Mike Stuchbery wonders whether British populists will ever rally round a strongman figure and whether something worse could come
This is not a sentence I thought I’d be writing any time soon: ‘Tommy Robinson’ has been banned from both Facebook and Instagram.
So have most of his offsiders, as well as former Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam.
Receiving word today, ‘Tommy’ had just enough time to record a video telling followers to head to his new website before the plug was pulled.
The explanation given by Facebook in ‘Tommy’s’ case, is that he repeatedly broke Facebook’s rules around ‘calls for violence towards people ‘based on protected characteristics’ and ‘organized hate’.
Hate for Profit
While this is an extremely welcome move, it is also somewhat of a belated one – people have been highlighting ‘Tommy’s’ use of social media as a tool of harassment and intimidation for months, if not years. Indeed, a Channel 4 expose last year showed that ‘Tommy’s’ page was protected from being removed, even though it frequently broke the site’s TOS.
Nonetheless, the suspension of both his Facebook and Instagram gives us a clue about how to get the social media giant to act with other figures who rely on inciting hate to profit.
The reasons given by Facebook point to specific occasions where ‘Tommy’ has set his followers on people with whom he disagrees – two recent examples were a rape crisis line in Buckingham, and a personal trainer in Nottingham, both of whom received abuse and death threats.
If the incitement of social media hate-preachers can be clearly linked to real life consequences, whether through reportage in the media, or activism, then companies will have no recourse but to act, as they finally have in this instance.
Spurious arguments about not wanting ‘freedom of speech’ to be curbed only works as long as evidence isn’t being provided of the real-life repercussions of online hatred.
Social media is a wonderful platform of activism – for organizing events, for raising awareness of issues and for driving a conversation.
However, what ‘Tommy’ did was not activism. Rather it was a kind of ‘stochastic terrorism’, a pantomime meant to rouse followers to harm, harass and intimidate.
Furthermore, considering the links ‘Tommy’ has to think-tanks in the US such as the Middle East Forum and the Gatestone Institute, one might even consider it an experiment in cross-border psychological warfare – creating chaos and harm without firing a shot.
It will be fascinating to watch what happens next, now that ‘Tommy’ has lost his platform. He has talked about setting up his own alternate social network, but my feeling is that he will not be able to replicate the success that he has had on mainstream platforms.
Instead, I believe that a similar figure, or figures will step in to fill the space left.
Similarly, those looking to benefit from creating civil unrest will move their funding away from ‘Tommy’, to whoever can skillfully harness the resentment and frustration held by significant segments of the population.
That’s something we should be watching out for.
Is Britain Different?
In my last piece for the Byline Times, I wrote about how the ground seems to be shifting, the landscape of online hatred – and the overall battle for hearts and minds – rearranging itself.
Populism – some might say a resurgent fascism – may be winning across parts of Europe, but it depends on an authoritarian DNA, or love of the ‘strongman’ buried deep in the cultural bedrock.
We can see this in places like Italy, with Matteo Salvini’s continuing success – not to mention those to the east like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and, of course, Russia’s Putin.
Britain, however, has a different collective psyche, another way of seeing the world. ‘Strongman’ figures in the mold of Oswald Mosley have always been brought down by collective resistance, or sustained mockery.
Perhaps it’s our island existence exerting itself – we can’t bear seeing one man ‘holding the conch’.
We simply don’t have it in us to fall into lockstep behind one single figure.
Explicit White Supremacy
Rather, when another significant movement does come along, I feel that it will be cast more in the vein of the ‘Yellow Vests’ than ‘Tommy’s’ mooted movement.
It will draw on the mythic past, and the same sort of rejection of modernity that Generation Identity has epitomised in their campaigns of stickers and leaflets.
It will be a lot less centralised than previous movements, having seen the failure of the UK ‘Yellow Vests’, that was centred around a few central figures.
I fear that it will also be more extreme – more outwardly white supremacist, and more aggressive in its rhetoric.
Those who observe the Far Right in the UK are already seeing this in the arrival of extreme Neo-Nazi groups like ‘Sonnenkrieg Division’, and a growing number of young YouTubers who create explicitly white nationalist videos – often with high production values.
‘Tommy’ was, and is, all too human. His foibles, of which there are many, have brought him crashing down as the figurehead of a prospective movement – as well as his lack of discipline in his messaging.
Whatever comes next will have learned from his mistakes. We can’t be caught sleeping when it comes.