In this exclusive interview with 5Pillars, 21-year-old Amina Aweis who previously worked for the Home Office’s propaganda agency ‘Breakthrough Media’, describes what she witnessed as a content creator for the secretive government project.
Q: How did you get into Breakthrough Media?
I had finished my A-Levels and decided not to go to university in order to explore my interests in the creative field. I came across several opportunities during this time, one of which was an apprenticeship scheme in digital marketing and business. The apprenticeship was a year long and the skills I needed to complete my qualifications was enough to pique my interest. I secured my place and the skills my course was planning to equip me with were matched against several job roles that were available for me to apply for.
One of the roles I came across was a social media manager for a platform called Zinc – an online space “promoting positive social change”. It was marketed as a “creative and informative platform” which would shed light on various topics and issues, be it social, political and environmental with video segments of inspirational stories of individuals and charities who were doing meaningful work in their communities.
It was exactly what I was looking for and the aim of the platform aligned with my own values – promoting positive social change. My interview went smoothly, I had the advantage of having already built an online presence of my own. I accepted the offer and began the job immediately.
Q: What did you know about Breakthrough Media at the time?
Breakthrough Media was barely mentioned during my interview, other than that it was a digital agency that worked with “grassroots organisations”. I wasn’t really told much about it in and of itself, which looking back, made me feel uneasy although at the time, I couldn’t quite figure out why. I was more focused on making a good impression at my first 9-5 job and focusing on improving my skills and learning as much as I could.
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I was mainly involved with Zinc, and joined at a time where their Facebook page started to gain a lot of traction, and was growing rapidly in following.
It was an exciting time for me, I was passionate about what the platform claimed to have represented and looked forward to contributing my ideas.
Q: When did you start having doubts about Breakthrough Media?
There were instances where Breakthrough Media would be brought up in relation to budget cuts for Zinc. I believe it was during this time that I had begun to wonder how this specific platform was tied to Breakthrough Media, and how its business model was set up. This was because it was always marketed as its own independent project where there was no external “client”. Whenever I did want a bit more clarification, I would be left even more confused.
In fact, I was encouraged to not mention the name too much and avoid talking about it in depth outside of work. I was also made to sign the Official Secrets Act which was a bit puzzling at the time. I had assumed that this was normal procedure and so I didn’t think much of it then.
Q: What did you personally witness there, especially with non-Muslim contributors posting content as Muslim women?
The work to begin with was very simple and nothing new to me in terms of managing online content. I was in a small team which meant we all did more than what our job title suggested. There were many other teams working on the same floor, so I was exposed to a lot of other projects and supposed “grassroots” work.
I was also exposed to situations that didn’t sit well with me. A lot of the content on these platforms mainly targeted young British Muslims, particularly Muslim women. However, the people behind these platforms didn’t reflect that. In fact, one of the few Muslim women who contributed so much towards these platforms was continuously gaslighted, bullied, and labelled as too “abrasive” to work with.
There was one hijabi woman who left soon after I had joined because she was put in a predicament that did not align with her values. She warned me to be careful and to set boundaries for myself when working with the people there. I stuck to her advice as best as I could at the time. It was after she left that I really noticed some things that did not add up.
I went from wanting to give it my all to make a good impression to picking my battles carefully. It was mentally, physically and spiritually exhausting and I really underestimated how much of a toll it took on me both at work and at home. I was being shut out of meetings with clients whose target audience were people like me and having my ideas discussed without me being present or fully involved in the process.
When there were good times, it was hard to celebrate because it felt empty, simply because I couldn’t see my own progression within the company. I saw overqualified people tucked in the same place and freelancers consistently being exploited. I became numb to the environment around me and my patience had peaked. I felt invisible in a place that had the resources to speak to my communities. Soon after, I became selective of how much I would contribute to all these “grassroots” platforms and I no longer wanted to be associated with it.
Q: What are your views about Breakthrough Media now, considering its links to the Home office and counter-extremism apparatus is confirmed?
My feelings towards Breakthrough Media is one of frustration followed by a wave on unease upon discovering its undeniable link with the Home Office. My suspicions regarding their links to the UK Government was confirmed firstly, the way the business was structured in terms of when certain projects were receiving funding.
Secondly, when I found out about individuals in the office who had certain affiliations to political parties whose values did not align with the clients they were working with.
This was followed by the report advocacy group CAGE published, which gave me a deeper understanding of Breakthrough Media’s role in propagating content which they even admitted targets vulnerable young British Muslims.
Q: How does the latest revelation of “This is Woke” being another Home Office project make you feel about state surveillance of Muslims and people of colour?
Ironically, what the revelation of Woke’s Home Office funding proves is that digital spaces have become a hotbed for exploiting communities to spread problematic political agendas in the wake of fake news and misinformation.
At a time where nearly half of online readers see fake news on their social media feeds at least once a day, it’s no surprise that this phenomenon has influenced and affected many political agendas and engagements. This leads to further distrust of the government and its various power structures, which is a sentiment that’s largely held within many minority communities, not just Muslims.
In light of Breakthrough Media’s exploitative nature in the digital space, it’s clear that the state security for British Muslims is not with the aim of safeguarding, but rather maintaining control through surveillance to fuel political agendas which align with the Home Office.
Amina Aweis is a writer, content strategist, social commentator and a software engineer. She is passionate about getting more women into tech and more Muslims in the creative industries. You can follow her on Twitter @Ayymina_.