Ann Widdecombe - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview.

How is life, now that you have left parliament?
Absolutely wonderful. It feels like I left 20 years ago, rather than two months ago.

How is the coalition faring without you?
I'd rather we didn't have one. I think we gave away too much in order to get it. Coalitions are bad news -- you never know what you are voting for. Coalitions are built on traded manifesto promises. If, for example you were a Liberal Democrat who specifically voted Lib Dem because you had a moral objection to Trident, and it was the only mainstream party offering you no Trident, well, then, bad luck. And if you were a Conservative who specifically voted Conservative in order to get rid of the Human Rights Act, then bad luck. But I do not see that we had any choice, given the economic situation.

Are there particular concessions which bother you?
Well, the Human Rights Act is a very obvious one. I've yet to see how it pans out on inheritance tax, but that's another. I think we just have to see. A headlong rush into electoral reform is not sensible and is a distraction. We have an economy to get right and there shouldn't be much that distracts us from that.

Does this government, to borrow a phrase from Alastair Campbell, "do God"?
Well, Eric Pickles has said he will do away with the nonsense of playing down Christianity and funding any activity unless it's a church one. So one of the earliest coalition pronouncements was, from my point of view, a very good one. The change away from the last Labour government has brought in a greater recognition of the role of the church.

Do you feel that religion is pushed to the margins in British public life?
It has been for a very long time. Under the last government we saw a raft of law, principally equality law, which specifically set out to crush religious freedom and to crush freedom of conscience. There is an immense difference between being told that you must not discriminate against something and being told that you must promote it. The last government failed to preserve that distinction.

Which particular issues concern you?
Catholic adoption agencies, for example, had to either place children with homosexual couples or close. Now some actually did close; they were placing the children who were hardest to place -- that was the job of Catholic adoption agencies. So that very, very vital role disappeared. It's almost an article of faith now that you can't exercise Christian conscience.

Were you upset by the row over Christian bed-and-breakfast owners being told they had to accept homosexual guests?
. . . even if the B&B is your own house. Chris Grayling, when he was shadow home secretary, said there should be a distinction between having a say over what goes on in your own house and if you are running a large hotel where anybody comes and goes. When he said that, the result was demotion [to below the rank of shadow cabinet minister].

With about half of the population being non-believers, what role should religion have in public life?
You've picked one statistic. If you actually look at the census results and all the rest of it, most people do classify themselves as Christian. And we do still have an established church. If we deny our culture and become nothing and everything, that weakens us. Our state ceremonies have a religious foundation. We have compulsory religious education. And the Church should be a moral guardian. We have in this country a long Christian heritage and Christian culture and we shouldn't be in too much of a hurry to give that up.

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey suggests that at least half the country isn't religious . . .
Half the country won't be practising, but when you get events like 9/11, the first thing that happens is the churches fill up. People may say they're not religious, and when Richard Dawkins says he's not religious he actually means it; so would Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. But when people who are shrugging say they're not religious, they mean they're not attached to a particular church, they're not practising at the moment. They may not necessarily mean that they discard the concept of God altogether.

If we are in a position where the majority, or a very large minority, of the population are not practising Christians, is it necessarily the best thing to define ourselves as a Christian country?
Well, yes it is. You can't get away from the fact that our culture and our heritage is that way, and if we just deny it all and become nothing and everything we shall lose our character. That actually weakens a country: it can weaken a country very, very badly not to have a clearly defined character. I also think, for example, that if you disestablish the Church of England that would be a very dangerous step. It would inevitably lead to the dissolution of the monarchy -- I mean, not by the middle of Tuesday afternoon, but that's where it would lead. So I think there are all manner of reasons for keeping the church at the centre of society, and the established Church in this country is Anglican. And I would die in a ditch for its establishment. Sadly, the people I wouldn't expect to find in the ditch beside me would be the hierarchy of the Church of England.

What's your opinion of the Pope's intervention on the Equalities Bill?
The Pope was absolutely right to comment. A lot of his flock are feeling under pressure. We think we're being neglected, and I see no reason at all why the head of the Catholic Church shouldn't give us some comfort by making an announcement.

His intervention with the government of another country is acceptable?
Well, of course. The Vatican is a state, and we all have diplomatic relations with the Vatican. It's not some isolated little cult somewhere, it represents 17.5 per cent of the world's population. And that's just the Catholics -- there are all the other Christians on top of that.

Are the rumours true -- are you about to become Britain's ambassador to that state?
No. That is pure speculation from the press. Your profession loves speculation. [She laughs]

True! To return to the Catholic Church -- is it in crisis, given the abuse scandal and so on?
No. Obviously, this is serious. One child abused is too many. But in, for example, America, which bore the brunt of the first very big scandal, 2 per cent of its priests actually faced allegations -- and that doesn't mean they were actually proved. So it isn't as if there is abuse going on in every parish. Unfortunately, as I say, one abuse is enough. It's something that the Church has to get on top of; I think it is something the Church is getting on top of. But why just pick on the Church? This happens in teaching, it happens in children's homes, it happens just about everywhere that you can mention. The overwhelming majority of abusers are secular, married men.

You converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in the 1990s, with a period of agnosticism in between. What caused the shift?
I left the Church of England because there was a huge bundle of straw. The ordination of women was the last straw, but it was only one of many. For years I had been disillusioned by the Church of England's compromising on everything. The Catholic Church doesn't care if something is unpopular. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned if it's true it's true, and if it's false it's false. The issue over women priests was not only that I think it's theologically impossible to ordain women, it was the nature of the debate that was the damaging thing, because instead of the debate being "Is this theologically possible?" the debate was "If we don't do this we won't be acceptable to the outside world". To me, that was an abdication of the Church's role, which is to lead, not to follow.

Do you welcome the formal discussions that are going between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church over conversion?
The rejection of Rowan Williams's amendment in the last few days -- which would mean that conscientious objectors would not have had to answer to a woman bishop -- means that you've now got a group of objectors with nowhere to go. Because that has happened, I think the likelihood of a split in the C of E, along the lines of the one we saw in the early Nineties, is more rather than less likely. If it happens, what I sincerely hope is that the Catholic Church in this country is better geared up to cope with it than it was last time.

Last time, I think the view was, "Well, this isn't going to happen for another five years", so nobody had put anything in place. What happened depended entirely on what parish you were in. So in some dioceses the priests were fast-tracked through if they were wishing to become Catholic priests. The laity were put through the following Easter; everything was fast-tracked. In other parishes, the bishops didn't like it, dragged their feet, didn't want to receive Anglicans, and Rome finally gave guidance, but only after there'd been a long period of muddle. I just hope that this time, if there is a split, that the Catholic Church has got its house in order, rather than trying to react piecemeal. It was a mess last time, a serious mess.

Are you optimistic that the Church will be more supportive this time round?
I think the very fact that the Pope has, as you mentioned, opened up this dialogue between the two churches should make the path easier. I think he's done this because he can see the split coming just as well as everybody else can. It's not a split I'm wishing on the Anglican Church, because I want everyone to be spiritually happy where they would prefer to be, but if it does happen then I would hope that we are better geared up than last time.

Is the priesthood the only field from which you feel women should be exempt?
I despair when people say, "But you're a successful woman." I do not stand in persona Christi at the point of the consecration. That is what we're talking about -- we're talking about a woman standing in the person of Christ. You might as well ask a man to stand in the person of the Virgin Mary. It's something that's been brought about purely in response to the modern pressure for equality. And that's fine: I believe in equality, from the Prime Minister down through the country. But the Church is a thing apart and always should be.

What did you learn from your agnostic period?
My faith was much stronger when I came back because it was more hard-won. That is a fairly common experience of people who hold a view and then change it. They are normally very much stronger and more convinced than people who've always grown up with that view.

Do you understand secularism better now?
I understand well enough where people who do not believe are coming from. What I do not like is militant secularism, whereby anything is acceptable as long as it's not Christian.

Is the growth of secularism a worry?
I think secularism was always going to be a very difficult force to cope with and I think people have seen it coming for some time. Its benefit for religion has been that it's united us much more. Somebody once asked me how I got on with Ian Paisley when I converted to Catholicism, and I said, "Well, actually, we get on extremely well because we've got a common foe." I think it's meant that Christians, instead of agitating over each other, have actually started to look outwards and have banded together. Secularism has no central goal, it's just promoting endless relativism. That's why there is a huge moral drift in the country: everybody is infallible except the Pope, if you like. Crazy. Once you say there's no such thing as truth, everybody can make up their own mind, then truth becomes irrelevant, because it cannot be true both that God exists and that God does not exist: it's impossible for both statements to be true. One statement is true and one is not.

Does Britain's religious plurality concern you?
I don't have a problem with other people having different faiths; my problem is if we confuse respecting that with surrendering our own faith. That's what we have been doing as a country for a couple of decades. We've been saying, "Oh we mustn't do that, because it might offend other faiths." Well, actually, other faiths just scratch their heads in disbelief.

Who are your heroes?
William Wilberforce is one -- not just because of the abolition of slavery, but because he stuck at it when everything was against him. So, if you like, what I respect in Wilberforce is the sheer moral resolution.

Where is home?
Home is Dartmoor. Beautiful, beautiful wild Dartmoor.

Is there, or was there, a plan?
God has charge of these plans, but my plan at the moment is to enjoy retirement.

So your plan doesn't include, say, an ambassadorial role at the Holy See?
Good try, but I'm not being drawn.

What would you like to forget?
Nothing. Even bad things are lessons learned.

Are we all doomed?
We can be saved. But it's up to us.

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“Yes, it was entertaining”: A twisted tale of Twitter trolls and fake terror victims

Here’s what happened when I contacted people involved in the insidious new social media trend.

When I reach out to Sam to ask why she stole the image of a 19-year-old Minnesotan man to post on her Twitter account, the first thing she says is: “Am I getting paid?” The day after the Manchester Arena bombing, Sam took the profile picture of a man named Abdulfatah and posted it alongside a 137-character tweet. “Please retweet to help find Abdul,” she wrote. “He has chemo and we're very worried. We last heard from him before Ariana's concert”. She rounded it off with a hashtag. #PrayForManchester.

Abdulfatah was not a victim of the Manchester bombing and nor was he at Ariana’s concert, as he has been living in Cairo for the last year. Sam’s tweet was a lie that generated (at the time of writing) 1,280 retweets, mostly from people simply trying to help after a tragic terrorist attack. Over the last few years, trolls have responded to terrorism and other catastrophes by opportunistically pretending that their friends and family are among the victims of attacks. After the Manchester bombing, a handful of accounts continued this trend – for varied reasons.

“I had no aim,” is Sam’s simple response to being asked why she posted her tweet.

Sam explains that she wants me to pay her so she can “feed [her] team”, who she says are called the Halal Gang. After explaining that I cannot ethically pay for her interview, she concedes to speak when I say that I will link to her twitter account (@skrrtskrtt).

Born a male, 18-year-old Sam tells me she “prefers female pronouns” and immediately gives me her full name, town of residence, and the name of the English university where she studies civil engineering. When I ask for a form of ID to prove her identity, she claims she left her wallet on campus. When I ask her to simply email from her university email address, she says – over Twitter’s direct messaging service – “unfortunately i cannot provide u with evidence at this very moment”. For this reason, I will refer to her by her first name only. Her quotes are here copied verbatim from the messages she sent me online.

“I chose that mans image because he seemed like an easy target. I was quite intrigued by the huge number of retweets because i got the attention i never got at home. And yes i did him a favour by getting him clout. He's ugly so i guess I got him some girls. People who also made fake missing people are G's and i salute them.”

Why did you do it, I ask? The reply is one word. “Entertainment”.

***

Abdulfatah was casually scrolling through Twitter when he realised his profile picture had been stolen. “Honestly, it was horrific,” he tells me – again over Twitter’s messaging service – “I hope nobody has to go through what I did. Just imagine scrolling through Twitter only to find that some random person used your photo to claim you’ve gone missing in a bombing.”

When Abdulfatah decided to confront his troll on Twitter, his tweet got 63,000 retweets and 98,000 likes. “i'm from Cairo and i don't have Chemo... who tf are you? how do you know me???” he wrote – and his response went on to be featured in articles by The Sun, Yahoo!, Mashable, and AOL.com. The tweet is part of a larger story that has spread over the last few days – of “sick Twitters trolls” targeting innocent people by pretending they are missing. 

My Twitter chat with Abdulfatah spans a few hours, and he hammers home how “vile and disgusting” he finds the act of spreading fake victims on social media. “I hope people come to their senses soon and stop this type of behaviour. It’s not funny at all.” Half an hour after we exchange goodbyes, he messages me to explain that there is something else he wants to say.

“I totally forgot to mention this,” he begins. “I couldn't have done this without this groupchat I'm in called ‘Halal Gang’.”

***

In their 2017 book, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, authors Whitney Phillips and Ryan M Milner dedicate an entire chapter to “Identity Play” on the internet.

“Online and off, identity is a series of masks,” they write. “Whether online deceptions are harmless or targeted or somewhere in between, determining why anonymous or pseudonymous actors do the things they do can be very difficult.”

So why do people use the internet to deceive? The authors’ argue it is simple: “because they’re able to: because the contours of the space allow it.”

Creating a person online is incredibly simple. Believing that someone online is who they say they are is even easier. Many newspapers now create entire stories based around a single tweet – taking what is said and who said it as fact, and covering their backs with a few “appears to have” and “allegedly”s. By taking viral tweets at face value and crafting stories around them, media companies consistently break one of the internet’s oldest rules. Do not feed the trolls. 

***

Abdulfatah sent me a copy of his provisional driver’s license to prove to me that he is who he claims. After his announcement about the Halal Gang, I became suspicious that both the victim, Abdulfatah, and the perpetrator, Sam, were in fact working together to go viral. Why else would they both independently reference the same group? Instead of a random troll picking on a random person, was this the case of two friends working together to achieve social media fame?

“I have never met this person prior to this incident,” said Abdulfatah over Twitter, promising me that I could call him for clarification (at the time of writing, he has not answered his phone). “I feel offended that someone like that would ever try to claim to be a part of our group.” Abdulfatah was added to the Halal Gang (which is a Twitter group chat) in January, and says to me: “I promise you this isn't a troll.” It is worth noting that a Twitter search shows that Abdulfatah and Sam have never previously interacted publicly on the site.

From 19:43 to 20:30 on Wednesday night, I was added to the Halal Gang chat. The group describes themselves as a place for young people to “find peace and tranquillity” through the Islamic faith. The 12 members told me Sam was a “lost person” who used to be in the chat but was kicked out for inappropriate behaviour. Abdulfatah was her replacement (he says he didn’t know this) and thus Sam targeted him in her tweet after the Manchester attack. One member of the Halal Gang said that Sam was his ex and went on to send a sexually-suggestive picture of her in the chat.

“It wasn’t our intention to go viral, just to help out Abdul but I guess it was kind of cool to go viral lol,” said one member.

Rather than trolls targeting random people, this incident therefore seemed to be a case of personal rivalry and revenge. This goes some way to explaining the psychology behind, and the motivations of, people who claim to have missing friends and family after terrorist attacks. According to the Halal Gang, Sam was simply targeting her replacement, Abdulfatah, because she likes trolling.

But then, at midnight, I received another Twitter message, from a person wishing to remain strictly anonymous.

“This is a MAJOR conspiracy,” they wrote.

***

Most of the time people make up fake victims on social media, the motives are cut and dried.

Andrea Noel is a Mexican journalist whose picture was circulated after the Manchester bombing, in a collage purporting to show 20 missing people. She has been trolled extensively in the past after speaking on social media about her sexual assault, and believes some of the same “anti-feminist” trolls may have been at work.

“I started getting Facebook messages and Twitter messages from various people that I know… getting in touch with me to make sure I wasn’t in Manchester,” she tells me over the phone.

The collage Andrea appears in also includes photographs of YouTubers, and was featured on the Daily Mail’s Twitter and Fox News as a legitimate collage of missing people. According to Buzzfeed, 4Chan trolls may have been behind the picture, choosing people they disliked as their victims.

Yet when a handful of people create a fake image, it is thousands more who are responsible for its impact. In 2013, researchers found that 86 per cent of tweets spreading fake images after Hurricane Sandy were retweets, not original tweets.

Caroline Leo is a 16-year-old from Florida who gained over 15,000 retweets on her tweet of the collage. “I felt good about it because I was helping find so many people and my phone was literally freezing and I had to turn it off for a little while,” she tells me of the initial reaction to the tweet. Yet when multiple people contacted her to say it was fake, she decided not to delete it as some of those featured in the picture were actual missing people. “I was so happy to make their faces familiar to over one million people and I wanted to keep it up because I like Ariana so much and I wanted to help other people who love her just as much as I do,” she says.

Andrea understands Caroline’s motivations, but does think people need to be more careful about what they spread online. “If you realise that half of these people are YouTubers then just delete it, you know. Make a new one,” she says. “I understand that she’s trying to be sweet but after a couple of hours everyone knew this was fake… so, really just make a new one.”

Yet a big part of the reason people create fake images – or accidentally spread them believing them to be real and then don't want to delete them – is for the likes, retweets, and comments. The buzz that we feel from social media attention doesn’t go away just because of a tragedy, and Dr Linda Kaye, an expert in the psychological impacts of technology, explains social media interactions facilitate our “need satisfaction”.

“Humans are social animals and have a basic need for social belonging,” she says. “Perhaps these individuals who [use social media] in this way to gain ‘social approval’ are not having their social needs fulfilled by their existing relationships with friends and family. Adolescents may be particularly prone to this sort of behaviour, as this is a period of great change, in which peer relationships often become more fundamental to them than parental ones.”

John, a YouTuber who was also featured in the collage and in a separate tweet claiming he was missing, urges people to think before they act on social media. “If there is one thing I would like to say about this all... I understand that during events such as this, information can develop and spread very rapidly,” he tells me, “but it doesn't hurt to try to confirm information through a second source.

“For instance, say that a story on Yahoo is claiming that I was a victim - is the BBC reporting the same story? During a crisis situation, I feel that disseminating the correct information to the general public is absolutely crucial and potentially lifesaving.”

***

The Twitter user who contacted me about the Halal Gang “conspiracy” refused to speak when I said I would not transfer $10 to his PayPal account. “$10 is a steal for the info I have not gonna lie,” they said. When I refused, they sent me this offensive meme from the adult cartoon The Boondocks.

At 3:05am, another anonymous Twitter user messaged me. They claimed that the man in the Halal Gang who claimed to be Sam’s ex and had sent me a sexual picture of her, was in fact trying to humiliate his ex. “It’s embarrassing don’t use that picture in any articles,” they wrote.

As it stands, there is potential that the Halal Gang were working together to get multiple viral tweets. There is also potential that the man who asked me for $10 was also trolling in turn by trying to tell me the Halal Gang were acting like this when they are, in fact, innocent. Yet if not Abdulfatah, some members of the group seem to be corresponding with Sam, as she changed her story after I spoke with them. “I believe they kicked me way before the incident and I’ll be completely honest with you, I wanted to get them back, yes,” she says, despite moments earlier saying that they kicked her out after her Manchester attack tweet.

It is impossible to work out Sam’s true motivations for creating a fake victim, as she is hiding behind her online persona and simply answered “nope” when I asked if there was a number I could call her on. Her comments – that she lives in a foster home and is emotionally abused by her family, that she is “not dumb enough to go to an Ariana Grande concert”, and that people critical of her actions “need to move on init” – read as though she is simply trolling me, a journalist, in turn.

There is no real way for me to know who is who they say they are, and whether the Halal Gang are telling the truth that they didn't collaborate with Sam (they refuse to send over screenshots of her being kicked out from the groupchat, as the chat has a “no SS” rule). As Phillips and Milner note, even experts have great difficulty identifying people online. Either way, there is clearly more of connection between Sam and Abdulfatah than the two initial tweets made it seem. 

The reason why this matters is because this story isn’t really about Sam, nor is it about Abdulfatah. If two friends (or people involved in the same group) seek to get revenge or go viral by attacking each other on social media, it is not their actions that have wide-reaching ramifications. It is the actions of the hundreds of thousands of people who choose to Retweet uncorroborated claims, and the journalists who take tweets as gospel. Naturally, in the painful hours proceeding a terror attack, we all make mistakes about what we share on social media. But we can fix them and we can avoid making the mistakes again.

Before claiming she wanted revenge, Sam told me she was acting on a desire to be entertained. I check with her, after this revelation, whether she succeeded in this aim. “So did you find it entertaining?” I ask.

“Yes,” she replies. “It was entertaining.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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