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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.