generally shambolic failures, with activists outnumbered by anti-fascist demonstrators.

Now, following the Leave victory, racists appear to believe they represent the majority. They are leaving hate-filled comments on social media confidently expecting likes, shares, and agreement.

Triumphant nationalism amplified by social media is a new force in the world, and frankly it terrifies me.
Facebook: lukeslewis

Triumphant nationalism amplified by social media is a new force in the world, and frankly it terrifies me.

So far, I've only deleted the comments that were left on my family photos. I'm leaving the rest up, because I want people to see just how confrontational the national conversation has become.

I also think there's a positive takeaway here. For me, this has been a valuable lesson in what happens when the social media filter bubble bursts and you are forced to confront the views of people with whom you disagree. It's bracing, and scary – but if we are to stand any hope of fixing the deep divisions in society exposed by the referendum, we can't delude ourselves over what people in this country are saying and thinking. We need to confront reality and deal with it.