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Denounced as racist but retweeted by Trump: What is Britain First?

The tiny but virulent anti-Muslim group Britain First was virtually unknown in the United States until Wednesday, when President Trump retweeted a trio of inflammatory videos posted by one of its leaders.

Trump’s online sharing prompted criticism on both sides of the Atlantic, including an unusual rebuke from British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said through a spokesman that he was wrong to pass along the videos. In a rare show of unity in a fractious political environment, the presidential retweets were also condemned by British lawmakers from across the spectrum.

Even some of Trump’s backers publicly expressed unease at his use of a Twitter account with nearly 43.6 million followers to forward the British group’s far-right views, but the retweets were defended by the White House as reflecting Trump’s stance on national security issues.

Britain First, for its part, rejoiced at what it saw as a huge boost in its profile.

Here is some background about this group and its leaders:

What does Britain First stand for?

The group, an offshoot of the far-right British National Party, calls itself a “patriotic” movement, but critics say its central concern is promoting hard-line anti-Islam and anti-immigrant views. Its website says it is dedicated to defending British culture against “militant Islam” and adds: “We want our people to come first, before foreigners, asylum seekers or migrants.”

How big is Britain First’s following?

Longtime watchers of the group, which was founded in 2011, say it exists more as an online presence than a real-life political entity. Its demonstrations usually draw only a few dozen participants, and Britain’s Guardian newspaper calls it a “minor political movement” with an estimated 1,000 supporters.

Determining its genuine base of domestic support is difficult; it has nearly 2 million “likes” on Facebook, but the British Broadcasting Corp. said an analysis carried out over the summer showed that fewer than half of those came from within the United Kingdom, and critics say it inflates its totals with paid advertising and postings devoted to less contentious subjects, such as support for the troops.

Although it describes itself as a political party, no one representing Britain First has won or even seriously contested any elected office, and it is currently barred by the country’s Electoral Commission from fielding candidates under its own name. That is due to a technicality, not an outlawing of its views; British news reports say it failed to provide required paperwork and pay a small fee to get candidates on the ballot.

Who are the group’s leaders?

Founder Jim Dowson, who made a name as an antiabortion campaigner, left the group in 2014. A British anti-fascist group, Hope Not Hate, has described Dowson’s animating ideology as “religious bigotry” and “doomsday prophecies.” The organization is now led by co-founder Paul Golding, 35, but its main public face is Jayda Fransen, 31, who originally posted the videos retweeted by Trump.

Both Fransen and Golding have had run-ins with the law. Golding was jailed last year for violating a ban on Britain First leaders entering mosques after a series of organized provocations by the group, including barging into mosques with shoes on and marching with crosses as Muslim worshipers convened.

Fransen was charged with “religiously aggravated harassment” for behavior including berating a Muslim mother in the city of Luton during a “Christian patrol,” a demonstration promoting Britain as a Christian country. British news reports say Fransen has another court date this month in Belfast, on charges of “threatening, abusive or insulting” speech during a visit to Northern Ireland.

Fransen reacted with delight Wednesday to the president's retweet of the videos she had posted, tweeting in all-caps: “GOD BLESS YOU TRUMP!”

What are the group’s tactics?

Britain First routinely stages sparsely attended protests with demands such as the banning of the sale of meat butchered and prepared in accordance with Muslim law, but its stock-in-trade is widely circulated videos of confrontations staged by its members outside mosques and in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. On its social media feeds, its leaders and followers post dozens of videos similar to the ones retweeted by Trump, usually of unidentified provenance, but purporting to depict Muslims engaging in violent acts.

As well as echoing Trump’s “America first” rallying cry, “Britain First” as a slogan has chilling overtones for many Britons. In June 2016, shortly before the “Brexit” referendum, witnesses said the phrase was shouted repeatedly by assailant Thomas Mair, who fatally stabbed lawmaker Jo Cox, an opponent of the push for Britain to exit the European Union. The group said it had no ties to Mair, but Cox’s widower, Brendan Cox, said he was repelled and heartbroken by Trump’s retweets. “Spreading hate has consequences,” he wrote on Twitter.

What was the provenance of the retweeted videos?

News organizations and online sleuths reported that Britain First’s characterizations of the three clips in question were distorted, incompletely described or outright false.

One of the scenes, which surfaced this year on a Dutch website, was labeled as a migrant Muslim beating up a Dutch victim; the assailant was in fact born and raised in Holland, and punished for his action, as the Embassy of the Netherlands noted in a tweet. A second video, which appeared online in 2013, shows an Islamic militant in Syria smashing a statue of the Virgin Mary; scholars cited by the Associated Press noted that other faiths and other Muslim sects were also targeted by the same extremists. A third showed a widely distributed clip of a rooftop confrontation in 2013 in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, apparently between protesters and suspected government supporters amid violent street protests. The attackers were arrested, tried and sentenced to death.

What are the potential political repercussions?

The episode comes against a backdrop of broader concern about the increasing clout of far-right political parties in Europe. British commentary mainly revolved around concern Trump was giving hate groups an effective endorsement.

British leaders rarely offer overt criticism of a sitting U.S. president, but May’s spokesman, James Slack, said Trump’s sharing of the videos was wrong, and that Britain First uses “hateful narratives which peddle lies and stoke tensions.”

Some British lawmakers say public expressions of anti-Muslim sentiments by a Western leader can put British and U.S. troops in danger.

Nadhim Zahawi, a Conservative member of Britain’s Parliament, said videos like the ones retweeted by Trump are a prime recruiting tool for foreign armed groups. “It’s completely wrong,” he told the BBC.

Others expressed worries that the president had helped normalize the views of a heretofore obscure extremist group. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has been the target of online gibes from Trump, called Britain First a “vile, hate-fueled organization whose views should be condemned, not amplified.”

A planned state visit by Trump to Britain, whose date has not yet been set, was still on as of late Wednesday, but he is unpopular in the United Kingdom, and May is expected to face renewed pressure to cancel the visit.

A Labor lawmaker, Chuka Umunna, made a Facebook appeal for the invitation, which was issued early in Trump’s tenure, to be withdrawn.

laura.king@latimes.com

@laurakingLAT

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