A charity chief executive linked to the home secretary, Priti Patel, is one of the organisers of a campaign mobilising counter-protests across the UK under the banner of protecting monuments during Black Lives Matter protests.
Philip Smith, a former Conservative local election candidate and a senior youth-wing official who runs a charity developing links with Britain’s overseas territories, is an administrator for the UK Cenotaph and Military Memorial Volunteers group.
It has attracted more than 40,000 members on Facebook since 4 June, and despite being set up with the stated aim of protecting monuments, explicitly racist language has gone unchecked on the Facebook page and some of the other administrators have expressed support for Ukip and anti-Islam web pages.
Posts on the Facebook page included one stating: “There is no black in the union jack”, and another claiming a race war was imminent. Some posts, including discussing destroying mosques, had been deleted by either a group or a Facebook administrator but the users had been allowed to remain as active members.
The group promoted a gathering at the Cenotaph in London at the weekend despite the authorities urging people not to come to the city to protest.
Until approached by the Guardian, members of the Facebook group included Boris Johnson’s Downing Street videographer, Robert Midgley, who initially said he was unaware of it until shown a screenshot.
He then checked his Facebook account and said he had left the group, adding: “I was led to believe this group was a moderate group for looking after the Cenotaph. I have now left the group to avoid any confusion over controversial associations.”
Smith has stood for the Conservatives in a number elections, and in 2013 founded the Friends of the British Overseas Territories (Fotbot), a charity whose work has been endorsed by Patel. She has been pictured alongside Smith and Fotbot’s “parliamentary adviser”, the Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell.
Great to welcome Philip Smith and Robert Midgley of Friends of British Overseas Territories to my office, along with my friend The Rt. Hon. Priti Patel MP @patel4witham discussing FOTBOT’s plan to distribute the excellent book by Stewart McPherson, “Britain’s Treasuer Islands”! pic.twitter.com/mV66zUJIeb
Smith told the Guardian: “I should make clear that we are not associated with any other group and are completely apolitical. We are a group of moderate members of the public who are concerned about public property and care for our memorials.
“The team has been overwhelmed with thousands of posts every day and we are working hard to keep posting within the rules of the group (these are clearly stated in our ‘about’ section),” he said, adding that he became involved with the group several days after it was founded.
He said users who had posted racist messages flagged by the Guardian had been removed and asked that any other members posting inappropriate content be reported.
“We deplore the comments you highlighted and are continuing to work to remove such vile posts from a small minority that most likely joined before the group became professionally managed.”
However, Imran Ahmed, the chief executive of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate and member of the commission for countering extremism’s pilot taskforce steering committee, said: “This Facebook group is being used by some users to preach grossly offensive hateful extremism. Regardless of the intentions of the organisers, if they are promoting real world protests and have attracted elements who are spewing racial hated then it’s a threat to public order.”
Priti Patel was also approached for comment.