Think it can’t happen over here? It almost did

It looked like police were about to be overwhelmed during the Downing Street demonstrations following Tommy Robinson's 2018 arrest


LONDON , UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 11: Scuffles between protesters and police outside the Old Bailey after British far-right activist and former leader and founder of English Defence League (EDL), Tommy Robinson - whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, was sentenced to nine months in prison for contempt of court, at the Old Bailey on July 11, 2019 in London, England. Far-right activist Tommy Robinson has been sentenced to nine months in prison for contempt of court. He was found guilty of filming defendants accused of child sex offences outside Leeds Crown Court and live-streaming the footage on Facebook in May, 2018. (Photo by Luke Dray/Getty Images)

January 14, 2021 17:33

The spectacle of a mob overrunning the seat of American democracy has cast a long shadow. Anyone who thinks the same thing can’t happen in London hasn’t been paying attention. In fact in 2018 it almost did. 

On May 25 2018, the right-wing activist known as Tommy Robinson (real name Steven Yaxley Lennon) was arrested for breach of the peace outside a Leeds courtroom. Less than 24 hours later, several hundred people gathered outside Downing Street demanding his release. When they started scaling the barriers into the iconic street it looked like police were about to be overwhelmed. At the same time as the physical demonstration was taking place, 70,000 people were signing an online petition demanding Robinson’s release. This synthesis between the online and offline has a been a key factor in the growth in power of conspiracy theorists. Incidentally, Robinson’s arrest was live-streamed.

The Downing Street incident has been all but forgotten. Once he was banned from social media platforms, Robinson’s influence barely registered, showing how powerful such bans can be. But the power that social media platforms have bestowed on those with the amorality and skills to use them to acquire money, influence and a street level following are almost unlimited in their scope and require a more robust response. 

Those storming the Capitol Building were convinced their hero Trump had won an election fairly and was a victim of corrupt officials stealing democracy from them. They knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was the case because Trump had told them as much on social media. The phenomenon of people believing irrational things and even acting on such irrationality is hardly new. George Orwell (who is more popular than ever) wrote of this in his Notes on Nationalism : “As soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged and as I have already pointed out the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also.”

Demagogues have played with the emotions of their followers and citizens throughout history but now technology has allowed the rise of a new phenomenon, the petty demagogue. Thousands of these petty demagogues are granted a direct line to the emotions of tens of millions of people who give them moral support, money and will show up whenever and wherever they’re told to. The petty demagogues have translated their social media power to real world strength and they don’t even need to tell anyone their names if they don’t want to. 

This was demonstrated when an IT manager at Citi Group named Jason Gelinas was exposed as running a prominent website devoted to the QAnon conspiracy theory called Bloomberg reported that Gelinas was raking in over $3,000 a month from a Patreon account he had set up and connected to his website. Until he was exposed none of his followers even knew who he was. 

This may have been acceptable so long as it was confined to the nether regions of cyberspace or even when it was a number of thugs trying to force their way into Downing Street but now that the conspiracy is being tweeted from the Oval Office by the most powerful man in the world it can no longer be ignored or left to the people responsible for facilitating such messages to police their own platforms.

A British solution has been meandering its way through the House of Commons since 2019 in the form of the Online Harms Bill. If passed into law this would give Ofcom regulatory  powers to hold online platforms to account for harmful information on their websites. Originally intended to protect children from online abuse, the clause giving Ofcom teeth will also apply to those abusing the platforms to spread hatred. 

Social media has changed our lives, mostly for the better, but it has brought into our field of vision a myriad of sources of information of dubious value without checks and balances. Governments have balked at getting involved over concerns of freedom speech. The result is the mess in Washington DC. Concerns over freedom of speech are all well and good but governments shouldn’t be content to outsource these important questions surrounding freedom of speech to social media companies. 

Here in the UK the government must step up and make sure our rights to free speech are protected from those who would seek to deprive us of them but whose YouTube videos are more fun to watch than footage of democracy in action on  BBC Parliament. The Online Harms Bill is the litmus test that will show us how serious this government is about curbing the power of the petty demagogue.

Marc Goldberg is a freelance writer

January 14, 2021 17:33

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive