Conservative Party excuses for not investigating Islamophobia allegations against Zac Goldsmith are ‘disingenuous,’ says lawyer who filed a police complaint against him

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Zac Goldsmith and Boris Johnson

  • A report into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party has revealed just one formal complaint was received into the party’s controversial 2016 London mayoral campaign.
  • A lawyer who had complained about the campaign to the Metropolitan Police told Insider she declined to complain directly to the party because it would not be treated “in a serious way”.
  • Vasisht’s complaint to the Metropolitan Police was not pursued by the force.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A lawyer who filed a police report against the Conservative Party’s controversial campaign for Zac Goldsmith to succeed Boris Johnson as Mayor of London in 2016, has hit out at the party for failing to investigate allegations of Islamophobia leveled against it.

A report, commissioned by the party and published on Tuesday, found that the campaign had been perceived by many people as attempting to play on anti-Muslim sentiment in the capital.

It also found that Islamophobia “remains a problem” in the party and contained an apology from Johnson for “for any offence taken” by his own previous comments about Islam.

However, while examining why no action was taken at the time, the report found that the Conservatives had received just one official complaint against Goldsmith’s campaign, some four years after it had finished.

This is despite the fact that Goldsmith’s campaign was widely-criticised by both opponents and members of his own party at the time.

Anita Vasisht, whose own complaint against Goldsmith’s campaign was not pursued by the Metropolitan Police, told Insider she felt at the time that a report through the Conservatives’ complaints procedure would not be treated “in a serious way”.

Speaking on Tuesday, she told Insider: “When such serious concerns are out there in the public domain it is for the political party to take action. It is disingenuous to sit there twiddling thumbs, waiting for an official complaint to come in. Reports in the news of the outrage were out on a daily basis.

“I did think about putting in a formal complaint. But if they weren’t going to self-report based on the serious concerns, then what could an individual putting in a complaint achieve?

“I couldn’t imagine putting in an individual complaint would be treated in a serious way.”

She believes the Conservative party ought to have initiated an investigation in response to the extensive press coverage of the outrage into Goldsmith’s campaign.

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The Singh Investigation into alleged discrimination within the Conservative Party, published on Tuesday, included as a case study Goldsmith’s campaign, which it says was “widely reported as ‘racist’ and ‘Islamophobic'”. It revealed it had determined the Conservative Party had received one official complaint against Lord Goldsmith, submitted four years after the campaign, in which he lost against Sadiq Khan, the present Mayor of London, a British Muslim of Pakistani origin.

Lord Goldsmith, who was made a member of the House of Lords in 2020, is presently a minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as well as the Foreign Office.

Conservative Party leaflet in the 2016 London Mayoral election.

In 2016, Anita Vasisht, a solicitor, filed a report with the police on Goldsmith’s campaign, after receiving a letter from David Cameron, then the prime minister, urging her to vote for Goldsmith. Cameron wrote to Vasisht about how “The British Indian Community Makes London Great”, and that “your community has a key role to play” in strengthening the relationship between the UK and India.

Others received letters warning that Khan would “experiment with … radical policies” on taxation targeting their “family’s heirlooms and belongings.”

Vasisht decided to report the campaign to the police. She wrote: “There is… a real concern that, in targeting apparently those voters identified as ‘British Indians’… the intention of Zac Goldsmith and others including the prime minister would appear to be to deliberately incite feelings of hatred for Sadiq Khan in those believed to be of Indian (presumably Hindu) ethnicity – and this, in order to win their votes,” the Guardian reported in 2016.

The party’s complaints system “falls short” of best practice

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Zac Goldsmith, Boris Johnson and former Prime Minister David Cameron.

The most significant case study in the report regards comments made by Boris Johnson, the prime minister.

In 2018, Johnson wrote in the Telegraph that women in burqas “go around looking like letterboxes”. Johnson told the investigation his writings were often “parodic, satirical”, and that his article was “an honest defence for a woman’s right to wear what she chooses”.

The report also cited remarks made by Johnson including an article where he said that “to any non-Muslim reader of the Quran, Islamophobia – fear of Islam – seems a natural reaction”, and another where he wrote of the Congo where “the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles” upon Tony Blair’s arrival.

The investigation offered Johnson the opportunity to apologise for his past remarks. Johnson told the investigation: “I do know that offence has been taken at things I’ve said, that people expect a person in my position to get things right, but in journalism you need to use language freely. I am obviously sorry for any offence taken.

“Would I use some of the offending language from my past writings today? Now that I am Prime Minister, I would not.”

No further comment has since been issued by Johnson or his spokesman.

The report found two-thirds of all incidents reported on the complaints database related to allegations of anti-Muslim discrimination.

It called for an overhaul of the Conservative Party’s complaints system, saying there was “an under-resourced and inadequately trained Complaints Team and a weak data collection system”, and that it “falls short” of best practice as recommended by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The report also concluded that allegations made by Baroness Warsi that the party was institutionally racist and Islamophobic were “not borne out by the evidence”, saying “no evidence was found to support the suggestion that the Party had collectively or systematically failed any particular community or group in its processes for dealing with complaints relating to Protected Characteristics, including race, religion or belief, or specifically Islam.”

Amanda Milling MP, the co-chair of the Conservative Party, said today that the party has accepted all the recommendations made in the report.

She said: “It is clear that there have been failings in our complaints process and we will begin work on implementing the recommendations set out by the investigation. We will be publishing our plan to implement these recommendations in six weeks’ time.”

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A Muslim advocacy group just sued Facebook for failing to remove hate-speech, and it’s the latest example of the tech’s patchwork polices that fail to crack down on Islamophobia

Mark Zuckerberg sheryl sandberg
Muslim Advocates sued Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg for allegedly misleading Congress on how adequately they remove hate speech.

  • An advocacy group sued Facebook for allegedly misleading Congress regarding hate speech moderation.
  • The suit claims Facebook failed to remove most anti-Muslim groups presented to them in 2017.
  • The Muslim Advocates suit underscores how tech platforms fail to moderate anti-Muslim content.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A Muslim advocacy group this week sued Facebook for failing to curtail hate speech, part of tech’s broader problem stopping Islamophobic speech.

Civil rights group Muslim Advocates filed a suit against Facebook and four company executives in the District of Columbia Superior Court for lying to Congress about moderating hate speech.

Facebook executives have told Congress of their commitment to removing content that violate policies, including COO Sheryl Sandberg’s assertion to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Facebook and Foreign Influence that “when content violates our policies, we will take it down.”

Yet Muslim Advocates said the organization presented Facebook with a list of 26 groups that spread anti-Muslim hate in 2017, yet 19 of them are still active.

Read more: In a hopeful sign for tech diversity, Harlem Capital raised $134 million for its second fund, blowing by its target in just 6 months

The suit claims Facebook allowed a man threatening to kill Congresswoman Ilhan Omar to post “violent and racist content for years,” and that the company failed to remove a group called “Death to Murdering Islamic Muslim Cult Members” even after Elon University Professor Megan Squire brought it to Facebook’s attention.

“We do not allow hate speech on Facebook and regularly work with experts, non-profits, and stakeholders to help make sure Facebook is a safe place for everyone, recognizing anti-Muslim rhetoric can take different forms,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to Insider. “We have invested in AI technologies to take down hate speech, and we proactively detect 97 percent of what we remove.”

In 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress that the platform’s can fail to police hate speech due to its artificial intelligence. Hate speech has nuance that can be tricky for AI to identify and remove, especially in different languages, Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg once again addressed questions about moderation and automation at a March 2021 congressional hearing about misinformation. His testimony about how content moderation needs to take into consideration “nuances,” like when advocates make counterarguments against hateful hashtags, seemed at odds with Facebook’s admitted reliance on AI to do the job of moderating hate speech.

Peter Romer-Friedman, a principal at Gupta Wessler PLLC who helped file the suit and the former counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, said Congress cannot adequately oversee corporations that misrepresent facts to lawmakers.

Romer-Friedman said Facebook’s failure to remove a group that claimed “Islam is a disease” – which directly violates the company’s hate speech policies that prohibits “dehumanizing speech including…reference or comparison to filth, bacteria, disease, or feces” – is an example where the firm did not follow through on its promise to Congress to quell hate speech.

“It’s become all too common for corporate execs to come to Washington and not tell the truth, and that harms the ability of Congress to understand the problem and fairly regulate businesses that are inherently unsafe,” Romer-Friedman told Insider.

How Facebook and other tech firms are failing to address anti-Muslim hate speech

The suit highlight’s tech firms’ ongoing problem responding to anti-Muslim content online.

Rep. Omar, the first congressperson to wear a hijab or Muslim headscarf, called on Twitter to address the death threats she receives. “Yo @Twitter this is unacceptable!” she said in 2019.

An analysis by the Social Science Research Council analyzed more than 100,000 tweets directed at Muslim candidates running for office in 2018, and found Twitter was responsible “for the spread of images and words from a small number of influential voices to a national and international audience,” per The Washington Post.

The spread of anti-Muslim content extends far beyond Facebook and Twitter:

  • TikTok apologized to a 17-year-old user for suspending her account condemning China’s mass crackdown on Uighur Muslims.
  • VICE has reported Muslim prayer apps like Muslim Pro had been selling location data on users to the US military.
  • Instagram banned Laura Loomer, a “proud Islamophobe,” years after Uber and Lyft banned her for a series of anti-Muslim tweets following a terror attack in New York.

Sanaa Ansari, a staff attorney with Muslim Advocates, said there’s been “clear evidence” of incitement to violence against Muslims potentially due to unchecked hate speech on social media. In 2019, 16-minute livestream of a gunman attacking two mosques and killing 51 people in New Zealand was uploaded to Facebook and spread quickly to Youtube, Instagram, and Twitter.

“There have been multiple calls to arms to Muslims, there have been organized events by anti-Muslim supremacists and militias who have organized marches, protests at mosques in this country,” Ansari told Insider in an interview. “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

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