The battle over Britain's newest student movement

By Ed Main
BBC Trending

image copyrightTurning Point UK
image captionTurning Point UK's leaders as pictured on the group's original website

To say that the launch of Britain's newest right-wing student organisation suffered a few snags is a bit like reporting that Brexit negotiations have not all been plain sailing.

Turning Point UK (TPUK) is an offshoot of Turning Point USA, a controversial and staunchly pro-Trump presence on American campuses.

The group announced its arrival last week, proclaiming itself a cheerleader for capitalism, free speech and limited government. It was enthusiastically received by leading Brexiteers including Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

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But Twitter was not entirely welcoming, and TPUK almost immediately found itself hit by a tsunami of online mockery. Dozens of parody accounts quickly appeared.

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The accounts posted caricatures of leading TPUK members such as Darren Grimes, a pro-Brexit campaigner fined £20,000 for breaking EU referendum spending laws.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

Much of the humour revolves around portraying TPUK as privileged, or extremists.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

There are also multiple memes depicting Turning Point USA's founder Charlie Kirk in nappies - a reference to a backfiring publicity stunt in which American activists dressed as babies to ridicule the idea of campus "safe spaces".

image copyrightTwitter

Many of the parody accounts are visually almost indistinguishable from actual TPUK accounts. To add to the confusion, both the parody and genuine accounts furiously denounced each other on Twitter. In Cambridge, each accused the other of being socialist saboteurs who should be removed from the platform. Victory was eventually claimed by the genuine account when the parody one was handed a Twitter ban.

image copyrightTwitter

At first, the main national TPUK account appeared mildly irritated and promised to help supporters navigate their way through the fakes.

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But as the parody army continued to grow, TPUK staged a tactical retreat. The national account now says that it is the only real one, even though some apparently genuine branch accounts remain.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

Happy with launch

Despite all the confusion, TPUK chairman George Farmer says that he is broadly happy with how the launch has gone.

"You can never stop people creating fake accounts. It's one of the joys of the internet," he told BBC Trending. "People are always going to create hundreds of fake accounts in the same way that they do for Trump."

Farmer says that TPUK is seeking Twitter verification - which comes with that coveted blue tick - to help make clear which are the organisation's real accounts. The main account, @TPointUK, has already attracted more than 19,000 followers.

But there's another problem - there's already a well-established Turning Point in Britain. It's not political at all, rather it's an organisation that supports people with drug and alcohol problems.

The original Turning Point told Trending it received no advance warning of the creation of a similarly-named group.

"Turning Point would like to make it clear that we have no connection to TPointUK or any political movements," the charity said in a statement. "Many people are concerned about the confusion."

But Farmer says his group has done nothing wrong: "We don't have the same name. We don't have the same logo. It's completely different."

Parody network

So who is behind the online onslaught against Turning Point UK?

Many of the parody accounts have posted a link to a satirical version of the TPUK website created by a student blogger who goes by the alias "Skeptical Seventh".

The website makes a mock plea for an end to the online harassment of TPUK: "Our organisation has been labelled 'a glorified incel support group.' This is just plain misleading, some of us like UKIP".

Skeptical Seventh, who declined to give his real name, says that the parody accounts were a spontaneous reaction by individuals concerned about what they regard as the import of a "sinister" right-wing movement whose US operation is funded by big Republican Party donors.

"A lot of the people who are involved with the parody accounts are broadly left-leaning," says Skeptical Seventh. "It's really unified all corners of the left and even some of the centre and maybe even centre-right," he says.

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"There was a Twitter group chat with all the different fake accounts and 50 is the limit on the number of people you can have in group chat, and they couldn't get everybody in," Skeptical Seventh says.

'Professor Watchlist'

The people behind the parody accounts have also set up at least two fundraising pages to seek donations for the charity Turning Point's drink and drug services.

Skeptical Seventh rejects the accusation of TPUK supporters that the parodies are puerile and evidence of the intellectual poverty of the left.

"I think for an organisation that once had a chapter dressing up as as toddlers in nappies, it's a bit rich of them to try to call the people opposing them immature," he says.

The group's critics have also taken issue with Turning Point USA's "Professor Watchlist" - an online registry of professors that the group accuses of advancing "a radical agenda".

"They must know that what they are doing will lead to people being harassed, being shut down," says Skeptical Seventh. "It is undermining academic freedom, which is ironic for an organisation that claims to be in favour of free speech."

The British organisation won't be setting up a similar list, one of the group's "influencers", Dominique Samuels, told BBC Radio 5 Live.

TPUK says it wants to challenge the notion that students will naturally gravitate towards left-wing politics.

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"Why is it that all young people feel obliged to vote for Labour?" Farmer asks. "Just talk some of my friends, if you tell them you're a conservative, it's like you're banished. That's not freedom of thought. That's thought control."

Samuels says she has suffered online abuse for publically identifying herself as a young black woman who is a conservative.

Funding questions

The American group has been organised as a type of non-profit organisation which is not required to disclose its sources of funding. That lack of transparency has given additional fuel for its critics. Questions have also been asked about TPUK's accounts.

George Farmer is a former Tory party donor and son of Lord Farmer, a multi-millionaire and former Conservative Party treasurer. The foundation of TPUK was announced with an event at the Royal Automobile Club, hosted by another multi-millionaire, John Mappin.

Farmer says TPUK won't identify its donors because to do so would make them targets for abuse. He rejects assertions that TPUK is sponsored by the privileged elite rather than a "grassroots" organisation.

"I would love it if these privileged people gave us some money because we don't have much money coming in," he says. "We are raising money from UK-based donors. We are trying to do things the right way."

The Trump factor

Although Turning Point USA cannot officially work on behalf of candidates - and has faced allegations that it has broken election campaign laws - its founder Charlie Kirk is an outspoken supporter of President Trump and a close friend of Donald Trump Jr.

Farmer is engaged to Candace Owens, the US organisation's communications director, who has been heavily involved - not always happily - with Kanye West's unusual interactions with the president.

Farmer also says he's an admirer of Trump, who he sees as a bombastic but effective disruptor.

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"Anecdotally, loads of conversations I've had with people are like: I don't like his style but I like his policies," he says. "You don't have to like him as a person... He's elected to get the job done."

Though TPUK has won endorsement from several leading Tories, there are indications that some in the party are not so keen. The right-wing website Breitbart website reported that university Conservative associations had been advised not to get involved with the new movement. A Conservative Party spokesman would not comment beyond saying that TPUK was not affiliated to the party.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the online battles, TPUK is bracing itself for further turbulence when it ventures beyond the internet next month to stage "campus clash" events in London, Nottingham and Brighton. Farmer says TPUK personalities including Kirk and Owen will engage in debates about issues such as free speech. Farmer acknowledges that there are "security concerns" that they are working to address.

"I imagine, if I'm honest, a whole bunch of antifa [anti-fascist] leftists will turn up at the event and try to mob us and prevent us going in," he says. "A bunch of interested students who are genuinely interested and want to be provoked - in terms of thought - will come and will listen and will probably take away some interesting conclusions."

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