The secret yearnings of pro-Tory Facebook groups

Filter Bubbles of Britain
By BBC Trending

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What's happening inside hidden Facebook groups devoted to Conservative die-hards?

They are sceptical about the snap election, but willing to go along with it. They're scathing about their opponents on the left - including one prominent Labour MP in particular. And above all, they celebrate a female Conservative Prime Minister - just not the one currently in office.

Welcome to the community shaped by pro-Conservative groups on Facebook. They're much smaller in size compared to Jeremy Corbyn's Facebook "army", despite a historical push by Conservatives on Facebook advertising (they reportedly outspent Labour in 2015) - but the Tories of Facebook are a highly active group, including party staff and grassroots members.

As part of BBC Trending's exploration of the impact of social media on the General Election, we've gained access to "Conservatives Online", which has roughly 9,000 members, and its sister page, the "Conservative Debating Forum", which has more than 2,000 members. There are a number of other Conservative groups of similar size.

An administrator of Conservatives Online told BBC Trending that the purpose of the group is to "act as a national online network for Conservative supporters all over the country" while occasionally engaging in "a little gentle activism."

A striking feature of both these groups is the sheer amount of admiration that members hold for Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. One member of "Conservatives Online" summed up the general mood, by saying that he "worships" Thatcher "to this day."

Filter Bubble Britain: General Election coverage from BBC Trending

Over the course of the 2017 General Election campaign, BBC Trending will be delving inside "filter bubbles" - tight online communities created by algorithms and the way we all use social media.

If you'd like to help report on online communities, email the BBC Trending team to express interest. We have a number of tools which will allow us to examine your own "filter bubble" on social media - but there's no commitment, all information will be anonymised, and we'll keep all of your personal information private.

Read our previous report: Inside the Corbynista Facebook 'army'

Even when compared to more recent Conservative leaders, including the current prime minister, Thatcher comes out on top. In a snapshot poll conducted within the "Debating Forum", Thatcher's famous quote "There is no such thing as society", ranked well ahead of slogans such as Theresa May's "One Nation Society" and David Cameron's "Big Society".

When it comes to economics, there is added gusto for Thatcher's policies. Asked whether Thatcher's economic policies should be resurrected, more than two-thirds of voters in the "Debating Forum" gave their full endorsement.

The administrator of "Conservatives Online", who didn't want to be named, told Trending: "Margaret Thatcher was one of our strongest, most determined and most fearless Conservative Prime Ministers… Her speeches and her policies are often looked back at with nostalgia."

"I believe [Thatcher] took us out of the dark days of the 1970s," says Frazer Brooks, an administrator of the "Debating Forum" group. "We were the sick man of Europe, going through the winter of discontent and a bit of a laughing stock really. She transformed us back into a world power."

Another striking feature of these groups is how dead set many members were against a snap vote, at least before the election was called (and many remain sceptical now). In a poll posted on the "Debating Forum" on 20 March, 83% of voters said that it would not be wise to call a general election.

One popular post in "Conservatives Online" on 10 March asked "Should Mrs May Call an Election before the summer? My own opinion is NO":

Interestingly, despite the perception of fox hunting being popular among the Tory base, there is also scepticism in these groups about May's support for a free vote on whether to strike down the 2004 ban on fox hunting, with many members opposed to a rethink on the issue. One poll on the "Debating Forum" showed two-thirds against the legalisation of fox hunting - about the same proportion among Conservative voters as a recent ComRes/Daily Mirror poll on the issue.

On 10 May, one user of "Conservatives Online" noted that re-visiting fox hunting does not chime with the Conservatives' key campaign messages. "This is not our priority" said the user. Another commented: "This is a very bad decision... which will do nothing but cost us votes, gaining us nothing."

As much as the members of these groups love Thatcherism, they - unsurprisingly - hate what might be called Corbynism and current Labour policies. But their harshest criticism is reserved not for the Labour leader, but one of his key allies, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott:

On 2 May, after Abbott got in a muddle over the cost of the party's pledge to hire 10,000 more police officers, an administrator of "Conservatives Online" even asked members to stop posting about the incident, because they thought the number of comments was excessive.

On occasion, posts against Abbott have made use of crude racial stereotypes. Commenting on a "Debating Forum" post, one member used an image which portrays Abbott as an orangutan, with the message: "Get the Diane Abbott look". The Conservative Party itself has condemned this image, describing it as "unacceptable" when shared by a local party activist who was suspended from the party.

Images like this are also condemned by other members of the "Debating Forum," despite not being taken down yet. When one individual posted a Photoshopped picture of Abbott with the strapline "Corbyn's big mama," another user responded by saying: "These horrid memes and photoshopped images are lowering the tone and turning me off this group".

Brooks, administrator of the "Debating Forum", told Trending that, "Racist comments are against our rules and we try to delete them when we see them."

Blog by Sam Bright

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