By Elizabeth Pearson
In 2018 Twitter removed radical right activist turned self-styled ‘journalist’ Tommy Robinson from the platform. Five years later, he is back. What are the implications for British politics and extremism?
Tommy Robinson is the latest of a group of extreme and anti-Islam actors Elon Musk has readmitted to Twitter/X. Robinson’s account reappeared on 5 November just as he had left it when he was de-platformed in 2018. A week later he posted he had gained an additional 80,000 new X followers and as of writing, his follower count is over 390,000.
In his first week back to X, Robinson instigated a mass central-London rally on Armistice Day. It was the biggest turn-out for him since 2018’s ‘Free Speech’ and #IAmTommy rallies. The Metropolitan police made 145 arrests on the day, most related to Robinson’s protest. The police continue to charge protestors involved in both the Cenotaph and the pro-Palestinian rally, and for other offences related to the wider conflict.
From 2016-18 I interviewed Robinson and followers as part of research on the anti-Islam radical right. Based on those interviews, this blog sets out why Robinson’s return to X is bad for democracy, and a potent reminder of the anti-government sentiment of a significant minority.
The Digital Street – Seeking Legitimacy
By the time I interviewed Robinson, he no longer led the EDL, the street movement he co-founded in 2009. Instead, he had taken his anti-Islam activism online, now as a would-be citizen ‘journalist’ online. In 2017 he told me, “I don’t see street protest any more – it’s pointless.” Street protest meant the display of an underclass culture: drinking, swearing, crude Islamophobia, and casual violence. Robinson believed this, his ‘working-class’-ness was the root of mainstream contempt for his views. He pointed to mainstream middle-class pundits and politicians critical of Islam and multiculturalism, including author Douglas Murray, and even Boris Johnson – and saw a two-tiered approach.
His aim instead was to replace the ‘legacy’ media, to: “become a source like, when people hear something on the news, they’ll say – well, let’s see what he’s saying. Cos I’ll give them the truth.” He told me “…if they’re not going to give people a platform, then they will create their own… Which is what’s happened with online… This is what we should have been doing all along.”
Twitter and Facebook did something that Robinson’s followers felt EDL protest could not; while street activism proved their authenticity, online activism gave them what felt like legitimacy. On social media, it didn’t matter what class you were, or what you sounded like. People followed messages. In 2017, Robinson told me, “Over the next five years I think the BBC, CNN will be completely irrelevant – no-one’s going to watch their outfits, they want to watch videos on their phones, and this is the future of news.” In the past six years the ‘legacy media’ are perhaps less relevant to many, fighting a tide of online misinformation coupled with a public lack of trust in journalists, and a widespread public inability to spot propaganda.
EDL 2.0? A battle for democracy
What counts as legitimacy in 2023 is not the same as in 2009 or even 2018. Confidence in governments post-COVID – and the restrictions enforced – is low, and anti-government protest has become a Europe-wide issue, according to radicalisation experts. Meanwhile online polarisation has increased, particularly in the wake of Israel’s retaliation against Hamas, and Gazans – a conflict that has historically been a lightning rod for radicalisation. These events have also increased both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, globally, and in the UK. British governance is weak, with political leaders implicated in COVID rule-breaking, and the undermining of the rule of law.
What is more, while pre-COVID, the government discussed robust legislation against online harms, the bill and regulation have, some have argued, been watered down. There is no longer a requirement for tech companies to remove ‘legal but harmful’ content. Lord Grade, of OFCOM has stated that social media platforms have the incentive of “reputation” to remove harms, and the risk of deterring advertisers. However, Elon Musk has said X’s reputation is staked on “freedom of speech”. Musk has himself endorsed hateful anti-semitism on his own platform, a move that has lost him advertising. This, and the reinstatement of actors including Robinson does not augur well for regulation.
In a recent Tik Tok post, Robinson said he would ‘lead again’, and, “the country is more primed than ever”. But this isn’t just a battle to control the news agenda. Democracy is often understood as rule by the people, for the people. Citizens of a liberal democratic state should enjoy equal political power exercised through the principle of one person, one vote. Liberal democracy also requires public trust in governing institutions.
There has also been a shift in the power relations of democracy towards online spaces. While the principle of democracy is that power is sited in representative institutions, in the age of digital media, disproportionate, concentrated power lies with the owners of platforms like Facebook and X. And this power can impact the outcome of elections, as was evident in foreign interference pre-Brexit, and Trump and others’ online rallying of supporters to storm the Capitol on 6 January 2021 when it was clear he had lost the US Presidency.
Popularity vs Legitimacy
Online, it is easy to conflate popularity with legitimacy. Social media can give those with the least cultural capital the perception of power, and the feeling of democratic self-rule – while simultaneously challenging the legitimacy of states and undermining the electoral processes that might offer genuinely representative change.
Robinson did not leave social media when he was de-platformed from Twitter. Instead, he joined ‘alternative’ platforms such as Parler and GETTR and promoted videos on his own website. He also stood for election to the European parliament in 2019 in the North West. While he gained only 2.2% of the vote, losing his deposit, this amounted to 38,908 votes.
While it does not appear Robinson’s appeal to some as an online influencer will translate to votes, it does not need to. The timing of his return to X, prior to 11 November enabled him to damage government. When a nationalist protest to ‘protect’ the Cenotaph, organised online, factors in the ill-judged remarks that cause an increasingly inflammatory Home Secretary to be sacked, the power of online activism is clear.
A significant minority of people in the UK are experiencing a democracy deficit: they do not trust those in power to listen to what they have to say. While they believe this is countered online, and via anti-Islam activist/influencers such as Robinson, there is a threat to democracy. There is also a real challenge to the newly instated Online Harms Legislation. It is Britain’s governing institutions that need the trust of British citizens, not social media platforms.
Elizabeth Pearson is a Lecturer in Criminology at Royal Holloway, University of London where she leads the MSc in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Studies. Her new book Extreme Britain: Gender, Masculinity and Radicalisation is published with Hurst/OUP in December.
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