On Friday 13th September, radical right activist Tommy Robinson was released from prison after serving 9 weeks for contempt of court. Robinson was first jailed for this offence last year, when he livestreamed on Facebook a rape trial involving Muslim men. But this time the story has not attracted such uproar, with global Google searches about him plunging 10 times in comparison to last year’s peak. There is one notable difference: unlike in 2018, he is now banned from social media.
A growing network: from the inner circle to one-time supporters
A year ago, Robinson’s prison sentence turned him from keyboard warrior to poster boy for the international radical right. He was already well-connected in alt-media circles, but his trial put him in the radar of prominent politicians from right-wing and radical right parties, who spoke in his defence at two #FreeTommy marches in London. His fame rose to the point that Steve Bannon, former advisor to Donald Trump, described him as the ‘backbone’ of the United Kingdom.
At that time, Robinson became the perfect embodiment of the radical right’s victimisation narrative. His supporters loudly claimed that the UK had become a police state that curtailed freedom of speech and that Robinson was imprisoned for his political ideas.
The same arguments were made when he was banned on Facebook and Instagram in February. In April this year, YouTube restricted Robinson’s channel, which means that Robinson’s videos can no longer be accessed from YouTube’s search bar and comments are disabled. But amidst the radical right’s cries of censorship, has this de-platforming been effective?
Can de-platforming work?
Robinson’s popularity on YouTube reached its peak after his arrest and conviction in May 2018. In the 10 months after his arrest, the number of subscribers almost doubled to 315,000 and his total number of views increased from 5 to 17 million.
However, since YouTube’s restriction, the channel appears to have taken a real hit: the rate of subscribers has slowed down by half and videos receive 8 times fewer views than before the restriction was applied. Whereas his videos had an average of 140,000 views, they now only have around 18,000.
On social media, the hashtag #FreeTommy alone received almost two million mentions last year, briefly surpassing #LoveIsland at its peak. This time around, there were fewer than 22,000 mentions of it.
The numbers suggest that Robinson’s continued de-platforming is working, but he is not the only example of why de-platforming can be effective. Radical right group Britain First was the second most liked Facebook political page in the UK after the Royal Family with over two million likes. It has now migrated to social media platform GAB –a favourite of the radical right—and boasts only 11,000 followers. Offline, its protests are now attended by only a few residual supporters. In the United States, A New York Times investigation revealed that views of Infowars and Alex Jones videos fell by half in the weeks following the ban, while Milo Yiannopoulos’s de-platforming has led him to bankruptcy.
However, policymakers should be careful of such ‘silver bullet’ approaches. Although effective, de-platforming is only one of many tactics to combat the radical right, and one that places the onus entirely on social media companies. Without action offline from policymakers and legislators, social media companies cannot be expected to decide on their own where to place the limits of what is acceptable in our society.
Policy solutions beyond online takedowns
In fact, what the Tommy Robinson saga ultimately shows is how difficult it is for policymakers to draw the line between hate speech and freedom of speech. At a time when the ideology of the radical right is becoming global there needs to be more recognition of how these ideas demonise ethnic and religious communities under the banner of freedom of expression.
Tackling radical right ideology requires a full-fledged and coordinated strategy that goes beyond online takedowns. Offline, action has already been taken informally against groups such as Generation Identity or the BNP, but it has mainly been on the reactive side.
A proactive approach requires defining extremism and understanding its effect on exacerbating societal divisions. Efforts at arriving at a prescriptive, legal definition have largely failed. Instead, the UK government should focus on developing a working definition of extremism that can be useful for practitioners in the frontlines.
Curtailing the influential voices of the radical right online is a useful tool to diminish its exposure, but more should be done to reduce its appeal in the first place. The latter requires addressing underlying grievances, dispelling conspiracies and coming up with a compelling counter-narrative.
De-platforming can be effective in diminishing the influence of frontmen like Robinson, but challenges remain in tackling the wider ideology of the radical right.