Turn off The Light: taking community action against misinformation and hate speech Mark Horne The Skeptic

We’ve all been handed a leaflet or seen a demonstration that made us wince or recoil in horror at the product, service or group that’s being hawked, from homophobic hate-preachers to the anti-choice activists. But what can any of us actually do? 

That’s the thought that drove a group of committed activists from a small Gloucestershire town of Stroud into action a year ago, incensed at the continued distribution of conspiracy freesheet The Light. The November 2021 issue contained both a defence of Graham Hart, a holocaust denier who was convicted of stirring up racial hatred after he described Jews as “rats” who needed to be “wiped out”, and a full-page climate change denial article by Vernon Coleman, who has some interesting views on pretty much everything

This article in particular was a turning point for Denise, who I spoke to along with four other members of Community Solidarity Stroud District on a dark November evening via Zoom. 

“I saw a Facebook post asking why we were just accepting this in Stroud. I had already seen Jeremy and James’ letters about Sandi Adams – and I agreed – why are we tolerating this in Stroud?” she recalls. 

This is a reference to a rally organised in a Stroud park in November 2020 – protesting Covid-19 restrictions at the time – against which Simon, James, Jeremy and more than 200 others wrote letters and petitions. In particular they cited proposed speakers at the march as being particularly objectionable: climate change denier Piers Corbyn and Agenda 21 conspiracy theorist Sandi Adams – whose personal website previously contained antisemitic content – were invited by the organisers. 

Jeremy says: “I’d done some talks about antisemitism to my local Labour group. While there were issues with the government’s response to the pandemic, when some of my formerly left-wing friends invited Piers Corbyn and Sandi Adams to speak at this anti-lockdown rally, and The Light’s defence of a holocaust denier, I had to find others who felt the same to do something about it.”

Local town councillor Megan also noticed friends and online contacts getting involved in anti-lockdown conspiracy theories, saying that the ideas “definitely appeal to privileged people with spiritual leanings… I saw some of the members going down a very dark path.”

Some of the group had been politically active, while others like James are not party-political, but are very community engaged. 

“Stroud is a small well-connected community town,” James says. “Campaigns are held and succeed – I was involved in a campaign to [successfully] save our local NHS provision, and there are environmental groups actively trying to save trees, there’s Stroud Against Racism, the Stroud Sisterhood Group, the Covid Information Group. I think it explains both the popularity of – and opposition to – The Light in Stroud.”

Despite the close-knit Stroud community, several of the group did not know each other beforehand. Their first action was to start distributing a leaflet in Stroud Town Centre, where distributors of The Light were actively handing out papers for several hours at a time, up to five days a week, and even posting them through letterboxes. There was no risk that they’d inadvertently promote The Light – everyone in Stroud had already come across it by then. 

The group’s first leaflet was timed to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2022, and highlighted The Light article defending Hart. Although this is far from the only link to antisemitism in The Light, some residents they engaged with felt it was unfair to attack them for a single article. Over the following months they also penned leaflets highlighting The Light’s promotion of transphobia, homophobia and climate change denial, and they have an upcoming leaflet planned that highlights anti-Black Lives Matter content in The Light.  

“Soft-supporters of The Light excuse it as just alt-news on Covid-19, but they feel that the alternative view on government covid action is so important that they will excuse the other stuff,” says James. “Climate denial – we got a big response to that leaflet in Stroud – and we picked many examples so we  couldn’t be accused of complaining about The Light purely based on a single article.”

Still, handing out leaflets to passers-by while The Light distributors are feet away can be hard-going. 

Light distributors will just say that they are presenting an alternative viewpoint – they are sucking naive people in. It is draining to be on the high street challenging them,” says Simon. “Speak to the public, not The Light distributors. Some are difficult but a lot of people are appreciative of what we’re doing.”

Denise agrees: “They see us as the purveyors of hate and claim to be upset to be challenged. We took advice from someone from Amnesty on managing conflict – always go in pairs, if it gets distressing then get a colleague to step in, walk away. And always do a debrief.”

“I’ve been screamed at a lot [by The Light distributors],” says Megan. “It was sometimes very unpleasant, but has calmed down a bit now as they see the numbers who support us, and know we are well-connected in the local community.”

The group worried that residents were being bombarded, so in September arranged a banner-drop to coincide with a visit from The Light editor – and flat-earther – Darren Nesbitt, with the banner stating: “No to ‘The Light’ Paper – Lies, hatred, Climate Denial”.

Megan believes that perhaps the tide is beginning to turn, with the group’s continued activities getting an inadvertent boost from an unexpected quarter. “I had good friends on the left who didn’t see the correlation between far-right activities in The Light even after it was pointed out. They’d say ‘Live and let live, it’s harmless’ – but the banner drop and our social media activity has maybe changed that opinion more recently – as has Suella Braverman’s recent language and policies.”

James adds: “We’ve got under their skin – and we are winning people over.”

I asked whether this coming together of people from across the less extreme parts of the political spectrum – signatories to their letters have come from various quarters, including the centre-right – could be emulated in towns and cities with more angry, bitter politics than an engaged small-town community like Stroud, but am quickly told that I’m quite wrong in my assumptions. 

“Political relations particularly between Green and Labour were really difficult in Stroud a couple of years ago, as a result of the 2019 elections, and they are better now – maybe partly down to this!” laughs Jeremy. 

If readers of The Skeptic would like to take action against The Light in their own communities, Community Solidarity Stroud District are very happy for people to download, print and distribute their leaflets, share them online, or to get in touch via their website, as they can provide Canva or InDesign files for the leaflets to be localised. 

I was really impressed by the commitment and dedication of this group of volunteers, though as with everything else, at least one Light distributor senses a hidden hand must be behind Community Solidarity Stroud District, and in particular the charity that James works for, as he recounted to me with a smile: 

“They asked me ‘Who funds Access Bikes?’, as if there was some massive conspiracy to fund a community bike scheme in Stroud!”

The post Turn off The Light: taking community action against misinformation and hate speech appeared first on The Skeptic.

When the free, conspiracy-laden antivax newspaper The Light began to circulate around Stroud, Gloucestershire, one group of concerned locals decided enough was enough
The post Turn off The Light: taking community action against misinformation and hate speech appeared first on The Skeptic.

Generated by Feedzy