A key Facebook group for the UK’s most prominent left-wing news outlets has been overrun with anti-Semitic comments. Jewish MP Luciana Berger labelled it a “cesspit of anti-Jewish hatred” intended to offer support for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
BuzzFeed News has found posts and comments on the Independent Media UK Facebook group in the last week alone that attack Jewish MPs, and those who’ve criticised the Labour leadership’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints.
When the administrators were alerted to them on Wednesday morning, one news outlet said it had already quit the group in protest, while several of the worst anti-Semitic comments began to disappear without warning.
Last year, 10 well-known pro-Corbyn websites set up Independent Media UK after their traffic was hit by a Facebook algorithm change that de-prioritized news. The 10 sites were Skwawkbox, the Canary, Evolve Politics, Another Angry Voice, Unity News, Peter Stefanovic, EL4C, Real Media, Now Then, and A Up Let’s Talk.
The group now has more than 7,000 followers, and it effectively works as a way to connect the ecosystem of pro-Corbyn media websites with its die-hard supporters. There is no evidence that Corbyn has any knowledge of the group’s existence.
At the time, Independent Media UK was heralded by Skwawkbox as a way for Britain’s so-called New Left Media to get around so-called censorship by Facebook — it was one of many such groups set up by news brands in the wake of the changes.
But now, senior MPs and Jewish activists are calling out some posts and comments filling the Facebook group on a daily basis.
Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, said it was unacceptable that Facebook was letting the “racists spread lies and hate freely in online groups”.
“Facebook has got to do more to take down racist and offensive comments from its platform,” Watson said. “It’s not good enough to let conspiracy theorists and racists spread lies and hate freely in online groups.”
A Facebook spokesperson said: “We are investigating a number of comments in the group flagged to us by BuzzFeed News. Our Community Standards make it clear that there is no place for hate speech on Facebook and we will take appropriate action on any content that violates these rules.”
The group’s members have posted comments with abuse directed at MPs, including calling Joan Ryan a “rat”, “hag” and “zionist stooge”. Another said Margaret Hodge’s citizenship should be revoked so she could rely on her “jooish [sic] state citizenship”.
Berger — who left Labour last week saying the party’s leadership had allowed “Jews be abused with impunity” — told BuzzFeed News that she was appalled by the comments: “These Facebook groups which purport to support Jeremy Corbyn are a cesspit of anti-Jewish hatred. Just a few moments reading their content, and you can see the full range of anti-Semitic language, images and themes: secret plots, loyalty to foreign powers and secretly controlling the media.
“This is where racism is incubated and disseminated, which then spills into our public discourse.”
Many of the most recent comments have been left on posts by blogger Mike Sivier, who is one of the Independent Media group’s admins. In the last week, he has repeatedly posted about Jewish MPs who have criticised Labour’s response to anti-Semitism in the wake of recent high-profile resignations from the party.
Sivier, who was recently expelled from the Labour party, has posted blogs from his website Vox Political to the wall of the group, asking about the funding for the new Independent Group and tying it to questions about the “allegiance” of Jewish MPs.
Sivier’s Vox Political account — which has 40,000 followers — is one of the listed 25 administrators and moderators for the Facebook group.
It also raises questions about what, if anything, Labour’s executive has done to act against Facebook groups spreading anti-Semitism. Berger told BuzzFeed News she specifically raised the issue directly with Corbyn as far back as 2017.
“I raised the issue of race-hate in pro-Corbyn Facebook groups directly with Jeremy Corbyn at the end of 2017,” she said. “It represents a dark stain on our politics and yet Labour’s establishment does nothing to tackle it.
“I left the Labour Party because I believe that it is institutionally anti-Semitic. Online pages such as this are just part of the problem.”
Labour did not respond as to whether Corbyn had been warned about the groups.
Peter Mason, the national secretary of the Jewish Labour Movement, said the examples of anti-Semitism he saw in the comments in the group are the modern-day equivalent of someone standing on a table in a 1930s beer hall and inciting anti-Semitic abuse in the crowd.
“This kind of conspiratorial fake news acts like red meat to online anti-semites,” the member said. “It’s the kind of language you’d have seen in the beer halls of 1930s Germany and instead of banging tables, they are sharing and retweeting this insidious stuff.
“This is radicalisation, and people are unwittingly being sucked into really dark places.”
Since the bombshell resignations of Labour MPs last week, Tom Watson has publicly criticised his party’s handling of anti-Semitism cases. On Monday, Watson said he’d be personally logging the abuse received by MPs.
After seeing the comments made by Sivier and others in the Independent Media UK group, he told BuzzFeed News that those making them have “no place in the Labour party”.
In 2018, Sivier took several of the UK’s biggest news publications to the industry regulator IPSO, including the Times, Mail Online, the Sun, and Jewish Chronicle, over reports of his readmission and comments about the Holocaust. The regulator upheld his complaint. A Labour spokesperson told BuzzFeed News Sivier had been expelled from the party after a review by the party’s executive. In a blog post last Friday, Sivier wrote that he was currently challenging his expulsion.
But last Tuesday — in the midst of the unfolding drama surrounding MPs leaving Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour — Sivier stridently defended the Labour MP Ruth George, who had earlier in the day apologised and deleted a Facebook comment for what she later admitted was “invoking a conspiracy theory” that suggested Israel was funding the new Independent Group of MPs.
“Which conspiracy theory is this, then?” Sivier wrote. “There isn’t a conspiracy theory relating to the state of Israel.”
He went on to suggest people could not trust the allegiances of the MPs: “For all we know, the Israeli government could be funding this organisation — or perhaps other foreign powers may be. Even if neither is true, we cannot trust these MPs to have the interests of UK citizens at heart, above those of their funders…
“There is an easy way to dispel suspicions about all of these issues, of course – and that is for the ‘Independent Group’ to open up its books to the public.
“Until that happens, the people of the UK cannot trust Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes and Ann Coffey. It’s as simple as that.”
Then Sivier’s post was dropped into the Independent Media UK group. Members took aim at Joan Ryan and fellow Jewish Labour MP Margaret Hodge who had publicly criticised Ruth George for the anti-Semitic remarks.
“I thought this would be right up the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs’s Street,” one wrote. “Even moreso now that Joan Ryan had joined the 7.” Another wrote: “Sajid Javed [sic] should revoke hodge’s citizenship, she can then rely on her jooish [sic] state citizenship…”
It was left to another to write, “sorry [redacted] but comments like that don’t help the cause.”
The next day, Sivier zeroed in on the claims made by Ryan against the Labour party on his Vox Political blog: “A constant theme had been baseless allegations of anti-Semitism against the party under Mr Corbyn.”
He added: “The fact is that anti-Semitism in Labour has reduced under Mr Corbyn’s leadership — but that doesn’t suit Ms Ryan’s narrative so she has denied it with a tissue of falsehoods.
“With that record of dishonesty, the rest of Ms Ryan’s claims about anti-Semitic sentiment in the Labour Party aren’t worth a fig.”
Again, when Sivier’s post was dropped into the Facebook group for the pro-Corbyn media it was met with a stream of abuse.
The first three comments read: “Rat!”... “Hateful bile spewing Hag! Get tae fuck with ye and NEVER come back!”... “Zionist stooge!”
Others ran a similar argument.
“Corruption at it’s [sic] worst. Israel attempting to turn the UK into another evil replica of it’s own murderous regime. There is enough evidence to support this but the MAIN STREAM MEDIA will not print a word because they are part of the plot and with others providing financial support on a massive scale. All involved are rotten to the core.”
But in the last 10 days, it’s not just Sivier’s post attracting abuse.
Last week, a blog called People’s News posted about Ryan becoming the eighth MP to defect from Labour in the Facebook group. One person responded, “8th Israeli shill more like”, while another posted, “early spring clean it seems, all the cockroaches are weeding themselves out…”
Over the weekend, the Canary posted about Labour deputy leader Tom Watson getting into a feud with Corbyn over anti-Semitism.
One commenter wrote: “The defectors have come out with nothing new and relevant to political change. But they are sure to slag off their parties to cause damage and support the neoliberal Zionist politics dominating the UK… British politicians in the pay of a foreign government seems like a clear case of treason to me…”
And two days earlier, another post from the Canary brought more comments against the Jewish MPs, with one falsely claiming: “Hearing that Luciana Berger allegedly once laughed and shrugged when asked about the deaths of Palestinian children at the hands of the IDF? Can anyone confirm…”
After BuzzFeed News approached all the group’s admins on Wednesday, the People’s News claimed it had left the group after trying to push out Sivier for “inflammatory comments” they had judged to be anti-Semitic.
“It recently emerged Vox Political writer Mike Sivier has made inflammatory comments online,” the People’s News (TPN) said. “We have judged these comments to be anti-Semitic.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Sivier denied claims that his posts were anti-Semitic and that he couldn’t be held accountable for comments made in the Facebook group.
“Nothing I have said or written has been anti-Semitic,” Sivier said. “I am not responsible for the comments of other people and would resist any suggestions of ‘guilt by association’ by you or anybody else.”
The People’s News added: “TPN tabled a vote to expel Vox Political from the group, but this was not passed. Our management team have therefore made the unanimous but regrettable decision to leave. We have not taken this decision lightly.”
In a statement, the Canary’s director of communications and membership Nancy Mendoza said it was up to members of the Independent Media UK to police the group.
“We share content from the Canary to the Independent Media UK Facebook group. Members of the group are able to flag inappropriate content for us to review and the group is essentially self policing in that way.
“We do not consider criticism of the Israeli government or its Zionist project to be anti-semitic. We believe it is vital that people can criticise the oppression of Palestinian civilians without being accused of antisemitism.
“As a Jewish person who has experienced real life antisemitism, I find it hugely frustrating that the true meaning of the term is being diluted for the sake of political gain. This has to stop.
“When the kids on my school bus told me I should have been ‘gassed with all the rest of them’, that was anti-semitic. I know the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism because I live it, every day.”
UPDATE: Welfare Weekly, one of the admins of the Facebook group, quit Independent Media UK after seeing the comments.
“We do not support nor subscribe to any anti-semitic beliefs or ideologies,” Steve Preece from Welfare Weekly told BuzzFeed News. “Furthermore, we do not condone the actions of anyone who hold these beliefs.
“I would like to thank Buzzfeed for bringing this issue to my attention, and as a result we will be immediately terminating our ties with Independent Media UK.”
Other admins of the group had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Mark Di Stefano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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