'Welcome to Londonistan': the Great Replacement theory gone visual ahead of the U.K. election

By: siri christiansen&
June 28 2024

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'Welcome to Londonistan': the Great Replacement theory gone visual ahead of the U.K. election

(Source: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol)

Scrolling through social media, you might have come across a viral video like this:

ShoppingTikTok video with 4.5 million views showing a group of teenagers running in what appears to be a shopping center in London; X post seen by 669,000 users showing "a walk through modern London"; Instagram Reel with 260,000 views showing a large group of people walking down Oxford Street in London. Source: TikTok/X/Instagram/Screenshots modified by Logically Facts)

The captions are vague, yet the implicit message is clear: Few people in the videos are white, which should concern you.

It's what Dr. Beatriz Buarque, a politics researcher at the London School of Economics (LSE) who specializes in conspiracy theories and the digital politics of truth, calls "a visual representation of The Great Replacement theory," the far-right premise that non-white immigrants are part of a systematic scheme to replace white westerners and their culture. A conspiracy theory Dr. Buarque describes as "very dangerous," as it channels hate toward Muslim, Black, and brown individuals and portrays a segment of the population as invaders and enemies. 

Over the past years, it’s been a driving force behind several terrorist attacks. In 2011, it motivated a 32-year-old to kill 69 people at a Labour Party youth camp in Norway; in 2019, it urged a 29-year-old to livestream a mass shooting of 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; in 2022, it inspired an 18-year-old to kill 10 people at a grocery store in a predominantly Black area of Buffalo, New York.

Now, the same conspiracy theory is reaching millions of people through seemingly objective images and videos on social media – making them a potential influence on public opinion ahead of the U.K. election on July 4, 2024.

Dog whistling

According to Patrik Hermansson, a senior researcher at the U.K. non-profit HOPE not hate, these videos are prime examples of so-called dog whistles. They use language and imagery that direct viewers' thoughts to far-right conspiracy theories like The Great Replacement without explicitly referencing them, enabling them to rack up hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions, of views.

"[The videos] are dangerous because they often avoid moderation and appear acceptable by seeming neutral in how they present reality," Hermansson told Logically Facts. 

Dr. Gaja Maestri, a sociology lecturer at Aston University who focuses on immigration, said a common feature of dog whistle videos is showing large groups of Muslims or non-white people without providing any further context.

"They do not feature an interview with someone from these groups or these areas, who might explain what they are doing," she told Logically Facts. "It could be a street on a market day, it could be the celebration of a religious festival which happens only once a year. The fact that we are missing the context allows for dangerous generalizations and scaremongering."

Another theme is using footage from religious or cultural events in a way that, according to Dr. Maestri, "perpetuates a representation of Muslim groups as backward and threatening towards British culture and society." 

Source: TikTok (archived here, here). Screenshots modified by Logically Facts.

One example is a TikTok video with the caption "Cars please use another way, we want to pray," showing a large group of Muslim men praying on a closed-off road in Britain. The video, which has been seen over 100,000 times, is "aligned with the idea that Muslims go under a different set of rules from the rest of the population," Hermansson said.

Video clips involving British landmarks, such as a TikTok video of a Shi’ite ceremony on Westminster Bridge with 825,000 views and comments like "hide your kids" and "kick them off the bridge," are also commonly utilized to quietly insinuate that Britain is being "taken over" by "invaders."

While not explicitly hateful, the language in the videos makes it clear that they are pushing a far-right narrative, said Hermansson. Keywords like "cultural enriched," a far-right synonym for “immigrant” that sarcastically co-opts anti-racist rhetoric; "Londonistan," which refers to the far-right idea that Muslims are taking over London; and "well, well, well," a dog whistle phrase linked to antisemitism

ActualcanvaExamples (archived here, here, here) of how far-right dog whistles and phrases are used on social media. Source: TikTok/Screenshot modified by Logically Facts)

Some videos, however, do not contain far-right rhetoric – these tend to gain significantly more views. According to Dr. Buarque, this is a deliberate attempt to avoid getting flagged or removed by content moderators and seem more trustworthy to people. 

"If they vaguely put the image there, it's easier for the audience to think that all of this is really happening," said Dr. Buarque.

Videos showing large Muslim gatherings also often ask, "What do you think?" "What do you notice?" and "What could this mean?". This could make the viewer feel as if they're drawing their own conclusions when, in reality, they’re being nudged toward a certain political agenda. 

"From my perspective, it is significant that we have this amount of people watching and sharing these videos and making this content viral," Dr. Buarque added. "It suggests that many people are actually embarking on this discourse."

Some content (archived here, here) does not make any implicit or explicit references to the Great Replacement
theory – but the comment sections fill in the blanks. Source: TikTok/Screenshots modified by Logically Facts)

Feeding 'a politics of hostility'

Since first coined in 2011, the Great Replacement theory has migrated from white supremacist message boards into mainstream politics, with conservative media stations like Fox News acting as a sanitizing intermediary that stripped away terms like "white genocide" and "Jewish cabal." 

As a result, the theory has become more embedded in public opinion; as of 2023, a third (32 percent) of Britons believe The Great Replacement theory is definitely or probably true, according to a survey by the Policy Institute at King's College London involving 2,274 British adults. Interest in the term is also evident from Google data, where searches related to the Great Replacement theory have spiked repeatedly in the past year.


While Reform U.K. maintains that it is not a far-right party, Dr. Buarque sees a correlation between the viral Great Replacement videos on TikTok and the party's meteoric rise. In early June, the party briefly surpassed the Conservatives in polls for the first time

Social media posts by Reform U.K. and Nigel Farage. (Source: X, X/Screenshots modified by Logically Facts)

She pointed to a Reform U.K. campaign image that depicts a large group of Black and brown men "invading" a small GP office. She said it shares the same visual references as the Great Replacement videos on social media. Logically Facts debunked the statement in the poster earlier this month. 

Nigel Farage, party leader of Reform U.K., backed similar imagery as leader of UKIP in a 2016 EU Referendum poster titled "Breaking Point," showing hundreds of non-white men marching toward Europe – which the leader of the Vote Leave campaign, Michael Gove, likened to 1930s fascist propaganda. Farage has also referred to small boat crossings as an "invasion," which has been criticized as dehumanizing.

Nigel Farage, during his time as leader of UKIP, poses during a media launch for a referendum poster. (Source: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth/File Photo)

"There is a correlation," Buarque said, "because one of the main ideas that this party promotes is that what they call 'mass immigration' has caused economic precarity in the U.K., has caused a burden on the NHS, and has taken away the jobs of British people."

Aston University's Dr. Maestri believes the dog whistle videos "feed into a politics of hostility that is not supported by factual evidence."

"There is no such thing as 'mass migration' to the U.K.," she said, highlighting that the U.K. has lower numbers of asylum seekers compared to countries like Germany and Spain. The University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory notes that the share of the foreign-born population in Britain as of 2022 (14 percent) is broadly similar to that of other high-income countries. While non-EU immigration has increased by 660,000 people from 2019 to 2023, this has been largely driven by international students and work visas, primarily in the health and care industry – not asylum seekers. 

If you want to unpack more U.K. immigration statistics, see Logically Facts’ run-down here.

Why context matters

The huge reach of The Great Replacement videos highlights the role social media platforms play in politics.

"Even if you don't agree with what you're watching, you're already trapped in the algorithmic recommendations system and contributing to that content becoming viral," said Dr. Buarque.

When contacted for comment, an email response from X (formerly Twitter) stated: "Busy now, please check back later."

TikTok pointed us to its community guidelines. Among those guidelines, it states: "We do not allow any hate speech, hateful behavior, or promotion of hateful ideologies.” It also says, “We use a combination of technologies and moderation teams to identify, review and, where appropriate, remove content or accounts that violate our Community Guidelines." It also references its community guidelines enforcement report

While the lack of explicitly false or misleading statements can make the far-right's dog whistle videos more difficult for fact-checkers and content moderators to respond to, Stephan Mündges, coordinator of the European Fact-Checking Standards Network (EFCSN), does not think they should be left untouched. 

He would like to see more social media platforms collaborate with third-party fact-checking organizations and introduce a labeling system for videos that fact-checkers have found decontextualized or false.

"Every video falling into the dog-whistling category can be fact-checked for being decontextualized, even when there is no fact-checkable claim," he said. "I think this is extremely important with these videos. When was the video taken? Has it been decontextualized? Is there a full version of the clip somewhere?"

Sometimes, this type of cross-examining can yield unexpected results.

Take this viral video from February 2024, which has more than two million views on TikTok and 720,000 views on X, where it was shared by the co-leader of the nationalist party Britain First, Paul Golding. While the video claims to show a street market in Bradford, Britain, fact-checkers could geolocate the site by searching for the name of a shop that appears in the video. They found that the clip originated from a market in Pakistan.

Canvaversionofbradfordnotbradford

One of the posts on X suggesting the image shows Bradford and a YouTube video captioned as Pakistan, which shows the same image eight seconds in.
(Source: X/YouTube/Modified by Logically Facts)

Additionally, by publishing prebunking articles like the one you are reading, fact-checking organizations can help build public resilience to The Great Replacement – so that next time a video like this pops up in your feed, you’ll know not to take it at face value.

Logically Facts is one of TikTok’s partners in its fact-checking program. Follow Logically Facts' coverage and fact-checking of the U.K. Election here.

 

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