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What's It Like Being a Tory On the Internet?

How do normal conservatives navigate a world dominated by two tribes that hate you: the alt-right and the internet left?

by Hussein Kesvani
02 June 2017, 7:15am

If you're politically active on social media, it's quite likely that you're in one of two political camps: you're either on the socialist end of the left, support Jeremy Corbyn and listen to Chapo Trap House, or you're to the right, maybe support UKIP, voted Brexit, share articles from Breitbart and retweet guys like Paul Joseph Watson. Maybe you still post Pepe memes.

To those who aren't embedded in social media, the political culture of the internet can very much seem like a battle between these two groups.

Thanks to a boom in left-leaning news websites, there are now more places to read content supportive of social welfare, migrants' rights and support for the NHS. But where right-wing content sites are dominated by social conservatives – the sites that seem to be obsessed with George Soros and Muslims – the internet is understandably a difficult place for your standard Tory. How does a Conservative voter navigate the internet when one side sees you as a fascist and the other as a liberal wolf in sheep's clothing?

FACEBOOK

According to most young Tories I spoke to, the majority of social media activity tends to happen on Facebook. Some of the biggest Facebook groups include "Conservative Debate Forum", "CORE" and Young Conservatives, all with a few thousand members – although there are smaller spin-off groups focused on policy issues. Nearly all of these groups are private, in order to keep "snooping journalists and lefty trolls" out, according to another young Tory I spoke to. Despite not being able to access the group, I was sent some grabs by members.

I'd expected to find posts critiquing policy, speculating who would be in the cabinet or really anything to do with the campaign. But even in the biggest group, Conservative Debate Forum, there wasn't much conversation – most people were posting commentary about Jeremy Corbyn's associations with the IRA and Hamas, or disparaging images of John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. There was little engagement with these posts, too; the most shares I saw on any post was around 20, for a picture of Theresa May next to one of Margaret Thatcher.

"Thatcher still plays a big role for Tories online," said Sarah*, another young Tory who didn't want to give her last name. Though Sarah joined the Tories under Cameron and still identifies as a progressive conservative, she says that May "offered a sense of nostalgia for young conservatives who felt lost under Cameron... they idolise Thatcher even though they never lived under her rule, so in May they can sort of live out the fantasy".

Tory Facebook groups are carefully moderated, other members told me. "They still want the groups to be inclusive, and though they won't restrict freedom of speech, something will usually kick off whenever an article from Breitbart or Leave.EU shows up about Muslims taking over or immigrants stealing jobs," said one.

These posts popped up in the groups in the days after the Manchester attack, but the conversation was far less toxic than on your average Facebook comment thread. Was this a sign that Tories online were more tolerant than their counterparts in more extreme right-wing groups? "It's rare you'll find something from Britain First, the EDL or Tommy Robinson get praised in the group," Sarah told me. "But that doesn't necessarily mean they're more accepting of Islam or that there were people that didn't act out in ways that were bigoted. I think there's just an awareness that you'll probably get banned if you break the rules."

TWITTER

"You get called a cunt by lefties sometimes," said Thomas*, who didn't want his Twitter account made public. Thomas is a Tory activist in the north of England, a "red Labour" area, as he calls it. He used to use social media for activism in the Cameron days, sending argumentative tweets to left-wing personalities like Owen Jones and Laurie Penny, usually about why socialism was bad and free markets were good. But these days – particularly after Brexit – Thomas tends to use Twitter just to keep up with campaigning. "Twitter's become a toxic place for a lot of Tories," he explained. "Because it's open to anyone, it's difficult to have a proper political discussion about policy, and it often descends into huge ideological arguments."

Thomas, like many young Tories, uses Twitter to follow Conservative commentators online – people like Tim Montgomerie, Oliver Cooper, James Kirkup and Isabel Hardman. He follows a handful of Tory councillors and MPs, including Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. For the most part, these Tories don't really say much online, and will only tweet out photos of them in their constituencies, on the road campaigning or generic shots of them in cafes and pubs. In a strange way, Thomas says, it's a much better experience online. "If you look at the left, there's always these fights that go on about the party not being left enough, or Blairites taking over or something. It goes into conspiracy, while being a Tory, now, basically means waiting for the election to be over so we can get on with ruling the country. Labour is in chaos, and while I have my disagreements with the Tory party I'd rather the dirty laundry wasn't aired publicly."

That said, Thomas does worry about the Tories hiding in their own filter bubble. "If you just follow Tory accounts, platforms and commentators, there's this idea that things are going just fine, that there aren't problems," he admitted. "There are Tories who think this, and that can be very dangerous. Not just because of the left, but also people to the right of the party – the ones who are calling for nationalism, or to increase the power of the surveillance state. Things that are completely against Conservatism."

THINGS THEY READ

The right-wing social web is filled with articles from dodgy fake news websites, while Breitbart, Infowars and Rebel Media continue to grow dramatically with videos and interactive content. As a result, Tories have found themselves in a peculiar position of trying to find right-leaning news, but not necessarily stuff implying that the UK is about to become a caliphate.

Most Tories I spoke to insisted they read "everything" and that they weren't ideologically bent in the way that left-wing supporters were ("We even read VICE from time to time," one said). The Telegraph is still popular among young Tories, though thanks to its paywall articles are rarely shared. Young Tories also read the Guido Fawkes website and, from time to time, read articles on Conservative Home, though people I spoke to said the website "wasn't as relevant as it used to be to the Conservative movement".

Unlike their left-wing counterparts, younger Tories really only read UK-based news for their political content. Beyond obscure American websites, there wasn't an international journal of Conservatism in a similar vein to Jacobin – a left wing journal from the US – nor were there any real Conservative columnists or commentators that young Tories could point to as important to their political identity. "Er, David Frum, maybe?"

For the most part, the Tory web is just white guys in ill-fitting suits posting Telegraph articles or advertising the next country pub meet. It's all quite twee – a rare, idyllic part of the internet where people still post cat memes and don't call you a Blairite scumbag or a cuck. In fact, as far as insults go, the worst you'll probably get is being called an "Iain Duncan Smith".

@HKesvani