In June 2016, a British man named Tommy Mair shouted “Britain First!” before fatally shooting British Parliamentarian Jo Cox near the northern English city of Leeds. Britain First is the name of an anti-immigration group that mainstream British society considers bigoted against Muslims.
It is the group, unfortunately, whose sharing of incendiary videos on social media was re-shared with more that 43 million people by President Trump last week.
The videos, whose veracity or contexts have been challenged, show violent actions purportedly committed by Islamist extremists. As such, even if they indeed portray what Britain First claims, they are hardly remarkable. There is no end of clear and graphic evidence for Islamist viciousness. The jihadis themselves exult in showing the world how inhuman they can be toward those who don’t share their particular religious faction.
Nevertheless, the seeming endorsement of the videos’ veracity and thereby, as some suggested, of the group itself that first circulated it, is a troubling one.
The Anti-Defamation League contended that Mr. Trump’s action “will embolden bigots in the U.S. and abroad.” A number of Jewish organizations also joined other groups in condemning the sharing of the videos.
The reaction in Great Britain itself was particularly scathing. Britain First is widely reviled across the political spectrum in the country whose interests it claims to champion, and the American president’s use of its materials has been seen as outrageous.
The president was even criticized by British political personality Nigel Farage, who traveled across the Atlantic last year to campaign for the president. And news personality Piers Morgan, who has defended past controversial statements and actions of the president, asked him on social media, “What… are you doing retweeting a bunch of unverified videos by Britain First, a bunch of disgustingly racist far-right extremists? Please stop this madness.”
Most strikingly, the president was publicly criticized by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who has tried to cultivate a good relationship with Mr. Trump. Former British ambassador to the U.S. Sir Christopher Meyer said, “I can’t remember, in my entire life, let alone my entire career, ever a British prime minister publicly rebuking an American president for misbehavior.”
Britain First is led by Jayda Fransen, who has organized “Christian patrols,” marched with crosses through heavily Muslim neighborhoods and accosted veiled women to rail against Islam. She was barred from entering any mosque in England. She has been arrested several times, most recently this month, on charges of making threats and abusive remarks.
She exulted in what she portrayed as the American president’s endorsement, saying she was “delighted” that Mr. Trump shared her videos and thanking him for “shed[ding]light on my plight here in Britain, in that I am facing prison for giving a speech in which I criticized Islam.” Fransen was found guilty of religiously aggravated harassment in 2016 after making comments to a stranger during a “Christian patrol” in Bury Park, Luton, and is currently charged with using “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior” in speeches she made earlier this year.
There is no reason, however, to assume that the president was aware of the provenance of the videos he publicized. Nor should we assume that the president’s citation of material from repugnant sources implies his acceptance of their entire agendas.
But even assuming he thought the videos truly portrayed what they purported to portray, and even if he was unfamiliar — and most Americans surely are — with Britain First and its reputation in its home country, the fact that he, even if inadvertently, gave credence to such a group and stirred the British masses to condemn his actions is regrettable.
Some British politicians are renewing the call to bar Mr. Trump from Britain, which not only enjoys a special relationship with the U.S. but which Mr. Trump pledged, shortly after his inauguration, to visit.
While there is little reason to believe that this most unfortunate episode will cause any long-term alienation between America and one of our country’s strongest allies, it does underscore the inherent risks entailed when social media is used by a president as a primary method of communication. It also serves to remind us of the vital importance of not only verifying the accuracy of available information, but also double-checking the propriety and agenda of sources.